1 – Introduction
Today creating images that are unique and that stand out from the work of other photographers is more and more challenging. Locations that used to be little known are now easy to find through online searches and as are visited by photographers regularly. Technology, both camera gear and software, is making the creation of photographs easier and easier. Photography has become the number one hobby in the world and is attracting new practitioners everyday. Everyone has a cell phone therefore everyone can photograph anything they want. Of course many of these people are not serious photographers. However, this situation generates two main issues for those that are serious about photography.
First, it is becoming increasingly difficult to create images that are distinguishable from those of other photographers.
Second, it is challenging to keep our enthusiasm, motivation and creativity in the face of ever-increasing competition and quantity of photographs Faced with this situation it is tempting to believe that everything has already been photographed and that our work does not matter.
2 – What is Abstraction
Abstract art is art that refers only to itself. It does not refer to the real world, meaning the world that we see everyday. Instead, abstract art refers only to the abstract world created by the artist and depicted in his work. This applies to any medium, be it painting, sculpture, photography or other medium.
Abstraction means taking things out of their context by removing what gives an indication of the context. Another way to put it is to say that you are removing the context in which the object is found if you prefer. By taking things out of their context you are not providing a point of reference as to what they are.
In an abstract photograph the visual elements that go into making a picture — the picture’s light, shadow, values, hues, lines, masses, details, textures, shapes, etc. — refer only to themselves. They do not refer to anything in the real world i.e. the world we see every day. In other words there is no references to a subject outside of the image. There is only a self-reference, a reference to the subject within the image. If this description sounds abstract, well, that’s because we are talking about abstraction.
This lack of an outside reference, this reference only to the image itself, is an endless source of confusion for photographers. Many believe that a photograph is abstract for the wrong reasons. These errors in considering a photograph abstract when it is not include:
Photographs that show only a small part of the subject. This may make the subject difficult to recognize, but if it can be recognized the photograph is not abstract, at least not in the purest sense of the term.
Photographs that show the subject in an uncommon light, or blurred, or manipulated in such a way that it is difficult to recognize. Again, if the subject can be recognized then the photograph is not abstract.
In landscape photography, close up photographs of moving water, or close ups of textures such as bark, lichen, stone, etc. are often called “abstracts”. Again, if the subject can be recognized, even though this may take a certain time, then the photograph is not abstract.
Showing only a small piece of the subject, or removing the subject from its context by not cropping out the sky, the elements around the subject, and/or cropping out most of the subject itself do not necessarily turn a photograph into an abstract image. What it does is bring to our attention a detail of the subject that we may have overlooked otherwise, but it does not necessarily make the image an abstract photograph. What makes a photograph, or any work of art, abstract, is the lack of reference to any element not included in the photograph.
Does this mean that it is impossible to create purely abstract photographs since photographs by nature are images of elements that exist in the real world? Not necessarily. It does, however, make creating an abstract photograph more difficult than an abstract painting because we do rely on having a subject. A painter on the other hand can paint images that do not come from a subject. Kandinsky is an excellent example of an abstract painter. His paintings only refer to themselves and not to elements of the real world, elements outside of the painting. Miro is another excellent example. In fact, the world of modern art painting contains many other examples of abstract artists. The world of photography on the other hand contains much fewer abstract artists.
This is not to say that abstraction in photography is impossible. I remember seeing photographs of fixer patterns in dried-out darkroom fixer trays. Without the caption it was impossible to know what the subject was. It is also possible, with film, to create images without taking a photo of a subject, simply by exposing the film to light in a controlled manner. Again, there is no reference or possibility of recognizing an outside subject. The subject is the photographic process itself.
In landscape photography the task of creating an abstract photograph is more arduous. Even more so now that we have over 100 years of photographic exploration of the natural world. Images that appeared abstract to us 50 years ago, when they were the first pictures of certain subjects, no longer appear abstract to us today because we now easily recognize the subject of these photographs. Details of surf waves, or details of dried-out lake playas, or close ups of rocks or erosional patterns in badlands all had the quality of abstract images when they were first presented to the public. However, this quality was essentially there because we did not know, until then, what these subjects looked like in photographs. In other words, the photographers who created these images were showing us something real that we had not seen represented that way at the time.
50 years later we are now intimately familiar with these shapes and patterns, to the point that we are not only no longer surprised by the images, we are also cognizant in the subject they are part of. In other words, these images are not abstract in any way. They are details of a larger subject taken in such a way as to remove most of the environment of that subject. To be abstract they would have to defeat our attempt at figuring out what that subject is. Only then would these images be pure abstractions.
3 – Definitions of Abstraction
There are several different possible definitions of abstraction. Here are some of them :
A – The quality of dealing with ideas rather than events.
The idea of a tree rather than the tree itself.
B – Freedom from representational qualities in art.
Freedom from traditional concepts of art, from what is accepted as being art and non-art.
C – A state of preoccupation.
Being preoccupied with the representational and aesthetic aspects of art rather than wanting to make an accurate documentation of the subject.
D – The process of considering something independently of its associations, attributes, or concrete accompaniments.
Considering a tree as an art subject rather than a living organism. Seeing it as an opportunity for a personal artistic breakthrough rather than as the element of a forest, or an ecosystem.
E – The process of removing something, especially water from a river or other source.
Removing traces of reality to the extent of one’s desire.
F – Creating images that refer to themselves.
In abstract art the visual elements that are used to create an image — light, contrast, colors, lines, forms, textures, etc.– refer only to themselves. They do not refer to anything in the world we see every day.
G – Creating images that do not refer to reality.
As something becomes more and more abstract, its relationship to reality become less and less of a concern to the viewer. For this reason creating an abstraction with photography is truly challenging. The hardest part is convincing the viewer that finding the relationship between the image and reality is not only unimportant, it is besides the point. To be convincing this must be done through the photograph alone, because words explaining this fact will not work. If your intent was to use words, then a novel or other piece of creative writing should be your medium.
4 – Creating abstractions during film days
Creating abstractions in film days were limited to isolating part of the subject during image capture, or to cropping part of the image during printing or to creating ‘pattern’ pictures, images in which you could not tell what was being portrayed. The images were simply shapes interesting in themselves, like stacks of pipe seen from the ends, wrought-iron fences in silhouette, shadows on a sidewalk, or macro photographs of leaves, details, and so on. Other people did film manipulations entirely within the darkroom, without actually shooting a photograph, such as Man Ray for example. They would create abstract images purely in the darkroom, either by exposing objects onto light-sensitive paper, or by photographing dried chemicals, or by generating interesting visual patterns through chemical processing. These images created interest with color, patterns, lines and shapes rather than with a reference to nature or to a real object.
If you have been there you may recognize the location, and if there is a title it may help as well, but without these this is an abstract image. It could be a very large or a very small subject, we have no way of knowing the size or the nature of the subject. Edward Weston was the first one to create a photograph showing this view of the Death Valley playa.
5 – Creating abstraction with digital
There are many advantages to creating abstractions with digital imaging. Digital brings a wealth of additional tools and possibilities to the creation of abstract photographs. First, as with any digital capture, the number of images we create is virtually limitless because there is no cost associated with it. Not only are digital captures free after the first $20,000 (adjust to fit your budget), they also do not depend on having enough film available.
Storing images on memory cards and downloading images to portable devices means that there is no limit as to how many images we can take. When creating abstract images small framing differences make a huge difference and experimentation is key to success. In this situation having the freedom to shoot as much as you want makes all the difference.
Of course the advantages of using digital capture extends to image processing. While cropping was the only change possible in film days, we can now clone, warp, spot, stitch and in fact do just about anything we can imagine to the images we captured in the field. When working on images that depend on lack of context to be successful, being able to change anything we want is a godsend. Often, the problem when trying to create abstract photographs is that small elements that refer back to the context keep creeping in because they cannot be eliminated through framing or cropping. With digital this is no longer an issue because these unwanted elements can be cloned out, warped out or removed some other way.
6 – Abstraction versus documentation
Comparing abstraction to documentation can help us shed light on this subject.
• The goal of Abstraction is to create originality. Abstract images show us something new, something we have not seen the way it is shown to us, or something we have passed by but never noticed.
The goal of documentation on the other hand is to record things as they are. Documentation seeks not to surprise us but to create a faithful record of the subject or the location. Its goal is to create a visual catalog so to speak. Documentation is concerned both with preserving a visual record and with presenting this visual record. A lot of documentary work is filed away rather than exhibited, never to be seen except by the photographer and the team he works with or for.
• Creating abstract images results in creating an interpretation of the subject. Rather than reiterate this subject the goal is to create a new vision of it.
Creating documentary images results in creating a copy of the original subject. Documentation is a visual reiteration of the subject through the means used to capture this subject.
• An abstraction is not real, that is the whole concept.
Documentation on the other hand is real, that is its purpose.
• The purpose of abstraction is to interpret reality, not show it.
The purpose of documentation is to show reality, not to interpret it. Abstraction is therefore the opposite of documentation.
• Abstraction is concerned with concepts and ideas, with the parts rather than the whole; with a piece of the subject. Documentation is concerned with the functional, with the whole rather than the parts; with the entire thing.
• Creating abstract images means creating art. It means creating images on the basis of art concepts such as color, exposure, composition, texture, lines, etc.
Creating documentary photographs means staying away from art. It means creating images on the basis of scientific concepts. Documentation has no interest in using art concepts. In fact it stays away from it as much as possible.
7 – The test of art
The true test of a work of art in that regard, be it abstract or not, is whether or not it is able to evoke, to bring back, to resurrect, to infuse life back into memories that we forgot existed. If it can, then the work is able to stand on its own because it works, because it is a functioning piece with a connection to a reality each of us carries inside ourselves.
The number of people the work can awaken this internal reality for is what defines the universality of this work, the breath of its appeal to people of entirely different backgrounds, to people who have experienced widely different physical realities and who, yet, see their realities carried by the work in front of them because it taps into not a superficial, overly factual reality but, rather, into a deeper, emotional reality which, at the apex of its height, is about our humanity, about what it means to be human.
Abstract photographs are best thought of as non-representational meaning that they don’t represent anything but themselves. For this reason creating abstract images with photography, and in turn creating an emotional reaction in the viewer as described above is truly challenging. The hardest part is convincing the viewer that finding and following the thread back to reality is not only unimportant, it is besides the point.
8 – This essay is continued in part two
In part two we look at how we can create abstract photographs.
9 – Workshops with Alain and Natalie Briot
If you enjoyed this essay you will enjoy attending a workshop with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie to the most photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on the artistic aspects of photography. While we do teach technique, we do so for the purpose of creating artistic photographs. Our goal is to help you create photographs that you will be proud of and that will be unique to you. The locations we photograph include Navajoland, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon and many others. Our workshops listing is available HERE.
10 – About Alain and Natalie Briot
You can find more information about our workshops, photographs, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to our Free Monthly Newsletter on our website . You will receive 40 free eBooks when you subscribe to my newsletter.
Alain creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops with Natalie and offers DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. Alain is the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.