All painting, no matter what you are painting, is abstract in that it’s got to be organized.
1 – Introduction
I originally intended this essay to feature examples of abstract photographs. However, while writing the introduction I realized that I still had a number of things to say about abstraction that I did not have the opportunity to cover in the three previous essays. Rather than make this essay unnecessarily long, or rush to the examples without giving myself time to say what I want, I decided to add one more essay in this series and make it a five instead of a four essay series.
2 – Suspending Disbelief
The main point of this essay is indicated in the title. Suspending disbelief means appreciating an abstract image for what it is. It means experiencing the vision of the photographer rather than trying to find out which techniques were used or what the subject of the image is.
My point is that we need to suspend disbelief in order to appreciate an abstract image for what the artist intended it to be and to say. While this essay is specifically about photography, this applies to any work of art regardless of the medium used.
Looking at an abstract image while suspending disbelief is like watching a movie while suspending disbelief. A movie is no more real than an abstract image and we can focus on cinematographic technique just as easily as we can focus on photographic technique. However, if instead we focus on the story, the plot, the characters or the action we experience what the movie director intended to share with us.
We have all experienced somebody getting emotional while watching a movie, being scared or even crying perhaps. Most of us have tried to help the person and bring them back to their senses by telling them that ‘it’s just a movie, it’s not really happening.’ However, this rarely brings a change in their behavior. Their emotional response to the movie is so powerful that they believe what they see is real and they cannot be brought back to reality. Such is the power of suspending disbelief, whether it happens willingly or not.
The same is true for any art medium. While listening to a concert we can focus on the technique used by the musicians, or on the lighting, or on any of the artifices used in stage production. However to truly enjoy the concert we need to let all this fade away and focus only on the music.
3 – Photographic Sleuthing
The opposite of suspending disbelief is disbelieving. Disbelieving an abstract image implies being focused on finding out what the subject of the image is and which techniques were used to create it. I call this approach engaging in photographing sleuthing.
The motivation for looking at an abstract image should not be to engage in photographic sleuthing. Certainly, if we look at an image long enough and hard enough we will eventually be able to tell what the original contents are and which techniques were used. But doing so provides only satisfaction in finding out the technique and the subject the artist worked with. It does not reveal what the artist’s vision is, or what the artist’s emotions were, or what the artist saw in his or her mind’s eye. Uncovering these is only possible if we are willing to suspend our photographic investigation for a while.
4 – Looking At The Metaphorical Instead Of The Literal
Not becoming photographic sleuths can be avoided by approaching abstract photographs from a metaphorical rather than an analytical perspective.
A metaphor is something that stands for something else. In the often-used metaphor ‘my love is a red rose’ the red rose stands for love. Similarly, a metaphorical image is an image whose content stands for something other than the subject used to create the image.
The subject of the photograph above, Abstract #72, is a stone. This stone is the literal content. The metaphorical content is what each viewer imagines being in the image and sees in their mind’s eye. This could be an aesthetic array of shapes and colors, a galaxy, a painter’s palette, a map, a landscape seen from above or whatever comes to mind no matter how fanciful, creative or unexpected.
Abstract images ask us to look for the metaphorical rather than the literal aspect of an image. Approaching them from a metaphorical perspective will allow us to experience the artist’s vision. Only then will we be able to see what the artist intended to share with us.
5 – About Appreciating Abstract Images
Truly appreciating abstract images requires that we are willing to approach them as abstract rather than as literal. It requires that we look at them with fresh eyes, asking ourselves not ‘can I recognize the technique, the subject or the location?’ but instead ‘where is this image taking me, what is it making me dream of, what are my emotions when I look at it, how do I experience it on a subjective level rather than an objective level?’
Doing so means approaching an abstract image like you would approach a work of fiction, be it a book, a sculpture, a theater play or any other work of art. Doing so demands a willingness to believe and an openness of mind. It demands that we set aside suspicion to fully immerse ourselves in the admiration of the image.
This approach is not unlike meditation. When meditating we need to empty our mind, stop the constant flow of thoughts, questions and anxiety, and focus on the moment, the present, the seconds that tick away. We need to focus on the beating of our heart, on our breathing, on the air coming into and out of our lungs. We need to center our attention on being instead of on thinking. We need to forget everything in order to fully appreciate the moment. The process is the same when looking at an abstract image.
I believe anyone can do this but not everyone is willing to try doing so. When looking at photographs some viewers are more introspective, suspicious or inquisitive than others. This is even more so if these viewers are practitioners of the craft. Photographers find it is difficult not to try to find out what the image is of, how it was created, or where is was taken.
When I show my work the viewers who want to know the techniques I used or the locations I photographed greatly outnumber the viewers who want to know why I created a specific image, what this image means to me or what I want to say with it. Such is our lot as artists. We live in a material world and those who are willing to escape it, even for an instant, are few.
However those few viewers are precious because they represent that which we work for, whether we acknowledge and accept it or not. I don’t know any fine art photographer who wants to be acknowledged solely for the locations they photograph, the techniques they use or the gear they own. Every artist wants to be acknowledged for his or her artistic sense. Most of them will thank you for any compliment you make, but all of them will long for what is the ultimate compliment, which is seeing and acknowledging the artistic dimension of their work.
If you are involved in the creation of fine art images, if you are an artist, give your fellow artists the compliments you long to hear yourself: praise them for their artistic vision. It will come back to you.
6 – Abstraction and Subject Familiarity
I also want to say a few things about the different levels of abstraction that a photograph, or any work of art for that matter, can have.
The level of familiarity that your audience has in regards to the subject will influence your audience’s perception of your photographs as being abstract or not.
If your audience is familiar with the subject you photograph they may not see your images as abstract. Or, they may see your images as abstract at first, then recognize the subject and no longer see them as abstract afterwards.
This may or may not be a problem depending on how important it is for you to have your audience recognize the subjects you photograph. Personally, I don’t mind if my audience recognizes the subject because my primary goal is aesthetic. This aesthetic will be present in the image whether the audience recognizes the subject or not. Therefore, for me, the fact that my audience can recognize the subject is not important.
If it were important I would look for subjects that have not yet been photographed in an abstract manner. However, this can be an exercise in frustration because a number of subjects that offer superb abstract potential have become so well known that they are instantly recognizable. Slot canyons are a perfect example. So many photographs of slot canyons have been published that most people will instantly recognize the subject, no matter how abstract your photographs might be. Finding a slot canyon that not been photographed yet is not enough because most slot canyon look the same. Your audience may not be able to tell the exact canyon you photographed but they will be able to tell that it is a slot canyon.
What this means is that if your goal is to make it impossible for your audience to find out what the subject is, your search will be very challenging. You will need to look not only for subjects that have not been photographed in an abstract manner, but also for subjects that are unlike anything else.
7 – All art Is Abstract
The case can be made that all art is abstract because art is separate from reality. Etymologically speaking the word abstract, or abstraction, comes from the Latin word abstractus and the Latin verb abstraho which means to remove, move away from, separate, detach or isolate, depending on the context.
Abstracting therefore means removing or detaching a subject from reality. What art does is remove the subject from reality and replace that reality by the artist’s vision of the world. Art therefore distances reality from artistic representation. It is this detachment, this separation that generates abstraction. If we see art as such then all art is an abstraction of reality.
This is what I did when I created the image above, Abstract #81. The context can be easily identified: it is a barrel cactus with colorful spring flowers in the Sonoran desert. However, the flower arrangement did not happen naturally. I picked the flowers and positioned them on the cactus in order to create an aesthetic arrangement. My goal was to create a beautiful image based on contrasting yet complementary elements: the yellow and blue colors, the soft petals and the harsh needles, the linear and the curved lines.
This image looks real but it is not real. The flowers were removed from their natural context and placed in a new context of my creation. Nature played no part in this arrangement. Without my intervention, this image would not exist.
The reason why I arranged the flowers that way is because I could not find this arrangement in nature. It is highly improbable that I could find flowers growing in such a perfectly symmetrical arrangement.
An abstraction is therefore a creation. It is an image, in the case of a photograph, taken out of its context. That context is changed to make it different from what it is normally. It can be altered but recognizable as in the image above. Or it can be altered and unrecognizable as in the image below, Abstract #115.
The subject of this image was taken out of its context by photographing a very small section of it and by exaggerating the natural colors during processing. The outcome is an abstract image whose context is virtually unrecognizable.
8 – This Essay Is Continued In Part Five
The next essay will be the fifth essay in this series on abstract landscape fine art photography. In it, we will look at a variety of examples of abstract photographs.
9 – Workshops With Alain and Natalie Briot
If you enjoyed this essay you will enjoy attending a workshop and studying fine art photography with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie to the most inspirational and photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on both the artistic and the technical aspects of photography. We teach technique 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, Death Valley, Yosemite, the Eastern Sierra Nevada, White Sands and many others. Our workshops listing is available HERE.
10 – About Alain and Natalie Briot
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I create fine art photographs, teach workshops with Natalie and offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing, business and marketing. I am 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 at this LINK. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.