On seeing the title of this article you might be asking yourself “what is an ‘urban abstract’?”. As a creative photographer who likes to keep my options open, I don’t naturally incline towards fencing myself in with pedantic barriers so my definition is deliberately loose – any abstract, graphic image found in a town or city. For the type of image, I like to take I’ve found the ‘urban’ environment offers the greatest potential but these abstract photographs can be found regardless of location. Wherever I go I’m constantly on the lookout for graphic images based on the lines & shapes created by shadows, the colors & patterns of road markings & street signs, the geometric designs in modern architecture, photogenic textures or reflections in glass or even rain puddles.
That is one of the attractions of course – these images can be found almost anywhere and usually very close to home irrespective of where you live. There is no need to travel to far away exotic locations to find worthwhile photographs. In fact, your immediate local neighborhood is a great place to start. And it can be both visually stimulating and creatively rewarding to find successful images in the mundane and ordinary things that most people pass by on a daily basis without giving them a second thought.
To make an attractive image from the ordinary (street signs or road markings for example) requires us to develop the ability to see the familiar through fresh eyes – to see the world around us as a child experiencing that environment for the first time. As the Austrian photographer, Ernst Haas once said, “I am not interested in shooting new things. I am interested to see things new”. This requires regular practice, constantly looking at the world searching for photographic potential and very soon you’ll be seeing images in the most unusual & unexpected places. This is one of the reasons why I always carry a camera with me.
It is important to discard any pre-conceptions about what makes an attractive subject. We need to look beyond the everyday function or purpose of something to see it as a purely visual entity. I call it ‘looking beyond the obvious’. So, for example, a manhole cover, a drainpipe, a rusty lock etc are not immediately recognizable as photogenic subjects until we start to see them in terms of pattern, texture, shape, color and tone. We then begin to photograph not what the subject is but what we really see – this leads to a significant difference in approach.
It often helps in this process to isolate a part of the subject – to move in close (by using our feet or zooming in with a telephoto lens) and concentrating our attention on the element or elements of the subject that are visually most appealing. I refer to this as a ‘reductionist’ approach to composition – stripping away all unwanted or unnecessary elements in the viewfinder until we are left with the core essence of the image. Attention to detail is vital in this process so take great care about what is left in the frame – particularly at the edges. The use of color, line & shape are important considerations – think about balance in the composition (how elements e.g. light and dark tones relate to each other), use lines to move the viewer around the frame taking them to your focal point (if the image has one).
I frequently like to work on projects or themes as the basis for my urban abstract work. As these images can be discovered in abundance almost anywhere then finding photographs, ironically, can be more difficult – our visual senses can become overwhelmed by the number of options. Taking a theme or project-based approach narrows down the options, focuses our attention and thereby makes the choice of what we photograph much easier. So, for example, you could go out with the intent of photographing the color red or concentrating on transport (cars, bikes, buses etc). It requires a disciplined approach but I know from personal experience that the rewards make the self-control worthwhile. Working on a theme in this way (whether short or long term – for one session or over several years) provides us with a purpose and gives coherence to the resulting images.
I’ll close with a health warning drawn from personal experience. This type of photography can become incredibly addictive. It will become impossible to leave the house without seeing potential images everywhere (I even take a camera to the local supermarket!). Friends and family will refuse to stay with you as you kneel down at the kerbside to photograph a particularly photogenic road marking. Your dog will start to demand regular treats as a reward for patience each time you spend 15 minutes or more photographing the lines and colors of parked cars. Trust me – your life will never be the same again!
An Urban Abstract/Street Photography Workshop in Chicago
Steve Gosling will be joining Kevin Raber (& hopefully Jeff Schewe) to run an Urban Abstract/Street Photography Workshop in May 2019. There you will have an opportunity to explore some of the ideas and themes contained in this article in the wonderful, vibrant & architecturally diverse city of Chicago. Look for information about this workshop on this site soon.
About the Photographer
Steve Gosling is an award-winning professional photographer who specializes in producing fine art landscape and travel images. He is an experienced instructor having run workshops in the UK and abroad, encouraging and inspiring photographers of all levels from across the world.
As well as working closely with Phase One and Lee Filters Steve is a Visionary for Olympus cameras and an Ambassador for Manfrotto/Gitzo tripods and Permajet inkjet papers.