Don’t like abstract photography? It’s one of those things you’ll love or hate. But it’s important, and there’s a lot more to it than you might think.
What is abstract photography?
It is probably easier to describe abstract photography by starting with what it is not. Objective photography is the opposite of subjective. It tries to be factual and not influenced by the feelings or personal interpretations of the photographer or viewer. In contrast, abstract photography is intended to be entirely subjective, with the viewer interpreting it based on their personal experience. A catalog shot of a bird on a stick is about as close to the lens as it gets, while a distorted image of its shadow on a wall would be abstract. But it’s not as simple as that.
All photos fall somewhere on the spectrum of these two extremes. Even a photo of a bird is subject to personal interpretations and can evoke emotions. This blurred background is an abstraction. It’s not what you saw behind the bird, but that bright spot is an idea open to personal interpretation.
Abstraction is about thoughts and ideas rather than matter. Therefore, the abstract image can mean different things to different people. A great photographer sees and thinks about the world in ways that an ordinary person cannot. In abstract photography, this is taken to the extreme. The photographer finds a unique interpretation of reality. Second, and importantly, they also allow the meaning of that image to be defined by individual viewers; they allow the public to understand the images as they wish.
This personal interpretation requires intelligence and imagination from both the photographer and the viewer. Additionally, it gives the photographer a way to express themselves outside the confines of what they perceive to be reality.
Like that blurry background behind the bird, in photography, abstraction is usually achieved by removing or altering our usual perception of a scene using different techniques. We represent the world using lines, shapes, forms, marks, and colors that don’t necessarily match what the eye would see.
A critique of abstract photography
Of course, the main criticism is that of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Some random shapes or squiggles in a photo could be defined as nothing more than that, without any additional meaning. I recently heard someone describe it as a hoax and a lot of “airy, fairytale nonsense”. There is a counter-argument to this; the viewer does not have the ability to extract any meaning other than being a set of squiggles.
Nevertheless, the abstract photographer should be okay with this rejection of his work; if a viewer sees their photo as a set of meaningless lines, then that’s a valid interpretation. In other words, if you only see a squiggle, it doesn’t matter. It’s fine to interpret it that way.
The idea of abstract photography is that the photographer and viewers see beyond objective reality; they will all interpret the images in unique ways, based on their personal experiences.
Moreover, our two-dimensional images are only interpretations of our four-dimensional world. Just as we can change the way the world appears to us by squinting, looking through ground glass, or seeing it reflected off the back of a spoon, is it just as valid to change the way it appears? in our pictures?
The philosophy of abstraction
Like many artistic movements, abstraction is linked to philosophy. It is perceived as having a moral and virtuous aspect. Honesty, integrity, simplicity, harmony, acceptance, spirituality, etc. are all qualities associated with abstract art and photography. Some claim that no art has moral virtues; it’s just art. However, it is both valuable and comforting to think otherwise. Useful because it gives us indications on how to proceed with the creation of our images. Comforting because it rejects conflict. For example, how many times have people become stressed and angry because they disagree with another’s point of view but fail to see that their opinion is equally invalid? An abstract photograph is open to any interpretation you like, and the photographer is more likely to accept and learn from another’s perspective. So understanding that abstract photography may not appeal to everyone is a good thing.
It’s hard to break free from naive realism in photography
Naive realism is the philosophy that the world around you is exactly as you perceive it. Photography and videography are intrinsically linked to visual reality more than any other art form, because a photograph and film usually closely resemble what can be seen with the human eye.
Therefore, breaking free from this and creating an abstract image usually means deviating from the methods we generally use to create a realistic image. Removing things like color, tone, background from the image, or simply placing the camera where our eye wouldn’t usually go can create an abstract image.
Do you already create abstract photographs?
So, do you create an abstract photograph if you use abstract techniques? Say you shoot a close-up of a bird to give a shallow depth of field, convert it to black and white, and accentuate its markings with contrast controls in the processing. Is it an abstract image? Walk along a boardwalk and place your camera at ground level. Do you then take an abstract image? If you want to, then yes, you are. If you want the image to be purely objective, you’ve achieved that too. Don’t expect others to always interpret it the same way.
Abstraction methods in photography
We generally try to be precise with our technical settings with photography. With abstract photography, we can abandon what we usually consider the right approach and do something completely different instead. For example, we pay attention to where we place the focal point. On the other hand, with the abstract, we can push that idea aside and focus elsewhere on the subject or even in the space in front or behind it.
Much of the abstract work relates to the movement of the camera or subject during exposure. I love intentional camera movement photography, although it’s becoming an overused technique now. Likewise, using low light or an ND filter to show movement is also something I like to do. Conversely, dizzying shutter speeds can be used to stop motion and show shapes and patterns that would otherwise be invisible to us.
Another thing we always strive for is very sharp optics in objective photography. So, by using the opposite of that, we can avoid sharpness by using faulty optics. We can place transparent obstacles in front of the lens to reduce image quality or completely distort the light entering the lens.
Try using prisms, lens balls, striped filters, filters with gloop applied, and angled glass in front of the lens.
Likewise, we try to get our exact colors. Color filters can add weird effects. We generally try to achieve a lack of noise, have the right exposure and use good lighting for our photos. In abstract photography, it need not be so. By combining different techniques, there are dozens of possibilities to create unique abstract images.
Are you a fan of abstraction or is it something that puts you off? It would be great to hear your thoughts and even see some of your photos in the comments.