Not into abstract photography? It’s one of those things that you will either love or hate. But it’s important, and there’s a lot more to it than you might know.
What is abstract photography?
It’s probably easiest to describe abstract photography by starting with what it isn’t. Objective photography is the opposite of subjective. It tries to be factual and not influenced by feelings or personal interpretations of the photographer or viewer. In contrast, abstract photography is meant to be entirely subjective and to be interpreted by the viewer based on their personal experience. A catalog photo of a bird on a stick is about as objective as can be, while an image of its distorted shadow on a wall would be abstract. But it is not that easy.
All photos fall somewhere in the spectrum of these two extremes. Even a bird photo is subject to personal interpretation 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 has to do with thoughts and ideas rather than matter. Consequently, the abstract image can have different meanings for different people. A great photographer sees and thinks about the world in a way that an ordinary person cannot. In abstract photography, this is taken to the extreme. The photographer finds a unique interpretation of reality. Then, importantly, they also allow the meaning of that image to be defined by the individual viewer; They allow the audience to understand the images in the way they want.
This personal interpretation requires intelligence and imagination from both the photographer and the viewer. In addition, it gives the photographer the opportunity to express himself outside the confines of what he perceives as reality.
As with that blurred background behind the bird, abstraction in photography is usually achieved by using various techniques to remove or alter our usual perception of a scene. We represent the world with lines, shapes, characters and colors that do not necessarily match what the eye would see.
A critique of abstract photography
The main point of criticism is of course the emperor’s new clothes. Some random shapes or squiggles in a photo could not be defined as anything else, with no additional meaning. I recently heard someone call it a hoax and a lot of “airy nonsense”. There is a counterargument to this; The viewer lacks the ability to extract any meaning other than a series of flourishes.
Still, the abstract photographer should be okay with this rejection of his work; If a viewer sees their photo as a meaningless series of lines, then that’s a valid interpretation. In other words, if you only see a squiggle, it doesn’t matter. It’s okay to put it that way.
The idea of abstract photography is that the photographer and the viewer see beyond objective reality; they all interpret the images individually, depending on their personal experiences.
Also, our two-dimensional images are just interpretations of our four-dimensional world. Just as we can change how the world looks to us by squinting, looking through frosted glass, or seeing it reflected off the back of a spoon, isn’t changing how it appears in our photographs any less valid?
The philosophy of abstraction
Like many art movements, abstraction is linked to philosophy. It is seen to have a moral, virtuous aspect. Honesty, integrity, simplicity, harmony, acceptance, spirituality and so on are all qualities associated with abstract art and photography. Some argue that no art has moral virtues; it’s just art. However, it is both valuable and reassuring to think differently. Useful because it gives us a guide on how to proceed with the creation of our images. Comforts because it rejects conflict. For example, how many times have people become stressed and angry because they disagree with someone else’s point of view, but don’t realize that their opinion is just as invalid? An abstract photograph is open to any interpretation, and the photographer is more likely to accept and learn from someone else’s point of view. So it’s a good thing to know that abstract photography may not appeal to everyone.
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, more than any other art form, are inseparable from visual reality as a photograph and a film usually resemble what can be seen with the human eye.
Therefore, getting rid of it and creating an abstract image usually means deviating from the methods we usually use to create a realistic image. Removing elements such as the color, tone, or background of the image, or placing the camera where our eye wouldn’t normally go can create an abstract image.
Do you already create abstract photographs?
So, when you use abstract techniques, are you creating an abstract photo? Let’s say you take a close-up of a bird to achieve a shallow depth of field, convert it to black and white, and emphasize its markings with contrast controls in processing. Is that an abstract image? Stroll down a boardwalk and position your camera at ground level. Do you then shoot an abstract picture? If you want it, then yes, you are. If you intend the image purely factually, you have achieved that too. Just don’t expect others to always interpret it the same way.
Methods of abstraction in photography
We usually try to be precise with our technical settings when photographing. With abstract photography, we can give up what we usually think is right and do something completely different instead. For example, we pay attention to where we place the focus point. On the other hand, with abstraction, we can discard that idea and focus elsewhere on the subject or even the space before or after it.
Many abstract works relate to camera or subject movement during exposure. I enjoy intentional photography with camera movement, although it’s now becoming an overused technique. I also love using low light or an ND filter to show movement. Conversely, breakneck shutter speeds can be used to freeze motion and reveal shapes and patterns that would otherwise be invisible to us.
Another thing we always strive for is crisp optics in objective photography. So by applying the opposite of this we can avoid the sharpness by using defective optics. We can put transparent obstacles in front of the lens to reduce image quality or distort the light entering the lens altogether.
Try prisms, lens balls, scratched filters, glooped filters and angled glass in front of the lens.
We also try to get our colors right. Color filters can add strange effects. We usually try to achieve low noise, get the exposure right, and use good lighting in our photos. This doesn’t have to be the case in abstract photography. By combining different techniques, there are dozens of ways to create unique abstract paintings.
Are you a fan of abstraction or does that put you off? It would be great to hear your opinions and even see some of your photos in the comments.