Abstraction in Photography
Exploring abstraction in photography is great fun. Here's how to make visually compelling abstract photos.
Abstraction is one of many ways by which photographers can produce interesting images. The notion of documenting reality, as a way to tell a story, is the most common. But if you’re interested in exploring your creative nature you should also try abstraction as a means of personal expression.
There are three ways of representing subject matter within a photo, which we can outline as follows:
Let’s explore these various representations.
Realism in Photography
Realism, at least in relation to photography, can be described as a relatively straight rendering of the subject or scene, often made as a way to share and help remember important moments associated with the person, place, event or day in question.
Realistic photographs try to record what the photographer sees at the time of making the image.
Photojournalists are, primarily, concerned with recording the so-called reality of the subject or scene in question.
The photo of the kitchen at the historic research station at Port Lockroy in Antarctica is, I believe, a good example of the notion of realism in photography.
It’s pretty clear what I’ve photographed and that the story being told points to the kind of food that was consumed by the research scientists in years gone by.
Fresh fruit and veggies were clearly off the menu back in the day.
Power Of Suggestion
What I refer to as suggestion involves a more creative approach.
Freed from mere documentation the photographer is now able to expand the representation of the subject or scene to include how they felt about it at the time of making the photo, in camera, and/or later when post processing the image on the desktop.
Images that successfully incorporate the concept of suggestion often exhibit a mysterious quality and elicit an emotive response from the viewer.
In this case the subject matter is still recognizable, but photographed in such a way to cause the viewer to think about issues, memories and possibilities beyond that which is immediately evident.
For example, while it’s Little Johnny’s birthday, the photo in question elicits notions of nostalgia, childhood, delight and celebration.
In my photo of the reeds on water in Hongcun village, China you can see how the reeds and their reflection on the surface of the water becomes one.
In reality reeds and reflection are two separate things, but in this photo they’ve become one and the same.
The subject of the picture is not the reeds that I photographed. They’re simply objects I made use of to construct the composition.
The subject of the photo is actually the composition, by which I mean the lines, shapes and colors; and the repetition of those elements within the image.
Abstract Photography Ideas
Perhaps the most artistic form of expression, abstraction allows the photographer to take the viewer into a world somehow outside of their normal, everyday experience.
With the subject matter no longer recognizable the viewer is free to respond to the image as they see fit.
Responses vary depending on the viewer’s mood, age, gender, religion, cultural background, life experiences, etc.
There is, perhaps, no better example of the three way relationship between subject, viewer and photographer than what occurs through abstract photography.
All three are partners and all play a part in determining how the photo is read and understood.
They are lots of ways by which you can explore abstraction in your photography, including the following:
Black and white
Viewpoint (e.g., birds eye and worms eye)
In the case of the photo of the out of focus plant near the village of Harcourt in Victoria, Australia I didn’t just employ creative blur because I like the effect.
What I wanted to do was to abstract the world to the point that the image was not about the plant, but about the light and color palette and the feelings they might elicit once detail was removed from the image.
The key understanding about abstraction is that the object being photographed no longer needs to be recognizable.
That means we no longer need to name, identify or place a label onto it.
The subject of your photograph is now dominated by other concerns, including the following:
Mood or feeling
Meaning in Pictures belongs, Ultimately, with the Audience
Ultimately, the concept of meaning, in art, belongs with the audience.
The photographer may have a particular story, message or theme that they want to communicate.
However, it’s important to understand that, the more an image moves towards abstraction the more open to interpretation it becomes.
So, while I want to encourage experimentation, I also have to emphasize the point that, just like love, meaning is in the eye of the beholder.
That means when we put our images out there into the big, wide world we have to be prepared for the variety of ways in which those photos might be interpreted and the meaning which other people may derive from them.
Photography and Ego
Photos are like children. They come from us, but they have a life of their own. Ultimately, we have to let them go so that they can find their own way in the world.
And they’ll do so through the relationships, many of them fleeting, that they’ll form with who ever takes the time to interact with them.
Because our photos come from us, they are an outward expression of who we are.
That’s probably why we feel a need to keep control of the story that’s behind the making of that photo, what it’s about and how important it’s place in the world is.
But that’s only one reality which, in my case, was formed in the mind of a middle aged, caucasian Australian.
Who’s to say that’s the only reality that matters.
Where Does Truth Reside in Photography
You were there when you made your favourite photo. As the creator of that image you own it, and the experience of making that image, in a way no one else can.
However, the notion of truth goes beyond mere factual documentation. Ultimately, how you felt when you made the image in question is less important than how your audience feels when they see it.
We photograph for ourselves but, if you want to play on a bigger stage, you need to be aware of the power of the photograph to elicit an emotional response from your audience.
And in our post modern world that response is, very much in the eye, mind and heart of each individual member of your audience.
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The exact nature of their emotional response and what the image actually means to them is important.
But your photos first need to elicit a response and, of course, you need to get your images out there and find a way for them to stand out from the crowd.
To that end I believe how you go about making your images is as important as what it is you photograph.
But to make truly meaningful photos you first need to explore your own inspirations, motivations and desired outcomes.
I’m not all that interested in seeing a recipe driven image of a so-called influencer wearing a floppy hat in the landscape on Instagram.
I want to see and make photos that go beyond surface impressions. I want to make meaningful images, and I’m sure you do to.
It’s our own, individual world view that needs to speak through the photos we made.
Stay true to yourself and people will see the authentic nature that underpins the photos you make.
They’ll find a way to understand the meaning contained within those photos that best suits their own needs at the time.
Our job then is to make more images and release them into the world. And so the cycle continues.