Photography - From Reality Towards Abstraction

A dandelion, backlit by a warm sunset, by the banks of the Harcout Reservoir, Harcourt, Australia.

There are three distinct ways by which we can both approach our own photography and describe or deconstruct photos made by others. I would define these three approaches as follows:

  • Realism

  • Suggestion

  • Abstraction

As an introduction we could explain these three approaches to the making and appreciation of fine photography as follows:

  • Realism aims to record what the photographer sees at the time of making the image.

  • Suggestion explores the photographer’s ability to suggest how they feel about what they saw.

  • Abstraction allows photographer and viewer to move beyond the constraints of object towards notions, revelations and transformations beyond our normal everyday experience.

The face of innocence. A portrait of a young boy on St. Thomas Mount in Chennai, India.

Realism in Photography

Depicting the subject in a recognizable and descriptive manner is the key when working within the realm of realism.

Whether it’s a relatively straight rendering of the subject or scene depicted or a more adventurous or creative approach is fine.

What’s important is to understand that the image is usually made as a way to help remember and share important moments associated with the people, place, event or day in question.

Imagine you’re taking a Photography 101 approach to making photos. You'd probably be concerned with making photos that served to record the world around you as accurately as possible.

This approach would concentrate, primarily, on achieving a realistic rendering of the subject or scene you were photographing.

A photo of Little Johnny smiling on his sixth birthday might serve to describe the subject in question on that special day.

There's no doubt such photos work to both document the day and also become a kind of time capsule where, years into the future, the inherent emotional value of the image seems to increase with time.

Wedding and portrait photographers generally work to produce a pleasing likeness of their subject so as to elicit a positive response from the subject or their family.

But that's not always the case when it comes to other kinds of people based photography.

Sports photography explores a range of emotions, not all of them positive. That’s because, by it's very nature, sports photography is about both winners and losers.

Likewise street photographers and photojournalists are often more concerned with the story unfolding in front of their lens than with what their subject might consider to be a pleasing likeness of their face or body.

A woman selling her produce from a canoe at the Floating Markets near Bangkok in Thailand.

Exploring Humanity Through Isolation And Anonymity

Street photographers are often more concerned with recording the dance of life, at it happens, rather than with the way the subject's face looks at the moment the camera's shutter is tripped.

That's not to say that people are incidental in the world of street photography. But they are, largely, anonymous figures who's value within the frame has more to do with composition, movement and gesture than with their own, individual identity.

Yet, despite this loss of individual identity, the human form can become iconic within the bounds of the still image.  

Likewise, photojournalists are often more interested in character driven portraits, social issues and notions associated with the Human Condition than they are with whether the subject depicted, or their mother, is likely to buy the image.

A protective barrier guards a beautiful tree on a high, windy pass on Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) in China.

Approaches To Landscape Photography  

While usually residing in traditional notions of beauty, landscape photography can be a catalyst to explore a variety of environmental and sustainability issues.

But there's little point in making images of denuded forests that illustrate human kinds destructive capabilities. That's because, after the initial shock value associated with such photographs, most folks will simply more on to more pleasing images.

My view is that a far better approach is to photograph such depressing subject matter in a way that explores dualities such as the following:

  • Beauty and Ugliness

  • Creation and Destruction

  • Delight and Horror

  • Preservation and Change

It's juxtapositions such as these that encourage the viewer to study the image more closely and, as a result, consider the issues explored at a deeper level.

At the very least, if you want your audience to see the beauty that exists either side of that destruction, make your photos either early or late in the day when the light is warm and soft.

The beauty of the light will help your audience appreciate the forest that was and also the potential for rehabilitation of the environment on both a local and global level.

It's also my view that human kind will not completely destroy nature, though our actions have the potential of causing nature to destroy us.

An abstract image formed, momentarily, on the surface of water off the coast of Prion Island in South Georgia.

Suggestion in Photography

I often find that, rather than relying purely on realism to tell a story, that a more interesting approach involving the notion of suggestion works well. 

Successful photos that explore the notion of suggestion often exhibit a mysterious or spiritual quality and elicit a strong emotive response from the viewer.

The subject matter (e.g., tree, rock, flower) of the photo will still be recognizable. However the photo will be made in such a way to cause the viewer to think about what they see, and how they feel about that, at a deeper and more profound level.

We’re no longer simply talking about looking at the representation of objects in space, within the bounds of a two dimensional photograph.

A very surreal photo that, via reflection, displays the face of Jesus in the sky above the magnificent La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This will encourage the viewer to think about issues, memories and possibilities, as well as pointing towards meanings and metaphors, beyond that which is normally associated with the subject matter in question.

A more creative approach can be introduced on the desktop, possibly with an even greater departure from reality.

It’s good to remember that even the humble black and white image is a significant departure from reality, as the human eye and brain perceive it.

An abstract image of circles of light made by moving the camera, in a circular pattern, through a 10 second exposure.

Abstraction in Photography

Abstraction allows the artist to present the world in a way somewhat differently to how it would normally be perceived.

There are many forms of abstraction open to photographers, including the following:

  • Creative Blur

  • Black and White

  • Close-Up photography

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.

Abstraction is arrived at once your subject is no longer recognizable as a tree, rock, flower, etc. The subject of the photo might now be the actual composition.

It’s a concept that I’m always interested in exploring in my own photography.

Imagine where certain compositional elements (e.g., color, line, shape, balance, repetition and pattern) within the scene are so dominant in the composition that they become the actual subject matter of the image.

For example, the viewer may notice circles before recognizing that they are caused by stones being thrown into the water.

The light abstraction above is another example. I moved the camera, in a circular motion, during a long 10-second exposure to create the circle of colored light you see.

The reality that folks around me saw was a tree decorated by Christmas nights. But, by taking a creative approach to making the photo, a totally unique image was created based upon abstraction.

Images that depart from reality, as we perceive it, can be created in lots of interesting ways. A few examples would include the following:

  • Obscuring or eliminating detail by putting the scene severely out of focus

  • Rendering the image quite light or dark, often in the service of mood

  • Photographing from extreme points of view (i.e., birds eye or worms eye)

  • Close-up or macro

  • Placing the primary subject against a much brighter background so as to render the subject in silhouette

With the actual subject matter within the scene no longer recognizable the viewer is free to respond to the image as they see fit.

Responses will likely vary depending upon a range of things, including the following:

  • Mood

  • Age

  • Gender

  • Religion

  • Cultural background

  • Life experiences

It’s important to understand that, while the photographer may have a particular message or theme that they want to communicate, the more an image moves towards abstraction the more open to interpretation it becomes.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Do you?

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.

One way to dramatically improve your photography is to, occasionally, move away from your normal approach to making photos.

My advice is to think about the notion of suggestion and, every now and again, employ a more creative approach and push towards abstraction when making photos.

For safety make your usual, reality based images first. But then, once you've got those photos in the can, it's time for your creativity to shine through.

I really hope this article has given you some ideas for how you can go about doing just that.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru