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Abstract Photography

This is one of the best articles I have read on the subject of Abstract Photography. Written by a photography colleague, she is clear, thorough and entertaining.

A Non-Objective Look at Abstract Photography

Lynne Guimond Findlay (www.freewebs.com/lgfindlay)

“Abstract photography” is a term that is thrown around loosely in art circles. When modern abstract art emerged some 90 or so years ago, many doubts were raised about its “artistic viability”. (One notable characteristic of the art community is its propensity to say lofty things about itself.) Since then, accomplished artists and critics have taken sides on the issue, as have museum curators, art collectors, and art dealers. (Interestingly, some of the harshest criticisms of abstract art — and premature announcements of its demise — have come from contemporary artists themselves.)

Some insist that all art is abstract art, as it is an abstraction of something tangible… or even an idea. The artwork is not the object (a landscape, still life, etc.) It only represents the object and, in essence, is an abstract of the original. English sculptor Henry Moore, among others, agreed with this assessment, declaring “All art is an abstraction to some degree.”

American painter Richard Diebenkorn concurred, stating “Abstract literally means to draw from or separate. In this sense every artist is abstract… a realistic or non-objective approach makes no difference. The result is what counts.”

Through the process of creating art, artists highlight the “essence” of their subject matter. They separate certain key elements from the surrounding irrelevant material. Yet there are fundamental stylistic (and often philosophical) differences between what we would typically classify as modern “abstract art” and the classicism which preceded it.

In an attempt to organize and understand these differences, “abstract art” is commonly used to describe any image that varies from what viewers would typically expect to see in a “portrait”, “still life”, or “landscape” photograph. These would include images with unusual compositions, certain chemically and digitally altered photographs, or any “extreme close-up” image (such as that found in peeling paint, rusted metal, weathered wood, and other surfaces. )

Others disagree with these afore-mentioned viewpoints. They believe that abstract photographs are not merely close-ups of patterns and shapes, as seen through a lens. These people do see the validity in the process of photographing subjects out of their usual context and in offering new interpretations of the familiar. They understand the meaning of separating a specific intangible element of an object and presenting it in its “meta concept”. (For example, “red” as a ‘pure’ concept, not just as part of an object.)

But they believe that these exercises don’t necessarily make the resultant images “abstract.” (This is because they equate “abstract art” with its subset, non-representational — or non-objective — art.) So they recognize the possibility of “semi-abstract” art, images in which the artist presents a real, recognizable form in an “abstract” composition.

For them, the “path to abstraction” begins with images that capture recognizable subject matter in an unusual way. It continues through non-objective abstract photographs that derive their imagery from a non-recognizable subject. (Some would argue that the road goes even further than that: to works that eliminate the use of the camera altogether.)

So what, then, is a “pure” abstract image (regardless of whether it’s created with a camera)? And is it possible to do an abstract work of art that does not arise from imitation of other abstract works of art?

If we accept the growing belief that photography is a fine art, then concepts that apply to art in general will apply to photography as well. Let’s consider for a moment the definition of an abstract painting: an image that has been reduced to color, form, and light.

If we accept this definition, it’s easy to see how all painting can be considered abstract painting. So let’s narrow the definition further, to the subset of artwork that is well down the “path to abstraction”: non-representational abstract art.

Viewers may “see” images in a non-representational composition, in much the same way that someone can “see” dinosaurs and trees in cloud formations. And artists often encourage this, by naming their images after something representational: “Landscape IV”, “Flowers II”, etc. But unless the artist monochromatically covers his entire image with the same color, there are always shapes to be discerned.

Good abstract art challenges the viewer to accept the possibility that artwork doesn’t have to be about anything organic, geometrical — or even pictographic at all… it can just be art.

But non-objective art didn’t have a “virgin birth”. It evolved from representational art, so it cannot be totally removed from its forebear. Nevertheless, non-objective abstract artists have used paint and brush, chisel and hammer, or cameras to create a new visual language that extends beyond the traditional boundaries of representational artwork. (If there is any doubt that art is communicative, consider that early critics found non-objective art “unintelligible”.)

Traditionally, a “good” photograph has several characteristics that just don’t apply to non-objective art: precise focusing; realistic, vibrant color (color photo) or full range of tones (black-and-white photo); a definite subject or theme; a clear center of interest. So an “abstract” photo challenges the viewer to reconsider what comprises a well-rendered image. (Particularly when abstract art, by its very nature, attempts to sever a “photographical tie” to reality.)

But a “good” photograph is usually also a well-crafted one. It is created with quality materials, processed for archival permanence, and is presented in a professional manner. The fine art photograph has a value as an object in its own right, regardless of whether it is “representational.”

What’s more, a “good” photograph should say something about the world at large (and the internal reality of the photographer.) The most ordinary subject matter can be made interesting through the manner in which the photographer chooses to shoot it. Even when the image doesn’t appear to have a subject (as in non-representational abstract photography), the image is presented in a thought-provoking way.

Andy Warhol said “Art is what you can get away with.” Some might say that abstract photography “levels the playing field”. They believe that abstract photography gives less technically proficient photographers a “back door” by which to enter the art community. And there’s no denying that in today’s art world at large, a work’s “message” is oftentimes valued more than the mastery (or lack thereof) of its execution.

But a poorly-framed, out of focus, and badly-exposed photograph is just that. It is NOT “abstract photography.” The best abstract photographers have complete control over their images. They know exactly what they want to convey and the resulting image doesn’t happen by accident. Outstanding abstracts are arguably the most difficult of all photographic images to produce, and there are no shortcuts.

Through experimentation – through trying to find something new that can be done with an image — photographers find the “next” way to express their unique vision. This is why art continues to grow and evolve. “Abstract art” – nearly a century after it first demanded attention as a legitimate art movement — continues to surprise and challenge viewers today. Abstract photographers – particularly those specializing in non-representational compositions — push the boundaries of what can be done with a photographic image: sometimes even abandoning the camera altogether. In exploring the formal and abstract qualities of photography, they use light and time to confront the viewer’s perception and cognition.

Author Lynne Guimond Findlay shot many images that she once considered purely “abstract” (but would now consider far less down the “path to abstraction.”) Visit her web site at www.freewebs.com/lgfindlay for additional information.

©Lynne Guimond Findlay

Reproduced with permission by the author. Contact her for more articles on the field of fine art photography.

Copyright © Keven Ann Seaver. All Rights Reserved.