Abstract photography is characterised by images that do not have a central recognisable subject matter, or concrete object featured. It's a way to move away from an impulse to describe or depict a person or object as the main reason for the photo. Abstract photography frees up the act of taking and viewing the photo from representation and figuration in a conventional sense.
This does not mean that abstract photography never contains elements of the world. Many abstract images depict elements of our surroundings, often in new and surprising ways.
As a photographer, working abstractly gives an excellent chance to challenge your own imagination, skills and resourcefulness. This extends through the choice of shot, the use of the camera, the post-production and can also include photographs made without a camera at all.
Abstract Photography for Beginners
Many people come to abstraction in their work after making photographs in other fields, for example, landscape images, portraiture and street photography. It's not necessary to have a lot of experience within photography before starting to make abstract images, however, and it's a route to develop your skills that can enhance all of your work because it gets you thinking about composition and the relationship to the viewer.
I have learned a huge amount by making abstract photography. It has helped me to both expresses myself and has imaginative responses to the world, as well as to perfect my skills in many different practical photography areas.
Tips on Abstract Photography, Starting Points for Projects
The starting points for abstraction are the same as for any photography or any visual art, we are talking fundamentals of the creation of two-dimensional images. I have broken up the tips below under some of these keystones of the creative process.
Getting the right composition is always important but even more so for an abstract photograph, as the composition almost becomes the work itself. You might want to think about the Golden Ratio as a starting point as it's so effective in making powerful images but don't be bound by a rule.
Think instead about what you want to convey, are you going for stability and balance, confusion and disorder, comedy and awkwardness? Use that to lead you in making the decisions about composition. In a way doing this in abstract photography is an ideal starting point for refining those thought processes as you are often working with a minimal view and it's easier to have clarity about those decisions.
Form and Editing
Pushing what you see to abstraction through the way you choose the shot and construct the image can be a way to represent the form in a new way. Often when you take the context of the object away or isolate an element of architecture it becomes a much bolder presence.
A key element of working with abstraction is thinking about what you can remove. It is definitely a form of minimalism in its approach. How can you communicate what you are seeing, more effectively, by what you do not include? Sometimes, it feels like another form of zooming in, focusing on the subject matter. This photograph is effectively a photo of a muted colour field, but it's brought into clarity by the inclusion of a bird. You may not even notice it at first glance because it's so small within the overall frame, but, when seen, the bird unlocks the photograph giving context to the sky and vice versa.
Pattern and Texture
This is where those startling patterns you have seen or curious textures can come into their own and become the star of the photograph. It works on large and small scales. In fact, photographs focusing on pattern and texture are one of the ways to play with scale. This image is of a monumental architectural facade but the context is removed and it could equally be a small grating. The individual components are so flat, it even becomes incredible as a part of the world and your eyes start to think it's a mechanically produced print or graphic.
Abstraction in photography and painting are related and tied through their shared art history and progression. Modernist colour field painting had a reciprocal relationship to modernist photography where both sides were working through ideas about composition, weight, balance, mediation and impact.
This photograph is awash with green. Green is the subject and also the complete content for the image. The only context for the green is more green so it becomes an immersive image, which can celebrate the joy of the intense colour.
Abstract photography is a great way to enjoy those details around us, which catch attention. It's inextricably linked to how we remember and reflect on urban decay, as photographs chart changes over time, and how we have experienced pioneering architecture, with photographers being challenged to make their photos as progressive as the architect's work.
You can also use abstraction to show the nuance of colour. Wolfgan Tilmans often does this within his abstract work and I love this beautiful white on white image of his. It shows a white t-shirt on a white sheet, intimate, minimal and inherently human. This actually ties back to a previous post about refreshing your inspiration within your personal practice where I spoke about introducing limitations into your process (link link link). I used the exercise example of trying to see the folds of white fabric as an expansive landscape in that article but have just seen this example by Tillmans more recently. With these photographs, you can't help but think of the wearer of the shirt and ideas of closeness.
Light and Shadow
Via Wikipedia: The word 'photography' was created from the Greek roots (phōtos) 'light' and (graphé) 'drawing', meaning 'drawing with light'. The root of 'photo' means 'light' while 'graphos' means 'drawing'.
Light, shadow and the relationship between them is considered a basic element in photography. Without light and shadows, your images can appear dull and flat, as these low and high lights effectively sculpt the form. I also like to use shadow in a pictorial element, as you can see in a couple of the examples here. Tuning into light and shadow is a great way to create dynamic and creative abstract images.
Landscape is important within many facets of photography and because of its large scale and potentially open viewpoints both within natural and built environments, it creates a lot of opportunity for abstraction. Landscape provides a way to consider the macro view as opposed to some of the other examples here, which capitalise on the micro view. Photographs of natural fluvial lines within floodplains or fields delineated by hedges, almost incomprehensible to our eyes, have helped us understand the lie of the land.
If you think about aerial photography, the potential for abstraction is extensive. In this image, you can see a picture of an aerial viewpoint of the top of Daniel Brenner's house in Zurich. Daniel is a friend of mine. He bought an old property and had to renovate it for his family. Daniel took aerial viewpoint images to check on the progress of his house. When he was in Bangkok before the pandemic, Daniel briefly showed me this image on his phone. Looking at this image, you might be wondering what the lines and square patterns are. If you look closer, you could see details of electric wires and water pipes that would eventually form into an essential part of his house.
Abstract photography has often centred around very close-up viewpoints of surfaces or objects. It can be a way to encourage us to look again at an everyday part of our environment. This amazing example was made by Edward Weston: an exquisite image of a cabbage leaf created through complete precision in his photographic practice including the way that he lights the materials; he sets them up as monumental sculptural surfaces.
Image Manipulation and Installation
There's plenty of scope for manipulating the image to achieve and enhance abstraction. This can come within the environment you are taking the photograph, for example, utilising a mirror which exists there, or that you bring with you, to double up and reflect multiple angles and iterations of the scene; or there could be some laying of the image which happens because of reflections and transparent planes such as windows within your shot.
You can see how I have worked with reflection in this work with a tall building, burning sun and masts. With the mirroring effect, I make an otherworldly version of the city.
Double exposure has often been used in abstraction too, which can be an in-camera technique or something you can do with digital collage afterwards.
We also have a massive range of options for creating abstraction through digital post-production by using software like Photoshop. Many photographers use digital processes to create abstraction in their photos. That tends not to be my preference. You may call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to capture everything as it is, so what you see is exactly how I captured it. At different times, I introduce some traditional experimental techniques to open up to abstraction in my work.
It's also worth remembering that you can utilise the way of presenting the images, how they are encountered by the viewer, to emphasis or even create abstraction. This could be the pairing of images on a page, the collage of images, or the installation or 'hanging' of the work within an exhibition space.
You can see this to extraordinary effect in 5,377,183 Suns by Penelope Umbrico. Each photo is, in itself, not abstract but the amalgamation of them all installed as a wall of suns moves into abstraction within the gallery setting.
Finally, we have been speaking about a lot of formal elements here. Ultimately abstraction has a huge capacity for symbolism, emotion and meaning. The concise editing process and the responsive nature of the discipline, mean that our intuitive feelings, associations and thoughts can become amplified and communicated through abstract photography.
The image of a window embodies a lot of emotion for me. I was thinking of how I could create a ghostly image of the window as a powerful portal and to convey a sense of loneliness. Windows onto the world, and therefore windows onto our relationships, are always there for us to use. But sometimes there is a reticence to use that portal to interact if we are feeling down. Staying away from the window can provide solace but also breeds isolation.
Equally, this photograph, which is pure visual pleasure in colour and pattern clearly depicts razor wire and therefore can never separate from ideas of restrictions, divisions and incarceration. This is an example of how abstract photography can be a powerful tool for reportage and editorial work even though we often see it as within more of an art context.