I always have some work in my booth that leans more to the abstract side of the realism-abstract continuum. Fundamentally, I think abstraction is no different in photography than in other two-dimensional mediums. With photography, most certainly with mine, there is often a real subject matter being portrayed. This may keep my abstract work from being as abstract as some paintings, but certainly it’s in that camp.

Ultimately, all art is an abstraction of reality. I, using photography, am working with a two-dimensional, static medium and yet hope to elicit an emotional response in my viewers based on a real experience or feeling that I want to convey. Photography, maybe more than any other medium, is seen as dealing with reality. It’s a paradox though because I am abstracting so much of the “reality” I experienced. Consider too that I may be using the subject in front of me to convey an idea or an emotion that has little to do with the literal visual stimulus I experienced in the field. That is, I have visualized a finished print of an image that is based on the scene in front of me but not trying to recreate (as closely as the medium allows), what the viewer would see were they with me.

As a culture, we know how to “read” photographs and paintings so that they make sense to us. Enough so that  may serve as a substitute for having experienced the event or scene first hand, even eliciting a similar emotion. It is up to the artist to decide by what means, and to what extent, to use their medium to convey a particular message. It’s tricky business.

Whether the work is that of Ansel Adams, who ultimately determined photography should be a faithful reproduction of reality (f64 group), or painters working in the style of trompe l’oeil, a greater or lesser degree of abstraction is still in effect. The very act of isolating a section of a visual experience and reproducing it in a two-dimensional form on some substrate, is in itself abstraction. While the artist using pure shape, color, and form in a non-mimetic way, may more quickly be recognized as creating abstract works, every artist is conscious of the effects those elements play in visual expression.

(c) 2010 Paul Grecian - Is this abstract?

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26 thoughts on “Abstract? It’s all abstract……

  1. Enjoyed this post. I agree, it is all abstraction. Additionally, there are gray zones between what is called abstraction and what is not because everyone seems to have his or her own definition.

  2. Interesting thoughts, and a beautiful image. I love exploring abstraction in photography, and when looking at historical images I’m drawn more to the abstract or impressionist images of the Pictorialist group a lot more than the realist images of f64 group.

    1. Hi Roberta,

      Thank you for the comments. When I first began exploring Ansel Adams and his realist approach, I was very taken with the style. The more I allowed myself to develop a personal vision, the more I began to appreciate the Pictorialists. I think your work represents that style so well, I find your imagery very evocative.

  3. The father of straight photography, Paul Strand, did some amazing abstract work. He used to turn the camera sideways and at various angles, and photographed objects in such striking new ways that people could not even recognize the objects. He was also one of the pioneers of abstraction and did it all without altering the images post-camera. The work Group f.64 photographers are most known for was generally not abstract, but each of them also made images that are lesser known that created some great abstractions without altering the images as the Pictorialists did. Most of the Pictorialists work the Group f.64 photographers scoffed at the most has not stood the test of time and is not available to see anywhere today. It was just bad photography. The bad Pictorialists used techniques and special effects to try to make up for poor quality images, just as poorly skilled photographers do today. The Pictorialist work that has stood the test of time and is still around to see today, is worth studying just as much as the work of the straight photographers. I am not discounting the war between Steichen and Adams. To that I say, “Vive la Difference,” we can all learn from it.

  4. Is the tree image shown abstract? IMHO, not by a long shot.

    This image is certainly not the most realistic rendition (an unusual point of view, apparent distortion, the colors not accurate, etc.), but this level of abstraction I think is more accurately described as modifying the image to “convey a particular message.”

    In my shorthand, in this context, real equates to labels, abstract equates to unrecognizable. I bet if you asked anybody what it is, the answer would be trees.

    If you were to present an image of a subject that is real & concrete, but highly cropped or magnified, if there are not enough visual clues for the viewer to recognize what it is, they will perceive only an arrangement of graphic elements. The image will be no less “real” than the trees, but it will not be real to the viewers.

    Not many people will call a line/shape/form real, like a tree. But both are equally real in our heads. I think the “tricky business” part of the equation happens in there, when something being real or abstract really doesn’t matter. To turn your words around on you… If it’s all abstracted, then it’s all real.

  5. Great post Paul. I think the simpler a photograph becomes of its graphical elements, the more abstract potential it has. Because the photograph’s purpose is then not to convey the reality it represents, but the artful representation of form, line, color, etc.

  6. I agree with Marty Golin that your photograph above is not abstract in the strict sense. I also like Marty’s definition. It is more in line with Edward Weston’s and my father’s more precise and exacting definition of an abstract photograph. If the object(s) is difficult to recognize, then the image is abstract. Edward Weston, Paul Strand and Philip Hyde made many photographs that introduced elements of abstraction, but were not abstract in this stricter sense. I see people all over the internet today calling their photographs abstract when they merely have a touch of abstraction in them but are not in essence abstract. In some sense all photographs are abstract in that they are not the “real” subjects they represent. However, this fits a more philosophical definition rather than the artistic definition of abstract. My Websters unabridged dictionary offers so many definitions of abstract that the discussion could go either way, or rather a number of different ways. In my opinion, a good fine art photograph, and this is where people misinterpret the purpose of straight photography, a quality work of art in photography, unless it is documentary, always has the purpose of conveying the “artful representation of form, line, color, etc.” that Mark mentions above, rather than having the goal “to convey the reality it represents.” The quality of artful representation alone does not set a photograph apart as abstract.

  7. Great discussion everyone, thank you for sharing. It is fascinating to consider the various perspectives not just of individuals but of artistic movements in a historical context.

  8. I may have misspoke. It’s not that you can’t recognize the objects in abstraction, although this is sometimes true, it is that they are completely removed from their context as found in “reality” to the point they are changed.

  9. The funny thing is, too, that most people I know don’t “like” abstract work. Perhaps they just don’t really understand what it is.

  10. I, too, don’t think the photo of the trees classifies as an abstract. In the sense of art, an abstract conveys a concept, emotion, or idea using line, color, shape, texture, form, etc. This is relatively difficult to do in photography, I think, but easy to Dutch (tilt) the camera, zoom in, select an unusual point of view, etc. and make the image odd in some way.

    Ansel Adams actually called these types of photographs (the trees under discussion as an example) “extractions”; highly selective organizations of the shapes in nature. He didn’t seem to think abstracts were possible in photography because of the “realistic image in the lens” and the basic premise of photography, as he believed, of creating some kind of order and composition out of the existing “chaos” to render the scene as he saw it and wished to convey the emotional content to his viewers.

    Abstraction in photography, I think, is possible. In the simplest way, by dispensing with attempts to capture a scene in any “realistic” way and using camera movements, shutter speed, and other methods to impose concept over content.

    However, the concept must be in the mind and intent of the photographer prior to giving the photograph the “abstract” label. It’s not something that can be applied just because an image is blurry or colorful. The concept should be discernible by the viewer (or a concept, if the image is not completely understood).

    Abstract photographs could be created for concepts such as love, hate, warm, cold, etc. I’m not sure the trees example provides a concept other than a composition of geometric shapes.

    But then, all art is subjective.

    1. Mike,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I would spend hours picking your mind further if I could. Some of what you suggest, I’m not sure I’ve heard before. I take it then that you do not agree that abstraction in art exists on a continuum? If something is either abstract or not, at what point does it achieve the label?

      Interesting is that there seems to be no agreement on this,I came across these two quotes:

      “Abstract means literally to draw from or separate. In this sense every artist is abstract” – Richard Diebenkorn

      “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something” – Pablo Picasso

      If an “extraction” takes on a meaning other than it’s literal being, if it conveys the emotional element over its label, does that make the image abstract?

      I don’t know the answer, or rather maybe haven’t decided fully what my opinion is. The history of abstract art is dealt with in the book “Pictures of Nothing” (Kirk Varnedoe), where it is relayed that there was distintion made between “reductive” and “productive” abstraction distinguishing between those who were “distilling forms from visual experience” and “those who claimed that they were creating pure forms not derived from vision or nature”. I personally don’t believe anyone can create as though they’ve had no visual experiences.

      1. Definitely, this could be a conversation taking hours. I can quickly say there is not clear, concise definition of abstract. The term can apply to many situations and representations.

        I’m not sure what you mean by abstraction existing on a continuum.

  11. The discussion of abstract photography has been going on for a long time. Martin makes good sense when he says that the subject needs to be real and concrete, and I would add have at least one recognizable element. David defines abstract photography more specifically. Susan Sontag, On Photography, assumes that photography differs from painting because photography must have a recognizable subject, but if we do not call it abstract photography, then she will not assume that is needs to have a recognizable subject. For me the exciting part of abstract “photography” is the wide range of textures, shapes and colors that make compelling images. My goal is to create great abstract images (e.g. photography”)! So what do we call abstract “photography” so that people will not assume it needs a recognizable subject?

  12. I’m going to stick with my original definition that abstraction involves conveying an emotion, concept or idea using line, shape, texture, color, and form, generally without the use of recognizable or realistic elements. Some abstracts use ‘recognizable’ forms such as distorted human figures (cubism) that we recognize as representing human form, but not any recognizable person or realistic depiction of the human form (it is the concept of the human rather than the human itself).

    A macro of the stamens of a flower is not an abstract, because it represents, realistically, the stamens of a flower. This is an extraction. Simply, if the photographer moved the camera during the exposure, blurring the subject in such a way as to create some texture, pattern, and form, and destroying the identifying characteristics of the flower, then used the resulting image to convey a concept other than “Flower Stamens, #1”, I would acknowledge that as an abstract.

    Close-ups of textures (bark, carpet, pavement, fur) or other realistic elements (turbulent seas, grass, buttons, painted toenails) also fit into the “not an abstract” along with the macro of stamens.

    Once you involve something recognizable, the photograph becomes an interpretation of that thing and/or its relationship to other elements in the composition rather than a concept of that thing or of something entirely different.

    Picasso was right. The abstract always starts from something but then that something is abstracted, made “unreal”, which in some sense broadens its meaning and interpretation. Because it is unrecognizable, it allows the viewer to make up their own mind what it represents to them instead of the artist/photographer showing the viewer (telling them) what to look at, what it is they are looking at, and how they’re supposed to feel about it.

    This is difficult to do in photography primarily because most people, even photographers, view photography as a representation of reality. A photograph of a chair is a photograph of a chair, it can be nothing else. If the chair is not represented accurately as a chair, if there was some manipulation in camera or out but there is still some semblance of ‘chairness’ in the image, the viewer wonders why a chair would be represented that way instead of considering a conceptual meaning (unless maybe prompted by an artist statement or image title, but even then the viewer may still try to resolve the image of the chair, the concept of ‘chair’ instead of the intended meaning, if it was something different)

    Here is an example of one of my photos I would consider to be abstract: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blueplanetphoto/5721156588

    The concept in the title “Event Horizon” represents the edge of something, a change. The subject matter is unrecognizable, but the image itself conveys the concept. Actually, the photograph contains two elements, neither element directly related to nor connected with the concept of the image.

    Another image I would equate more closely with the photo of the trees in question is: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blueplanetphoto/5720599079

    Some would consider this an abstract, but I do not. Abstract concepts could be generated by the image, certainly, but the image itself is not an abstract because no matter what concept I tried to attribute to it, the viewer would relate that concept to the recognizable elements of branches, leaves, shadow, tree, bush, shrub, etc.

    A good discussion and one that will no doubt go on in camera clubs, artist gatherings, blogs, magazines, textbooks, monograms, casual party debate, etc. for eons to come.

  13. Color, texture and shape make an image interesting and memorable, whether it is in a realistic or abstract.

    To respond to Mike, if abstract photography is” without recognizable forms” then most of the viewers of an abstract photograph will be turned off. The problem for many occurs when the word “photograph” is next to the image and the viewer applies his/her individual idea of a camera image. Unfortunately today this even applies to mobile phones most of which have cameras and some even with flash built-in. In other words, expectations can kill the impact of the work. We could call these photographs “abstract images” and let people’s minds wander.

    The reason to have this discussion is because ultimately, art needs an audience to succeed, at least someone viewing it and possibly buying it.

    1. Hi Dick,

      Thank you for adding to the discussion here. I think you make an interesting point about expectation when it comes to photographic images. My experience too is that abstract renditions are much more confusing to people when they are photographs.

    2. Dick, I agree. As I explained, people view a photograph, intrinsically, as a representation of reality. Essentially, what goes into the box is what’s supposed to come out of the box.

      When it is something recognizable it makes them comfortable. When it is something recognizable but represented in a manipulated way, i.e. blurred, twisted, misshapen, etc., they have a hard time understanding why the object would be skewed in such a way. When the object is unrecognizable, through further manipulation, it’s impossible to relate it to anything familiar, which is contrary to their expectation of a photograph. It’s “unreal” and they, as you say, may be turned off by that style of photography. It’s not the way the subject is portrayed (in an abstract way), but in the medium and the expectations of that medium (as Paul also mentions). Don’t we have a similar reaction when we look at photo-realistic paintings or drawings and expect a photograph but are surprised to see paint or ink or pencil (or, conversely, when people look at some of our photographs and exclaim “wow, it looks like a painting” – a compliment for some photographer, a negative criticism for others)?

      But, that should not discourage photographers from doing that kind of work if that’s the type of photography that must be done to achieve whatever it is the photographer/artist is trying to do. There are (and have been since the beginnings of photography) groups and individuals who have created for themselves a clear definition of what photography is and isn’t. On one hand, it is the “realists” and on the other the “anything goes-ists”. I’m a bit of both.

      The idea that art needs an audience is, definitely, another discussion entirely. Especially around the criteria of monetary exchange/value.

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