In my earlier photographic period, I’d often made the mistake of thinking abstract photography was just a catch-all bucket for images that didn’t fit anywhere else; I even had a folder for that kind of thing called ‘Random’. From time to time, during my many photographic excursions, I’d find my eye deviated from the ‘objective’ – not that I had one. Admittedly, at that point, I’d mix shooting with an objective – say wildlife, or street, or architecture – with sessions where I’d just go for a walk with camera in hand and shoot anything that appealed. It was during one of those sessions that I started to be drawn towards arrangements of objects that were visually appealing for reasons I couldn’t understand or put into objective terms; there wasn’t a real subject per se; sometimes, I just found the whole scene/ frame appealing. ‘Click!’ went the shutter, and one more image got consigned to the ‘Random’ folder.
Those of you who get image updates via the app or follow my flickr stream will probably have noted me uploading increasing numbers of images that are nothing more than pure light, colour (and sometimes not even that) and geometry; the subject or object being photographed isn’t instantly identifiable. In fact, the subject is frequently not identifiable at all, no matter how long you stare at the image. Yet somehow, these images ‘work’. You might even have wondered if I’d offer them in a future print sale (I hope). The question I’d like to address today is why.
I am not a fan of abstraction for the sake of abstraction: there are times when photographers try to ‘force’ a new perspective out of an old (usually iconic) subject, and in doing so, either get so close or such a strange perspective that the object is no longer identifiable. To me, this almost defeats the purpose of taking a photograph of that object at all: imagine going to the Eiffel Tower and doing a macrophotograph of one of the rivets – without caption or context, no viewer would know what they were looking at, much less that it was part of a famous landmark. I suppose in this situation, one would want a photograph of the tower from some other vantage than is usually seen; however, in trying too hard, the image becomes a failure. (It would of course be completely different if you were doing it as part of a study on say, steel textures.)
Let’s suppose you are drawn to a well-executed abstract. Why? Chiefly, I think it’s because it’s the complete opposite of what the name implies: some degree of randomness and lack of control. The fact that there are no clearly identifiable subjects at all makes everything reduce to its constituent geometry. Then, beyond the shapes of the objects involved, there is also the effect of light creating additional geometry in the scene, be it in the form or shadow or emphasis of texture (which I suppose is also shadow on a micro-scale, really). Finally, we have color. That’s about it – assuming you still can’t identify the subject, or the subject itself isn’t that interesting. Abstract images created in this vein are nothing more than pure composition.
The purity of distilling composition without the distraction of subject allows the photographer to control precisely all aspects of composition, adjusting the edges of the frame for the effects of light and color where necessary (different colors, areas and brightnesses have what I like to think of as corresponding ‘visual weights'; you need to take these into account when trying to create a balanced composition). Put it this way: if you viewed a Rothko in isolation, you’d be able to appreciate the geometry, form and color; but if the Rothko had a naked [insert person of fantasy here] superimposed in front of it, I bet you wouldn’t notice that it was a Rothko at all. Or had geometry. Or color, for that matter. This is a prime example of the subject distracting from the composition.
Not being a student of art history – or art – at all, I suspect a lot of modernist and postmodernist painters actually had something like this in mind: they wanted nothing more than to decompose the world down into purity of composition. The Impressionist movement may well have been the start of this, even if the Impressionists themselves didn’t actively think about it in this way – after all, the name implies that the artwork has to impart the feeling of being there rather than the full reality*. Impressionism in photography only works so far (I’ve tried it on a couple of occasions) mainly because there are limits to what you can do in most situations without resorting to postprocessing filters or defocus; most of it involves reflection, water and perhaps out-of-focus foreground objects running interference.
*It could also have been the consequence of myopia and lack of spectacles; I’m pretty blind when I don’t wear my glasses and sometimes walk around without them to try visualizing the world in Impressionist terms. Warning: don’t try this when driving. That white blob may well turn out to be a motorcycle, and closer than you think.
I actually think the opposite works for photography: having everything in focus removes all of the visual cues afforded by depth of field and perspective; further removing identifiability of the subjects adds to this by not allowing the viewer to find any visual anchors to relate the rest of the frame to. It’s actually quite an interesting exercise, and much more difficult than you’d think at first: resorting to telephotos for compression and isolation means that your composition has to be relatively planar or distant; you won’t be able to obtain sufficient depth of field otherwise. On the other hand, if you use a wide lens, then you’re almost certainly going to get something else unintended in the frame which would result in a breakdown of the abstraction. This in turn limits your perspectives, and your possible angles; I find myself enjoying the challenge immensely.
More than ever, heavily directional light is your friend: a scene with shadows will look completely different from one without, and if the shadows are hard enough, the barrier between hard, permanent reality and the ephemeral breaks down somewhat. More than that, abstraction allows us to distill our interpretation of a concept or feeling into its purest visual form; these individual images could even be used as elements in other images to express a more complex idea. These are perhaps the strongest of all abstract images, and the most difficult to create; arguably even more challenging than ‘normal’ images: one has to be capable of first translating an idea into a visual, then either creating a suitably matching scene, or being able to find and isolate it in the real world – neither of which is easy. The former requires a degree of creativity that goes beyond most people; the latter constant observation. (And of course the ability to shoot anything and everything doesn’t do any harm, either.) I’m inclined to think that understanding the rationale behind such images and having the ability to create them would thus inevitably lead to stronger ‘normal’ images – though I do wonder if it’s possible to pack too much into a single frame. So next time you see me post an abstract image: pause and think, is there an idea here? If not, I’ve got to head back to the drawing board. MT
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved