An Introduction to Abstract Photography

Abstract photography seems to be an elusive subject, hard to nail down to a single definition. This may be due to the abstract nature of the idea of “abstraction” and perpetuating misconceptions about abstract photography.

Many have written on the subject from their particular perspective and this article will be my attempt to present my framework of abstract photography. It will be neither wrong or right, but a framework you may consider applying to your work, thought process, creative impulses.

What is abstraction? That should be at the heart of the discussion about abstract photography. Photographs are inextricably and forever tied to the objects that were before the camera. This unbreakable link to “reality” creates the illusion that photographs are always of something and that something makes or breaks the photograph. This view of a photograph looks through it with an effort to see the object which relies on this strong link between a photograph and the real world.

Abstraction, in general, is a process by which some information is carefully eliminated leaving the parts that deemphasize the object-photograph relationship. For instance, get a sheet of paper and a pen, put your hand with fingers slightly separated, and draw an outline of your hand.

You now have just the outline information, the shape of your hand, by eliminating the skin texture, color, depth, form, etc. It has no fingerprints! This is how abstraction in general works, we leave some information behind and keep the parts we want to include in the photograph. The outline you have just drawn is “just a hand” not necessarily your hand, breaking the linkage between the subject and the image drawn.

Abstract ideas are more general than their specific instances. For instance, food is more abstract than fruit, then comes “apple,” and can even get more specific as “a green apple,” going from abstract to concrete.

But, you may say, it is recognizable as a hand. How can it be an abstract image? I see this as a trap, abstract images, photographs are so not because they are unrecognizable, but because they are mainly not about the object but other graphic qualities like line, texture, color, shape, patterns, rhythm, and so on.

Ways to Abstract Photography

If abstraction progressively moves away from the specific, the concrete, how do we facilitate this move away from the object linked photography? Let me say that all photographs are abstractions to some degree! Any time you take a photograph, you point your camera to a three-dimensional world and produce a two-dimensional, flat photograph. You have just left one dimension behind. This is one layer of abstraction even though we are so accustomed to this transformation and this never occurs to us.

Furthermore, you may take a color photograph and convert it to black and white, leaving the color information behind. This is another layer of abstraction. But, the intended meaning of abstract photography goes beyond the simple abstractions mentioned above.

Abstraction by Isolation, or Elimination

When looking at an object, you may recognize the possibility of an abstract photograph because some sections of it may present strong lines, texture, color, shape, or form, detached from the object itself. Either while you take the photograph by careful framing, or in post processing by careful cropping you may isolate the part that is of interest to you.

The photograph above is one such abstraction where the main object, whatever that may be, is left behind leaving me with two strong lines with sharp edges, and interesting surface texture and sheen. It is no longer a photograph “of something” but an object in and of itself, separated from the object, fully reliant on its content of lines, shapes, patterns, texture, color, rhythm, and structure.

Abstraction by Increasing the Distance

As we move away from an object, we progressively lose information. This may become particularly pronounced at great distances like aerial photography where the view is minified as we rise above it.

The photograph above is one of my Infrared Earthscape series. I took these from the window of commercial flights between Providence and Salt Lake City using a camera modified for infrared sensitivity. The texture-like detail consists of large hills, mountains, and valleys. Yet, everything looks small, as if it is enlarged skin texture. Of course, the extensive snow cover also helps in the abstraction process by hiding additional details.

Abstraction by Decreasing the Distance

As we get increasingly close to some subjects, the detail that was not apparent at regular viewing distance may emerge as an abstract photograph separate from the object photographed. What you see on the left presents strong lines that seem to radiate from an arc and puncturing the black edges. The actual object becomes immaterial. The strong monochromatic orange color accentuates the abstraction even further.

Abstraction by Movement

One way to reduce information, thus creating an abstract photograph is by using motion. This may be subject motion, photographer motion, camera motion, or a combination of any of the above. You may have experimented with this by moving the camera upwards while photographing a bunch of trees. Although that may remove some information, it still retains the trees as dominant elements, albeit in a more impressionistic manner. I am talking about the movement that mostly demolishes the information, leaving behind some color, patterns, and lines.

The photograph above was taken from a moving train on a late afternoon, somewhere between Providence and Washington, DC. The lines and colors are due to the moving train and my deliberate rotational movement of the camera.

Abstraction by Randomized Patterns

You may or may not recognize what the image on the left represents, that does not matter. The important thing to know is that I had no control over the creation of the pattern. My only decision was to decide when to click the shutter, not based on what I was seeing at that moment but on my expectation that the camera would record the event as it occurred in the next 5-6 seconds, whatever shape it may take. Clearly, in this process, I discarded many frames as the resulting abstract was not interesting to me for one reason or another.

Abstraction by Alteration

Color and tones are strong elements of a photograph. We expect certain relationships between different areas of the photograph and colors and tones in them. Either while photographing or in post production, it is possible to alter this expected structure and create a different kind of an abstract photograph.

The photograph above is one of my Infrared Earthscapes series and done using an infrared sensitive camera. Typically, these photographs are recorded in false colors depending on how they may interact with infrared light and the camera sensor. I have altered the colors further to add to their surreal qualities. The result is a photograph of an anonymous place, filled with detail that is difficult to recognize. The texture, patterns, lines, and the altered color become the structural elements rather than the particular location on the map. Even simple reversal from positive to negative may create interesting abstracts from some photographs.

Final Thoughts

Recognizability of the object has little to do with abstract photography. The fundamental distinction for me is whether the photographer is presenting the object or another graphical structure to me. Look at the work of Aaron Siskind where you can identify the peeling paint or a stack of rocks. As that recognition quickly fades, you are left with the surface of the photograph and its contents to enjoy, separated from the object photographed. Or look at the photograph of the side of a building by André Kertész where you clearly recognize that it is a building but you have no reason to focus on the building because the frame is rich with geometric shapes creating a strong photographic structure for you to enjoy. It is quite possible for a photograph to have abstract qualities as well as being read in different ways.

I have presented my framework for creating abstract photographs for you to consider. I also use the same framework when I view abstract works by other photographers. You may or may not find this framework useful to you in your work, or in understanding abstract photography. Whatever you may think, we will benefit from your input in the comments that I believe generally enrich my posts.

More examples of abstract photography can be seen here.

About the author: A. Cemal Ekin is a photographer based in Warwick, Rhode Island who has been shooting for roughly 60 years. He retired as a professor of marketing emeritus from Providence College in 2012 after 36 years of service there. Visit his website here. This article was also published here.