John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Abstract Photographs

abstract photographs

What is abstract photography?

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your attitude about ambiguity (a point to which we'll return later), no two people will agree on the exact same definition. That’s because the topic is so … well … abstract!

To draw away from context

So let’s do what I always like to do when I run into problems with definitions. Let’s look it up in the dictionary and dig into the etymological roots of the word. Mine says that the Latin roots of “abstract” mean “to draw away from.”

Now that’s a pretty good start, because many discussions of abstract photography focus on how its an image that emphasizes that which is generalized or universal, as opposed to something that is concrete, specific, tangible, or representational. An abstract photograph draws away from that which is realistic or literal. It draws away from natural appearances and recognizable subjects in the actual world. Some people even say it departs from true meaning, existence, and reality itself. It stands apart from the concrete whole with its purpose instead depending on conceptual meaning and intrinsic form.

Huh? … See what I mean? It gets real abstract!

abstract photographsWhat is that?

As with pornography, we may have a very hard time defining it, but we know abstract photography when we see it. Here’s the acid test: If you look at a photo and there’s a voice inside you that says “What is it?”…. Well, there you go. It’s an abstract photograph.

Part of the appeal of a really good abstract photograph is how it entices people to figure out what it is. They may not have the same curiosity about an abstract painting, when people sometimes say that they just don’t get it. Even if people are told what an abstract photograph is, they often still enjoy the challenge of trying to wrap their minds around the bigger picture from which it was abstracted.

However, people who truly love abstract images will often tell you that figuring it out is not the objective. In fact, they may not even try or want to know. They take delight in its ambiguity. They immerse themselves into the purely perceptual experience of the colors, textures, and patterns. They like to immerse themselves into the visceral sensations, moods, and primeval ideas aroused by the image. They don’t “think” about the image per se, but rather use intuition to sense its meaning and impact. Does it create sensations of power, mystery, love, loneliness, grief, pain, joy? Is it the essence of sharp, hard, smooth, brittle, hot, cold. sweet, bitter, loud, or soft? It touches them and moves them on a purely intuitive level that includes what they taste, touch, smell and feel, as well as see. It’s not about a particular person, scene, or thing that is brittle, lonely, mysterious, or cold, but rather about the pure abstract idea and the resulting gut-level experience of those qualities.

Piet Mondrian, a famous non-representational artist, said that “Every true artist has been inspired more by the beauty of lines and color and the relationships between them than by the concrete subject of the picture.” Psychological research on people in altered states of consciousness, most notably psychedelic experiences, similarly reveals how they draw away from reality as we usually perceive it, and find themselves thrown into a joyful realization of the colors, patterns, and textures underlying reality. They get a glimpse into the pure essence of things. That’s what good abstract photography is about.

Zooming in

There are a variety of ways to create an abstract image. As in macro-photography, if you shoot extreme close-ups of anything – such as part of an animal, person, plant, flower, building, machine, or any commonplace object, the result is often abstract. You reduce the otherwise familiar thing to patterns, textures, and colors that are no longer recognizable as that thing. You draw away from the familiar world and enter the more primordial realm of the purely visual. The same effect could be achieved if you zoom in and crop to some small portion of an otherwise ordinary photograph, which is rather easy to do in digital photography. By doing so, you abstract the part from the whole. You abstract the basic visual elements of the scene from the scene itself.

Shooting surfaces

Abstracts can be created by taking shots of areas or surfaces containing interesting patterns, colors, and textures without including the larger context which identifies the location of that area or surface. For example, shots of walls, roads, clouds, fabrics, flowing water, a bed of tightly packed flowers, or a bucket of nails. Even shots of large scale areas, as in aerial photography, can become abstract when the patterns, colors, and textures supercede the identification of a specific place. Wherever we go we are surrounded by all sorts of interesting patterns, colors, and textures. Nature is constantly creating them for us, if we just open our eyes to see.

Blur and negative space

Using slow shutter speeds, spinning or waving the camera, and taking shots of anything that is moving at a fast speed can result in interesting blurry images that qualify as abstracts. The same type of blurring effects can be created in image editing programs, such as Photoshop. In fact, such programs contain a wide variety of tools for transforming any photograph into an abstract image of textures, colors, and patterns.

Empty or "negative" space may also play a important role in a abstracts, especially when the space isn't really empty at all, but is activated in such a way that it acquires form and conveys sensation.


Good versus "OK" abstracts

It may sound like anyone could create an abstract image, that it isn’t so hard to do. Just take a close-up of a cracked sidewalk, for example. Indeed it’s true that abstract images are easy to create. However, producing great abstract images can be quite difficult.

Some people say that abstract images focus on the artistic and aesthetic value of a photograph regardless of composition and other rules that are usually associated with a “good” photograph. I’m not so sure about that. Although there may be some appeal to seemingly random or completely uniform presentations of patterns, colors, and textures, the human mind, in its intrinsic need for meaning and order, will be far more captivated by abstract images that follow some of the principles of composition, perhaps especially when the guiding forces are subtle, when we sense some hidden order beneath the apparent randomness or uniformity. A shot of a concrete sidewalk filled with chaotic cracks or one evenly textured with grainy particles of stone may be interesting, but a close-up of a sidewalk where the cracks and grainy surfaces seem to dance with each other in some subtle pattern will be far more evocative.


OK, but what are THESE photographs?

Perhaps, as you were reading this article, you found yourself wondering what these photos were and how they were shot. I thought I'd wait until the end to provide that information. Starting from the image at the very top of the page:

- a soft focus close-up of a plant
- the surface of a wall
- another close-up of a plant
- a greenhouse shot through a wire mesh fence (shallow depth of field)
- colorful fabric shot with a circular twirling of the camera
- a close-up of metal material in a junkyard

If you liked this article in Photographic Psychology, you also enjoy these:

The Big Picture of Composition
Conceptual Photography


milburn abstract photography

Digital and Abstract Macro Photography - by Ken Milburn

Many books about abstract photography focus on macro photography. This one by Ken Milburn covers that topic, as well as the use of Photoshop post-processing techniques in the creation of abstracts.

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche