To one degree or another, every photograph is abstract. At a minimum, photographs are flat rather than three-dimensional. Some photographs are more graphic than others, and the origins of a few photographs are virtually unrecognizable. Determining to what degree a photograph is abstract, how it is abstract, and why it’s abstract will help you understand more about it and its creator’s intentions; this might be you.
So what does abstract mean? First used in the 14th century, the word abstract comes from the Latin abstrahere, meaning to draw away (ab = away + trahere = to pull) and was used to mean “withdrawn or separated from materials objects or practical matters.” As a noun, abstract means a condensed piece of writing. As an adjective or adverb, the meanings of abstract are widely divergent: general, summarized, distilled, not specific, qualitative, disassociated, nonmaterial, theoretical, geometric, formal, non-representational, not applied, unreal, transcendent, abstruse; the list goes on until the meaning of abstract becomes diffuse to the point of being more suggestive than specific. Long used in fields as diverse as religion, philosophy and science, surprisingly, the word abstract wasn’t widely used in the arts until the early 1900s during the modernist movement, when painters and sculptors departed from realism and even representation, which was, in part, a reaction to photography.
How Abstract Is It?
When looking at images it’s useful to ask a number of questions. Beginning to answer these questions will tell you a great deal about both individual images and their relationships to other images, even if the answers you arrive at are neither definitive nor complete. Sometimes the toughest questions are the most rewarding. They keep giving and giving for a long time, perhaps even a lifetime.
Regarding abstraction, answer these questions:
- “On a scale of 1-10, how abstract is it?” It may be only a little or it may be a lot.
- “What’s abstract about it?” While some images are entirely abstract, in other images only certain aspects may be abstract and this may be partial or complete. What’s done and how it’s done can direct attention in specific ways, describe particular graphic qualities and display interpretation.
- “What kind of abstraction is it?” Though they may all coexist in a single image, conceptual, minimal, and non-representational, are three very different qualities, which often identify intent.
- Intent brings us to the most important and often most difficult question to answer. “What purpose does abstraction serve?” This is essential to answer before asking “Is the means appropriate for the end?” and “How well is it done?”
How long visual attention is sustained depends on whether the stylization has purpose, how well it serves the message, and how well it’s done.
The Many Uses Of Abstraction
Abstraction can serve many functions: it can stimulate, structure, inform, and express.
Abstraction can stimulate. Amplifying the graphic qualities of images makes them more eye-catching or visually compelling. Simplification is one of the most powerful graphic devices you can use. It’s an antidote to one of the greatest pitfalls of photography: the overstimulation that comes from including too much detail, much of it irrelevant to a given statement. By cutting the noise, you deliver more signal. Sometimes, less is more. Focus attention away from context and even go so far as to concentrate on a specific part of a subject and you may well make a stronger image. What’s left becomes clearer with little or nothing left to distract. There’s a world of difference between focusing a lens and focusing attention. By directing attention to one aspect of a subject over others, both a way of seeing and your discoveries about a subject are more clearly revealed, particularly if they are intelligently seen or intensely felt.
Abstraction can structure. Even the most literal and detailed representations are more easily grasped and have more impact when they’re put together well. Structure can simply be a matter of simplification, organizing many separate pieces into fewer units (i.e., form a triangle from three rocks or parallel lines from thousands). Structure can also be used to direct the flow of the eye in specific progressions or patterns of direction and speed. Structure can even be used to reveal a subject depicting how it works more clearly, sometimes bringing a deeper order within it to the surface.
Abstraction can inform. It can reveal principles or processes at work in a subject and illustrate related concepts. Pattern can serve as more than an organizational tool and go further to reveal how things work; how they come into being, their current state, the effects they have on other things, and what they are becoming. For example, consider the many stories wave patterns tell, displaying invisible forces such as wind, which can build up and tear down entire landscapes. Non-photographic representations—such as diagrams, numbers, and text—can be included or introduced to make photographs even more informative.
Abstraction can express. Selectivity, stylization and distortion can all be used to reveal ideas and emotions. Often, this kind of content emerges more from the observer than it does the subject, making the final statement more personal. This human touch reveals and forwards the voice of the narrator.
In addition to altering the tone and purpose of the photograph, this helps viewers triangulate what is native to the subject, the medium, and the practitioner. By making images more strongly felt, they become not only more personal and powerful, but often more effective.
It might be tempting to think that abstractions are either graphic, informative, or expressive, but it’s safer to say that all abstractions function in all three ways simultaneously; it’s the balance of the three that matters. Rating and ranking the strengths of each aspect individually and then comparing and contrasting them will help you evaluate the specific balance struck between them, and doing this will help you understand the nature of an image and its creator’s intention. Doing this with your own images will help you understand the images you create, your visual voice, and ultimately, your intention. Spend a little time and you’ll find a lot of insight.
Abstraction can transcend design for design’s sake and tell the story of a subject or the thoughts and emotions of its designer. Ultimately, every picture tells a story, and the best pictures tell interesting stories in interesting ways. The way a story is told can be particularly revealing. Curiously, like abstraction, stories can be evaluated by rating the relative strengths of form, content, and feeling. Whether you use it a little or a lot, abstraction is a vehicle that can help you strengthen your stories and clarify your point of view. As every image is abstract to one degree or another, ultimately, the question is not whether you will use abstraction but how you will use abstraction in your images. Exploring abstraction is time will spent.
All of John Paul's articles on Creative Composition are included in PHOTOGRAPH magazine.
John Paul Caponigro is an internationally renowned fine artist, and the author of Adobe Photoshop Master Class and the DVD series R/Evolution. His clients include Adobe, Apple, Canon, and Epson. Learn more by visiting JohnPaulCaponigro.com and get hundreds of free lessons with a subscription to his newsletter, Insights.