Photography is traditionally thought of as giving a very realistic representation of a subject. It is usually concrete as opposed to abstract. But this is only the norm. There is nothing to say that photography cannot be as abstract as the imagination can conjure.

Very short history of photography

Photography is agreed to have become practical with the invention of the daguerreotype process in around 1839. Photographers went crazy recording the world around them. There was a joy in being able to capture a realistic representation of the world quickly, without spending days or more drawing or painting a copy. Landscapes and people were the preferred subjects.

As processes and equipment improved it has come to the point where almost all of us carry around a camera all the time. And people still use them mostly for snapping images of people or landscapes. We take for granted the ability to capture almost exact representations of whatever we point them at.

But some would say this is the weakness of photography. It blindly records the world in front of the camera. No evaluation; no filtering; no interpretation. Unfortunately, it is a valid critique. Much photography is just capturing pretty pictures. It is literal. Now I like beauty and uplifting things, but I have to agree that most of it lacks vision and a spark of greatness.

What is abstract?

Abstract images have been around a long time, but there is no real agreed definition of what it is. The one I like is “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.”

The first recorded mention of abstract photography was by Alvin Langdon Coburn in 1916. He proposed an exhibition be organized with the title “Abstract Photography”, for which the entry form stated that “no work will be admitted in which the interest of the subject matter is greater than the appreciation of the extraordinary.”

I had to wrestle with this definition for a while, but I have come to believe it is brilliant. The interest in the subject is secondary to the appreciation of the extraordinary. So abstract photography is not about the subject as much as a unique view of it.

Break the rules

Our cameras and lenses are truly amazing these days. Most of us spend years learning how to create highly detailed, tack sharp, properly exposed images with sharp focus from front to back.

Then some of us try abstract, and we find that now we violate all the training we spent such a long and difficult time learning. We deliberately create images that may be blurry, that may have high levels of camera shake, that may not be level, that may not stop motion, that may be composed “strangely” – all the things that would have gotten them thrown out of our camera club competition back when.

It reminds me of a musical group homed in my area, Acoustic Eidolon, a guitar and cello duo. The cello player sometimes remarks that she is now going to be making sounds on her instrument that she spent years of formal training learning how to avoid. That is kind of what abstract photography is to me.


How do we usually do abstraction? There are far too many approaches to abstraction to list them all. One technique is to intentionally obfuscate the subject. This could be by panning to blur the frame, slow shutter speed to lengthen motion, or “hiding” the subject, such as behind a foreground screen

Another productive source of abstraction is focus and depth of field. We are used to seeing photographs done a certain way. Try shooting a group of people up close with a very large aperture, say f/1.4. Only a small part of the group will be sharp. Or shoot something where the viewer expects one thing to be the subject., but you have focused on something completely different.

One thing I like to do is to isolate detail. Go in very tight on one small part of a subject and challenge the viewer to figure out what the whole is. This works in landscapes, too.

Another approach is to give the viewer an unexpected scale or position. Macro shots are a scale example. Blowing an unlikely object, like a fly’s eye, up to fill the frame is a type of abstraction. Or a drone view from high above can be disorienting.

Mostly, though, when we thing of abstract images we think of what I call conceptual abstracts. These may be just patterns, compositions of color or forms that have no objective subject in the normal sense. I must admit, these can be a joy to do and a great creative break from more “typical” photography. Now that our computer tools are so good there are few limits to our imagination. The image at the top of this post is kind of most of this. Actually, it is quite concrete, but processed to be completely abstract.

Why abstract photography?

Why do we do abstract photography and why is it an enduring genre? I’m afraid that’s above my pay grade. I’ll have to leave the real answer to the philosophers and critics.

For me, I know that sometimes I feel the need to do something different. To express myself in a different dimension from my normal work. Sometimes an idea just doesn’t fit as anything except an abstract. Or sometime a subject just calls to be made into something other than what it seems to be in “real life”.

In a previous life I was a software architect. In that role abstraction was one of the key design patterns to learn. It was very important to be able to look at complex designs or requirements and be able to “abstract” out the essential attributes of their nature. I think I am still doing that as an artist. Continually challenging myself to find the real essence of a thing. When I get an idea, there are almost no limits to where it can go.

I guess that is what abstraction is to me. You will have to find your own answer. Have you? what do you think?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.