As photographers we’re always in search for something special and something new. We want and somehow we also need to have something different to come up with. Not necessarily because of others, it’s our creativity that wants to be challenged in the first place. Our ambition as photographers should be to have a certain distinctive style, something other people recognize and associate you with. There’s nothing more satisfactory than someone saying „Hey, I saw your photo in [fill in a place you’d like your photo to be discovered] and I instantly saw that it was yours“.
But how can you stand out in this tangled mass of photos published every day? One thing that worked fine for me was: abstraction.
The downsides of the obvious
Every motive has an obvious impression on us, something we detect in an instant, at a glance. This well known first perception is something that we all share. It doesn’t differ that much, even if we all have our very own view, our own percipience. We all see and we all remember the obvious. And let’s be honest, we often enough capture the obvious, resulting in admittedly beautiful photos at times, which, nevertheless, are very resembling most of the time. Having said that it leads to the question: Is the obvious the best memory you can capture with your camera? Of course, in some situations and for a lot of purposes it surely is. I won’t deny that. But with the ambition of a distinctive style in mind, you have to go for something else.
One possibility to avoid capturing the obvious is abstraction. For me, abstraction is – to keep it short but reasonable accurate – the reduction of the displayed subject to it’s essence or to certain aspects. What the essence of a subject is, is on the one hand determined by the creativity of the artist and on the other hand by the cognition of the beholder. Abstract works can just as well have no tangible reference to a certain subject at all. That’s why abstraction can give leeway to innumerable interpretations. It can raise questions and let one’s imagination run wild.
The benefits of the concealed
What always fascinated me about abstraction was the possibility to implement visions that my surroundings actually weren’t suitable for, yet inappropriate. It can make you independent from certain circumstances or conditions like weather, time of day, place or situations. That’s the reason why abstraction provides the opportunity to create a multitude of motives without much effort or costs. You don’t necessarily have to travel to certain places or wait for certain circumstances to come together. Just as Marius said in his article: „You don’t need New York City, you need a simple stairway“.
Abstraction provides the means to take subjects out of their actual context. The actual context of a subject may be – for example – it’s place, time and it’s historical, cultural or ideal meaning. More precisely: all things that someone associates with the subject can be removed or hidden. That way you can reinterpret them completely or let the beholder reinterpret them in their own way. Unmeasurable possibilities for you to choose from.
Shooting abstract photos is all about getting behind the obvious impression of a subject. You have to deal with your subject more than usual. Try to look at it from different perspectives, different angles. Concentrate on shapes, lines, structures, textures, contrast, light and shadows. You need to see behind the curtain. Leaving things out is essential for abstract results. In my opinion, abstraction usually comes along with minimalism to some extent. You need to learn to go without seemingly indispensable attributes of a subject. Concentrate on others instead and highlight them.
This is by no means an easy task in the beginning, but you’ll become accustomed to this kind of view in the course of time. After a while you’ll see possibilities for abstraction everywhere. I for one never thought that I would ever be able to make abstract photographs at all. Now I’m just in love with it and I really adopted this as a fundamental part of my general style.
I think the first step you’ll have to cope with is daring to take an abstract photos at all. You have to accept leaving things out, accept that other people may not see what you saw or what you wanted them to see. With abstract photography it is not assured that your vision get’s through to the beholder the way you intended to. There’s nothing you can do, you have to accept that.
On the other hand, isn’t it exciting and fascinating to know that your photo may cause so many different interpretations? Sure, there’s one way to guide the viewer on the right track: You can choose a convenient title and give some directions to your desired interpretation. You can also provide more information in a caption, assuming that the medium of your choice gives you the possibility to include this information. Nevertheless, the viewers still have to go this track on their own, you can’t force them to do so. But as artists linking our own eye, heart and soul to our photographic vision, why shouldn’t we grant our viewers their very own view on things as well? Who really wants to deny them their very own interpretation and perception?
The most effective way getting used to taking abstract photos is getting close to your subject. And by close I mean: very close. This way you are forced to leave out a lot, you just can’t get all the essential attributes in the frame so you have to choose which ones to concentrate on. This is something I used to do a lot. I used very simple and common subjects like bottles of water, a tin can and my kitchen table. I was very enthusiastic about this, I made an Instagram account (@abstract_addiction) for the abstract photos I took with my iPhone. It even got me a feature in the Snap Magazine by Hipstamatic. The kind of abstraction I used to do at this time changed a lot by now, but I don’t want to miss this stage because it really helped developing an eye for abstraction.
So how can we, as photographers, create abstract works with our camera? A painter seems to have a lot more possibilities when it comes to abstract works. Usually starting with a blank canvas, he controls every stroke of the brush, or whatever medium he is using to paint or draw with. There’s very little that can not be done. But photographers have their options as well, even more than we might think. I want to give you a few options that I have tried so far. Needless to say, there’s a lot more you can do.
I’m very used to going for uncommon, extreme perspectives with strong leading lines and conspicuous vanishing points, highlighting geometrical elements and forms. That’s one effective option you have, giving your subject a totally different appearance using extreme and uncommon perspectives, preferably ones that are practically unseen, kind of.
Abstraction can also be achieved by using selective focus or being out of focus completely, making your subject blurry. This way it’s possible to highlight colors or more specific, the alignment of different colors in the frame. A quite similar method is optical distortion by using different transparent objects to shoot through, bending the light in kind of uncontrollable ways causing exciting and absolutely abstract results. That’s exactly what I did a lot with my iPhone, resulting in the above mentioned set on Instagram.
Another powerful tool we have is exposure. We can use exposure to do a lot of exceptional things. Apart from multi exposures, motion blur and light trails caused by long exposures, I’m especially thinking about the volitional use of under- and overexposure. Actually, photography is painting with light on a light sensitive medium, let it be either film or a sensor. I’m working on a new series right now wherein I use to overexposure caused by slower shutter speeds (1/15 to 1 sec) together with shaking and dangling my camera resulting in photos that look like abstract sketches. I’m not yet done with my set but as soon as I’m happy with the collection I will definitely show it here and explain more about the technique as well.
This article however is not meant to be a complete guide to abstraction. If it got you an insight, some inspiration or could dispel doubts about abstraction that you might have had, I’m more than happy.
A good abstraction is like magic. It let’s your imagination run wild and gives you possibilities you never thought you have. As long as you can accept or at least overlook the fact that the viewer may have different thoughts about your photo as you might have, abstraction is a good way to diversify your photographic expression and can help you developing your own distinctive style.