Abstract photography encapsulates many different techniques, approaches, physical materials and subject matters. It often has content from the real-world representational context but the approach that the photographer has taken in framing the image makes it abstract. The richness of diversity within abstract photography as a genre is one of its most fascinating elements.
History of Abstraction
Throughout the history of photography, artists have used abstraction to explore pattern, colour, texture and atmospheric conditions. These elements can become the subject of the photograph, effectively a way to approach a photograph by removing the subject/object that we are so used to as the driving force.
Some of the earliest photography that could be considered abstract is camera-less photography, optimised by images made for science and now understood to be influential within the technology and aesthetics of photography as an art-form. Scientists needed methods to record their specimens or reproduce diagrams and were often the pioneers in photographic processes. The cyanotype process, for example, was developed by scientists and astronomer, John Herschel, in 1842. We have an amazing legacy of images from Anna Atkins who used cyanotypes to record algae forms. Her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, made in 1943, is thought to be the first book to be printed with photographic illustrations. It's held within the National Museum in London and you can read more about her work on this page.
Cyanotypes are made by treating a surface with a mixture of chemicals that react to light producing an insoluble blue dye. Atkins used cyanotype in one of the most common ways, which is to directly lay the object you want to record on top of the paper to provide a physical mask to the light. This process of preparing a three-dimensional object to be recorded in two dimensions helps us to think about two of the main creative processes with making any abstract art.
The first is thinking about flatness, which is often an element of abstraction where a uniform surface or continual plane is given precedence over decoration. The second is about context and how much understanding of the source will be included. Decisions around content are often the key interplay for photographers in thinking about framing of an image in relation to abstraction.
Abstraction is sometimes thought of as distant from daily life and more associated with imagination and thought but many photographers have found or made abstraction from the concrete objects that make up their surroundings.
This photograph by Paul Strand creates an abstract image from a real scene. The geometry of the architecture overrides the recognisable shapes of the people walking past, whose forms are further confused by melding with their shadows. There is additional meaning with this abstraction, for better or for worse the humans are subsumed by the financial superstructure that is Wall Street, in physical and economic terms.
In modernist and contemporary eras artists have created photographs without looking through the lens of a camera.
László Moholy-Nagy, one of the professors of the legendary Bauhaus school, made photograms by bringing together everyday objects on top of photographic paper before exposing it to light. In a similar way to Atkin's cyanotypes, the composition in two dimensions is taken from the three-dimensional world. In these photograms there is an expansive feeling, creating a sense of depth and the resulting images are less graphic, more akin to the experience of landscape or peering into mechanical workings.
Thinking about contemporary photographers, Wolfgang Tillmans has explored many facets of making within photography. His work is often abstract and often figurative with some projects creating installations where both come together. He has used several processes toward creating abstract images. Some are straightforward photography, using the micro view, to highlight the beauty and poignancy of a detail.
He has also worked directly with light with several image series being made entirely within a darkroom. One of the Freischwimmer series is discussed in-depth on this Phillips auctioneer's site when it came up for sale in 2017. In the example pictured below the huge photographic print creates an immersive abstract image that could be read as liquid or smoke.
Light and Exposure
Equally with camera-based photography light can be utilised in unusual ways to create abstraction. Variations in the relationship between time and light come together to create multiple potential iterations of what we see in front of ourselves when taking a photo.
I've enjoyed working with blurred light and motion, using movement to effectively draw onto the film by elongating points of light into fluid lines.
This beautiful image made by Otto Steinert, shows how the scene itself is dissolved within the final photograph as the cars move too quickly to be captured. It was exhibited in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibition Don’t! Photography and the Art of Mistakes in 2019, which presented examples of how photographers have progressed through bending the rules. This can be an encouragement for us all to try new approaches.
I am working on another blog that explores different techniques for creating abstract photographs, which will be out soon.