Photography is one of the most prolific forms of art, as it revolutionized the way we see and capture images around the world. Initially, artists working in the medium focused primarily on portraiture, still lifes, and landscapes, but advances in both technology and chemistry have allowed the medium to evolve significantly. During the late 19th century, in both France and the United States, artists eventually began to create pictorial photographs that imitated the effects of painting, prints, and drawings, which is referred to this as abstract photography. Today, a vast array of photographs rife with experimentation and abstraction exist.
Art fairs and museum exhibitions devoted solely to the craft have driven demand for photographs in recent decades. When it first emerged in the early 20th century, abstract photography went against many of the rules of traditional photography, and this experimental, non-objective way of approaching the medium resonated with collectors and photographers.
Celebrated photographers like Abstract Expressionist Aaron Siskind and many others have perfected the craft and have contributed to its expansion across the globe.
What is Abstract Photography?
Abstract photography is difficult to define. In general, abstraction occurs when a photographer captures a portion of a specific scene, isolating it from its contextual environment. By focusing in on something, whether it be color, shape, form, or texture, the artist is able to create a unique perception of familiar objects. This method of expressing ideas deviates from photography’s traditional realism and is intended to capture the viewer’s imagination.
Abstract vs. Surreal Photography
Both abstract and surreal photography are conceptual fields, which is why many confuse the two. Abstract photography offers a different point of view and usually only captures a portion of a subject. By contrast, surreal photography offers a completely new point of view of the subject at hand through the use of special effects and editing.
History of Abstract Photography
The world’s first photograph was taken by Joseph Niéphore Niépce in the 1820s. The image captured the view from an upstairs window at his estate in France. From there, the first photographic process, introduced by Louis Daguerre, was made available in 1839. It was aptly named the “Daguerreotype,” and was primarily used for capturing portraits. These two developments paved way for an artistic movement and since then developments such as reduced exposure time, sophisticated printing papers, and portability have contributed to the success of abstraction.
It wasn’t until American photographer Alfred Stieglitz came onto the scene that the practice really started to gain traction. In 1922, his series of cloud studies titled, Music – A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs, became the first intentional set of abstract photographs ever produced. This series of images were an expressive form of nature free from its literal representation. Stieglitz even wrote to a friend, “I had told Miss [Georgia] O’Keeffe I wanted a series of photographs which when seen by [composer] Ernest Bloch he would exclaim: Music! music! Man, why that is music!”
From there, artists continued to push the boundaries and explore the concept of abstract art, drawing much inspiration from Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Photographers such as Aaron Siskind and Minor White, known for their work that evokes painterly qualities, helped demonstrate the importance of the movement. Siskind even worked alongside Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock in the 1950s.
Once computer software and digital cameras came into the picture, the possibilities of abstract photography became endless. Today, the genre is led by impressive abstract photographers including Gaston Bertin, Penelope Umbrico, Wolfgang Tillmans, and various others.
Abstract Photography Techniques
The beauty of abstract art is the freedom of expression that artists can tap in to. While there is no clearly defined interpretation of abstract photography, there are various techniques you can employ to create a successful image that draws upon abstract elements. Ultimately, each abstract photographer will have their own unique set of criteria, but below are some basic elements and tips that define the genre.
Lighting is an important factor in any photograph, but it’s particularly crucial in abstract photos. Lighting has the ability to emphasize and dramatize subject matter, giving prominence to objects that need attention. Many famous abstract photographs utilize silhouettes and backlighting to create shadows and dramatic elements within the frame. The direction of the light source can also highlight textural characteristics of an image as well.
One of the main purposes of abstract art is to make a singular statement with your image without involving distracting, unwanted elements. The best way to do so is to eliminate features that are distracting or that do not trigger emotions. Instead, focus on clean, uncluttered design elements that are easier for the viewer to interpret.
Abstraction does not equate to forgetting all compositional best practices. A clear, structural design is paramount to the success of your abstract piece. Always consider how you’re going to frame elements like patterns, shapes, and colors. Think about how colors contribute to the structure of your image or how each color’s use can highlight points of interest. Creating a sense of balance will help with the visual weight of the photo.
The use of motion helps to reduce unwanted information. Simple things like moving your camera upwards when taking a photograph has the ability to capture your subject from a new perspective while simultaneously removing aspects that deter from the main focus. By experimenting with different angles and finding the best vantage point, you can eliminate all distractions. Many times, photographers will even experiment with flipping or rotating during post-processing.
Many works of art are intended to evoke an emotional response from the viewer, and abstract photography is no different. Abstract images in particular are meant to inspire wonder and intrigue. They should be inviting yet mysterious and always aim to capture the viewer’s imagination and curiosity.
Distance is a powerful component of abstract art. Moving closer to a subject can surface details that weren’t apparent from far away. Similarly, moving away from a subject uses space to distort perception and make subjects seem smaller than they actually are in reality.
Tips for Beginners
Perhaps one of the best ways for artists to sharpen their skills in abstract is to practice and experiment. While the lack of rules that surrounds the genre might seem intimidating, it’s also the perfect outlet for experimentation. Find everyday objects around the house and practice with those. Shoot out of focus, rotate your photos, and try different angles. Don’t be afraid to manipulate your images and create something that is far different from the intended purpose of your subject.
Using a macro lens can help capture minute details without zooming or cropping. While these methods are suitable as well, a macro lens will enable you keep the sharpness of your image without losing any resolution. Magnifying tiny objects and details can enhance abstraction in your image.
Using an off-camera flash makes it easy to manipulate the strength and direction of light. By holding the flash at different angles and distancing yourself from your subject, you can create interesting effects such as shadows or highlights. This will contribute to the uniqueness and intrigue behind your images.
Textures and patterns are key, especially for novice photographers. Use different types to make a normal object seem more abstract. Textures have the ability to help the viewer move their eyes across the image and make the composition more dynamic.
It’s important to begin with subject matter that is of particular interest to you. Avoid falling into the trap of what you think would would translate well, but rather choose what’s compelling to you as an artist. This will resonate more with your viewers.
Artists that work in abstraction are encouraged to alter their works throughout the post-process. In fact, this is often where the image really comes to life. Don’t worry about going overboard, but instead play with colors, cropping, rotating, and distorting images to your liking. It’s all part of the craft.
Abstract Photographers and Examples
From influential artists of the 20th century to contemporary photographers, each of these artists used abstraction to convey their images in a unique way.
Aaron Siskind is perhaps one of the best-known abstract photographers and pioneers of the movement. As a New York City native, Siskind began his career as a social documentary photographer but continued to emphasize modernist, abstract elements within his works from the 1940s on. He was one of the first photographers to combine “straight” photography (recording the real world as the lens “sees” it) with abstraction.
Australian photographer Jackie Ranken became immersed in the craft after working as a darkroom technician. With a background in sports photography, wedding photography, and photojournalism, she has drawn inspiration from each, which has afforded her much success within her career. Throughout her career, Ranken has taken stunning aerial landscape photographs of Australia as well as conceptual and abstract works that have focused on the brilliant landscape of Antarctica.
Born in Illinois in 1886, Edward Weston worked as an abstract photographer most notably throughout the early to mid 20th century. While he photographed many people and landscapes, he is best known for his still lifes where he turned fruit into erotic scenes. He used an 8×10 film camera to capture extreme detail and was insistent on manipulating the light and angles just right.
British photographer Adam Fuss uses a photogram technique in which objects are placed directly on light-sensitive painter to create ethereal, magical images. His belief is that, in order for any photographic technique to work, it should be personalized and transfigured into a greater metaphor.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1890, Man Ray made a name for himself in many media including painting, sculpting, film, and photography. He was greatly influenced by Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. Though he became a sought-after fashion photographer and did much commercial work, he never aspired to work in abstraction. As an abstract photographer, he is best known for his “Rayographs” where he placed objects like thumbtacks and other circular items directly on a sheet of photosensitive paper and exposed them to light.
Frances Seward offers a unique representation of landscapes and seascapes with her photography. Inspired by Hong Viet Dung, a Vietnamese painter and devout Buddhist, Seward plays upon minimalist methods to capture her own psychological journey through the use of glass and natural light.
Harry Callahan was an American photographer who became the head of Chicago Institute of Design’s Department of Photography in 1949. He experimented with everything from nudes to botancials but is specifically known for his “micro landscape photography” in which he displayed small weed bushes growing in the snow as isolated forests.
McMonigal is a architectural photographer based in Chicago. Her work displays beautiful, structural buildings using nature to illuminate their shapes and arrangements. Her portfolio includes a diverse range of styles including the use of monochrome, color, and dimension.
American-born French photographer and filmmaker William Klein is most notably recognized as a famous fashion photographer for Vogue magazine in the 1950s. His photography is considered revolutionary for its “uncompromising rejection of the then prevailing rules of photography” as stated in the Museum Ludwig’s handbook of photography in the 20th century. He used wide-angles and telephoto lenses, natural lighting, and motion to create truly captivating fashion images.
Born in 1964, Ola Kolehmainen is a Finnish photographer whose photographs primarily center around modern architecture. He uses space, light, and color to depict structures in a more abstract way, building upon the mysticism that they radiate.
Photography is one of the more accessible mediums to collect, and it’s often less expensive than paintings and sculptures. Though the market is robust, refining your eye and knowing what to look for will always help navigate your collecting journey.