I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may
learn how to do it.

Pablo Picasso, Spanish Cubist painter (1881 - 1973)

In the spirit of Picasso's quotation, this post will be on abstract photography, a subject which I love but have no real experience or formal training in. So, please post or email me with comments or corrections and please take whatever I say with a grain of salt.

First, I'll record a few definitions.

Call a photographic composition abstract if its subject is somehow separate or `abstracted' from
reality. Likewise, abstract art is art that does not depict objects in the natural world, but instead
uses color and form in a non-representational way (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abstract_art).


Abstract art places a new world, which on the surface has
nothing to do with 'reality,' next to the 'real' world.

Wassily Kandinsky, Russian abstract artist (1866-1944)

Abstract photography is of course distinct from documentary photography, which illustrates or `reports' something external to the photographer. The book by Hurn and Jay (On being a photographer, 3rd edition, LensWork Publishing, Anacortes, WA, 2007) has an excellent description of documentary photography.

Abstract photography can be subdivided into two subfields:

  • Non-objective or non-representational abstract photography. A special case of non-objective abstract photography is geometric abstract photography, which is based
    on the use of simple geometric forms combined into non-objective compositions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geometric_abstraction).
  • Representational abstract photography: A photographic composition representating a real object in an unusual way which illustrates a pattern or abstract concept.


To the complaint, 'There are no people in these photographs,'
I respond, 'There are always two people: the photographer and the viewer.

Ansel Adams, US nature photographer (1902 - 1984)

One might argue that all photography is abstract in that it is a depiction of a moment frozen in time separated from the constantly changing nature of reality. However, abstract photography is not `reporting' a scene or event, it is depicting a concept. A photograph can be both representational yet connotate an abstract concept - for example, an photograph of a place of worship. To some extent, whether a photograph is primarily abstract or not is a subjective matter for the viewer.

I'll end with another quotation by Picasso:

There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.
        Pablo Picasso