This is a word that could almost be a contranym. The same word having the exact opposite meaning of itself. On one level the word abstract refers to something that has no resemblance to an actual thing. The other definition of an abstract is that it is a concise summary of a thing.
Let us start by examining the first meaning. The Oxford dictionary defines the adjective abstract as “existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence”. Given this definition an abstract photo might in fact be impossible. After all you are capturing an image of something that actually exists and therefore must have a physical or concrete existence. One may search to capture a picture of an object that when presented may appear abstract, but in reality, it is only a viewpoint of what actually exists.
I recently read an article on Abstract landscapes. The author suggested that he was less than enamored by all the photographers who mimicked what others had already photographed. He was tired of the iconic pictures that everyone seems to take. Instead he suggested that the photographer should try and create abstract photographs, using shapes, shadows or something that may not even be recognizable. But abstract photographs are like myths. They all have some idiom of truth buried in them. While the goal of creating an abstract may be an appealing visual, the question is, is it landscape?
Now consider the other meaning of abstract to “make a written summary of (an article or book)” In a sense all photography can be an abstract. A photographic summary of the place you have been. So, in one shot – a picture can summarize a place.
While there is room for both, I fall into the camp, that photography is an abstract of what you see. People visit iconic places because they are inspiring. Take for example Yosemite National Park, a virtual plethora of iconic images. A park where landscape photographs are perfectly framed by nature. Whether they be of Bridal falls, El Capitan, Half Dome, Liberty bell or cascading waterfalls with snowcapped rocks and rainbows! Mist or moon rise, fog or footpath winding through an abundance of viewpoints. The reflections on Mirror lake, the stream running through the trees, all of which stir something inside of us. A place where we want to capture our own memories.
Granted there is ample room to be creative, but when you drive out of a tunnel to Artist Point, you are compelled to stop. Whether it is a selfie with a cell phone or 20 pounds of equipment the landscape yields the same picture millions before you and hopefully millions afterwards will capture. The light may change, the weather can make the colors go mute, but even if it’s a black and white shot, others will recognize this place. They will know that you have had a chance to experience its wonderment. Your abstract will summarize your journey.
As my wife said to me when I was talking to her about it, it is the experience we all share. I certainly understand trying to invent something different, to create a unique viewpoint, but there is a certain pleasure in being able to know you can say – this summarizes my trip. It’s also a teaching moment. One where you can see what the “greats” saw and learn what makes a good picture. Or even capture and duplicate something they managed to do.
Being creative is important. And just knowing how to take a picture that is a “perfect” shots, may not achieve much else. This shot I took could make a “Hallmark card”. It has all of the components, but it is missing the “spark” and somehow does not seem all that original. Sort of postcard perfect but not really emoting anything or telling much of a story. I think for me it makes a good poster but has no stylistic element. On the other hand. The second shot says, I got up early. I was surrounded by incredible light and mountains, and then there were these amazing dunes.
Abstract or abstract? That depends as to whether your goal is to create something different, or are you trying to convey a sense of place and shared experience. Since I am about sharing experiences and hopefully transporting the viewer to the contextual sense of being there, I revel in others who can capture a well composed photo – even though I may have seen it a hundred times. I think it is cool to see a shot of some place and being able to relate.
JP March 2017