Ron has written articles on various aspects of image making for photography magazines. 'Artful Abstracts' gives hints on how to see striking abstract images in everyday subjects.
The lofty challenge facing any photographer who aspires to be called an artist is to take the viewers' powers of perception to a deeper plane. To do this, the photographer needs to engage the viewer in a kind of 'visual dialogue'. The composition must rouse interest so that we want to know more about the image - "What time of day is it?", "What length lens is being used here?" and maybe even "What is the subject matter?".
Well-constructed abstracts reveal enough answers to such questions to keep us intrigued, but not enough to completely satisfy curiosity. Whatever a photographer's particular speciality, practice with abstracts can only enhance his or her own ability to observe, and perhaps even draw gasps from viewers. So, what exactly are the important elements of a good abstract, and how can we set about seeing potential images?
First let's consider the meaning, or meanings, should I say, of the word 'abstract'. My dictionary lists 19 different interpretations, though only a few concern us here. First and foremost, an abstract is 'not concrete, having no reference to material objects'; that is, when we first see it, we cannot give it a name. Unlearning names, or learning to see familiar things as if for the first time, is one of the first steps in producing good abstract images.
Another meaning of 'abstract' is something reduced or condensed to its essence, such as the brief description that accompanies a thesis or dissertation. In photography, this means identifying and highlighting the essential elements of a subject through choices of composition and exposure. Abstracts bring to the fore the importance of light and line, of shape and pattern, of tone and texture. By exercising our eyes to see curious combinations of these elements, we may also open the eyes of viewers to new perspectives of the world around us.
Line is so fundamental to an image that we rarely even notice it. What we see is the subject standing out from the background, its shape demarcated by lines which show contrasts in colour. When the subject ceases to be the main aspect of the image, however, other qualities of lines become apparent. Regularity of lines creates attractive patterns, and their direction also has an emotive quality. Horizontal lines create a sense of security and stability; vertical lines imply strength and growth; diagonal lines suggest dynamism and change. The simple act of tilting the camera to the side changes the emotional effect of the image drastically, due to the strong values of lines.
Colour and tone are other elements of visual design that contribute greatly to the impact of an image, especially where abstracts are concerned. A simple way to attract the viewer's attention to colour is to shoot images that have either a very narrow or very wide tonal range. So-called 'monochrome' images have the capacity to make us contemplate subtle shades of difference in the same colour, while blocks of primary colours can create chaotic, contrasting feelings. The symbolism of colours takes on a great significance in abstracts - the cooling effect of blue, the cheerful sight of yellow, the danger and passion of red.
Though we experience texture mostly through touch, our eyes are also important in distinguishing things that are soft and hard, smooth and rough, hot and cold. We are drawn to things that are soft and smooth, but repelled by things that are sharp or rough; thus an awareness of texture can help a photographer achieve a desired emotional response in the viewer.
Knowing what elements to be aware of in the composition, how do we go about finding subjects for abstracts? As already mentioned, it helps to escape our routine way of looking at the world. For city dwellers at least, the demands of modern life do not readily allow for a creative use of perception; our eyes read price tags or look out for traffic in the street simply to help make decisions, not for aesthetic reasons. Artful abstracts are everywhere around us in the natural and man-made world, if our eyes could only see them; in oil slicks and puddles, in posters and pipes.
Lichen on rock
One way to find abstracts is by going in close enough so that the lines which define the subject matter lay outside the frame. Show the pattern on a leaf rather than the tree; folds of flesh instead of the body; nuts and bolts, but not the whole engine. Macro lenses, extension tubes and close-up filters allow a closer examination of subjects than most people ever give, and often produce ideal conditions for abstracts - unusual lines and patterns, a narrow tonal range, interesting textures and unfocused blocks (unless the subject is flat). We have all taken 'abstracts' resulting from releasing the shutter unintentionally, but using blur creatively is a much tougher task.
When we look at a photograph, we instinctively seek the horizon to give us a sense of depth and perspective. Most abstracts have no easily-definable horizon, encouraging the viewer to pay attention to other elements. Through depriving viewers of a sense of depth, close-up shots may make them think they are seeing an aerial image of a strange planet instead of a sand pattern on the beach. Most of us enjoy such visual games.
Experimenting with exposure and camera angles are other useful techniques for finding good abstracts. By removing much of the detail, a strong over or under exposure renders a more abstract image than a 'correct' exposure. Such results can be very impressionistic and intriguing to look at. Since 99% of photographs approach the subject side on, those which view the subject from above or below stand out as unusual. We have to think not only how to be innovative with the camera, but with our bodies too. An awareness of light is as important in abstract photography as in any other form. While front or side lighting may often be preferable, backlighting goes well with some subjects, accentuating the pattern or highlights, increasing the contrast and bringing out qualities of translucence where they exist.
Finally, creating abstracts need not even involve going out with the camera. We all have a storehouse of potential abstracts in the images we have already taken, if we use them imaginatively. Through digital imaging, abstracts can be created or altered at will.
An artful abstract must make a strong impression on the viewer, although the reason for finding an image appealing may not always be apparent. The important thing is for the photographer to be aware of the symbolism of line, colour and texture in composing the image, and through careful persistence, images can be created that linger in the mind like a poem that we never fully understand, yet love reading again and again.