“Abstraction is inherent in the photographic medium and through abstraction the photographer exercises choices that carry photography beyond record-realism to the expression of his or her personal viewpoint”…… Barbara Morgan

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Is it art or photography? Can a photographer also be an artist? Is image making an abstraction of reality? Technically, photography is in itself an abstraction. It intercepts the light reflecting from the subject, and abstracts (Latin: abs-trahere to draw from) and draws that light onto a latent-image. Physically and psychologically, the photograph printed on its rectangle of paper or plastic base, is an abstraction from our visual world. This two dimensional abstraction from our “real life” may communicate it’s message to a loving member of the family, or influence millions on the printed page, be hung in an art museum or end in the waste basket.

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While abstract photography is basic to the medium itself, here we will consider the role of abstraction in creative composition. Degrees and stages of abstraction are of endless possibility from simplification, re-emphasis by lighting, to total abstraction independent of existing subject matter. As discussed here, photographic abstraction is not just the imitation of abstract painting. On the contrary, it is the form-changing, form-making expression inherent in the medium by which the photographer recasts the objective vision, to project his or her subjective vision.

Let’s be honest, with today’s modern computers and image manipulation programs any child, with basic computer skills, can import an image and transform it into an abstraction. But will that modified image communicate a message or just be a representation of internal filters and computer effects? Original abstract photography, in it’s purest form, is as close to ‘fine art’ as this medium has to offer.

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To do this the photographer must be able, whether by design, by training, or by natural gifts, to look at a specific object, scene, or action and see its abstract relationships for composition, line, mass, dark and light values and be aware of it’s relative proportions, subordinate detail, rhythmical progressions, texture, etc. As the interpretation takes shape in the photographers mind many questions leap through the brain: “What if I shoot slow for a speed-blur?… what about a wide angle lens?… or even a close up?… maybe back lighting?”

Such choices which go into every shot, consciously or unconsciously, are in some degree compositional abstractions. Psychological abstractions can be of many kinds, too. Symbolism’s, satiric or comic references which are “read into” straight subject matter by the photographer’s personal viewpoint, are usually rendered convincing by some kind of abstracting re-emphasis. A visual metaphor, such as the juxtapositions in a photomontage, require additional imagination and technical know-how to associate these further levels of abstraction.



Choice of scale is a prime factor in composition because it sets the frame of reference. From an airplane Mt. Everest may look like a molehill, from a satellite it might not even register as a particle of the earth mass, but looking up at it from ground level gives the mountain a whole another feeling.

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Twenty First Century thinking inspires us to visualize abstractly and dynamically. Inventive imagination and a great range of expressive equipment enables photographers to abstract, by means of scale, unsuspected motifs from commonplace sources.

Scale is a potential form-changer, as far as physical perception is concerned. A square half-inch of cracked paint and a rusty nail head, when monumentalized by close up photography and intensified by processing, might show a surprising world of interior tensions, textures and structures.

This scale break through can also be a meaning-changer. For, since our emotional life is very dependent upon the predictable recognition of the familiar, we can also be very excited, delighted, frightened by the unfamiliar.

Scientific photography tracks forces and forms which may be humanly invisible until they are rendered visible by scaled abstraction. These science pictures (which are often beautiful) can help us understand the space and medical frontiers, thanks to the electronic microscope and satellite photo-equipment.

For the non-scientific photographers there are countless photographic subjects “closer to home,” possible with good ordinary equipment, provided that the photographer has inventive insight to back it up.

Learning to look at any form or event, and being able to pre-vision its scale transformation, is half the battle, especially when illumination, timing, exposure, and so on can be correlated with scale to refine and intensify. Such explorations are so refreshing that one realizes there is almost no such thing as a “commonplace” subject, if its optimum scale can be found.


Sticklers for realism vs. abstraction are often unaware that practical artificial light is often the handmaiden of abstraction. The more delicately such illumination may seem, the more likely it is to be ‘an imaginative interpretation’. For lighting is the deceptive and powerful aid of the photographer’s visionary feeling, by which they can establish emotional atmosphere, form, detail, and create dominant importance. It can be used to highlight facets of personality, texture of a surface or just the feeling of peace. Drama is difficult without dramatic lighting to change the mood.

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Lighting is deeply linked with our emotions, for throughout the history of the human race, the light of the sun and fire form deep emotional feels. Unwittingly, even today, this subconscious symbolism still works in us as we illuminate our photographs with all forms of lighting. Light is the essence of all photography.


Abstraction of motion usually means changing it from our visual norm by a slow shutter-blur, fast motion-freezing, or by capturing something otherwise invisible such as the neutron in an research lab. But what is normal motion anyhow? Context determines that, for everything in our world is in motion: kids playing, moving traffic on a freeway, a jetliner raising to the sky. There is no such thing as a static object in today’s world.

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Action photographers sometimes concentrate only on the dynamic object, forgetting the important role of negative space in the composition. For the moving forms need receiving room to absorb their expanding momentum, otherwise the composition may lock up from unresolved trajectories. This abstract relationship of negative space to the positive form is a key to motion composition. This allocation of the negative and positive elements applies to psychological motion as well, for the radiating energy of a smile will animate a picture space to its certain span, after which the energy falls off. Oriental painters have mastered such expression of “rhythmic vitality” in its profound implications. Any photographer truly interested in interpreting motion could do no better than to study the esthetic and philosophy effects formulated centuries ago. We of the Twenty First Century have hardly caught up with them.

Technically motion photography is one of the most difficult fields in the photographic medium. It is most advisable to become proficient with simple compositions before tackling the secrets of the motion abstraction.


abst8.jpg (5624 bytes)Abstract photography is a multileveled medium, for the same picture can trigger different meanings in different minds, depending upon their sensitivities. One composition might simultaneously contain elements of “real” subject matter, esthetic emotions, private memory meanings, universal symbols, satire or fantasy.
Total abstraction, and its every degree of union with realism, is a challenge to the viewer who cannot slump down in easy recognition of the object. He or she must tune up their sensitivity, empathy, responses, fantasy and logic, to receive the invigorating rewards of abstract photography or art!

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by Brian Ratty
Text and images copyright 1999

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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