Abstract Photography Revisited

A photograph inevitably depicts an object and can yet be abstract. This tension between depicting and abstracting inspires me for quite a while now.

But is there anything to abstract photography beyond the negotiation of the line that separates the world of ‘pure’ composition from the world of ‘literal’ representation?

Without the help of philosophy and art history, it seems to be difficult to come to terms with this kind of question. I realize that this is a vast field. However, for a start, I tried to write down a couple of thoughts that are not necessarily related.


There is no photography without a given object-to-be-photographed (every photograph is a picture of something). Therefore abstract photography can never be as abstract as, say, a painting by Jackson Pollock. In other words: A photograph cannot be a non-objective abstraction.


If a photograph cannot be abstract in the sense of a radically abstract painting, can it then be abstract in the way music is? I can envision photos that depict nothing in particular but seem to resonate in a music-like way (in the same sense Karin von Maur spoke of Klang der Bilder – i.e., the sound of pictures, or in quite the way Wassily Kandinsky called many of his works compositions).


Will spectators ever stop asking what a given photograph depicts? Once questions of balance and composition become more important – or evident – than matters of representation, people might begin to see a photograph as the abstraction it is.


It may be worth while to get an overview of the entities a picture can refer to. Those entities seem to be

a. objects both real and fictitious

b. other pictures

c. themselves

Apparently, if a photo cannot be a non-objective abstraction, then it cannot be entirely self-referential. Would this entail that every abstract picture is self-referential by its very nature? After all, abstract pictures seem to insist that we consider the way they were made.


It may further help to analyze the ways in which a picture can refer to those entities. I would tentatively say that there is a basic difference between depicting and meaning. This difference might be important if we ponder the contents of abstract pictures.


If the process of abstraction means generalizing by disregarding specifics, then photography can be abstract. We see this form of abstraction wherever backgrounds are blurred so that the subject of the photograph gets more attention.


In English, “to focus” is a synonym for “to concentrate”. Has this photographic technique become so much a part of our everyday life that we do not see it as an abstraction any more?


In my first post about this topic, I was concerned about abstract photos being devoid of content. But philosophers know that content and form are but two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other.


Artists are classically expected to play. Why not play with forms and find out what content springs from this play?


“I’m not interested in the texture of the rock, or that it is a rock, but in the mass of it, and its shadow,” said Ellsworth Kelly.

4 thoughts on “Abstract Photography Revisited”

  1. Half a year later — I no longer even understand my own comment, or completely your discourse!
    But the struggle continues ever stronger, to understand even a little AT THE TIME when my camera is in my hand. Actually, at those times when I feel inspired to take a photo I am not thinking or observing. I am only just looking at something that makes me curious.
    We have been taking an online course from a professional photographer and I find what he says is fascinating, about composition, technique, light, etc etc etc.
    But it never inspires me actually to take a photo. When my camera leaps into my hand seemingly of its own accord, it is never by thought, it is — something else. I don’t know what.
    I think this is maybe the opposite of what you are describing as your process?

    1. Wow, thanks – I’ll have to think about this, Judith.
      It feels like I know exactly what you mean: The best pictures start with curiosity and observation, with being attracted by the subject or situation. Things catch the eye and seemingly want to have their picture taken.
      Hence I would say you describe the onset of a process. Once a subject has my attention, I ask myself what exactly interests me here, what I would like the picture to show (extraordinary light? a narrative? a composition?). Once I “know” that, I try to use the available techniques accordingly, finding an angle/composition, the right exposure etc.
      Maybe I should add that very often I do not think, “huh, that’s a nice object” but rather “let’s see if I can make a nice picture with this object in it” – seeing for me is seeing the object and a potential picture.
      All in all, these things are not easy to write about. I think the whole process is partly intuitive, partly intellectual.

  2. Somewhere I want a consideration of the fact that what photography is about in its essence is LIGHT.
    It is the play of light, the record of light, the influence of light, etc etc.
    Actually I think — is it not? — all that it truly is, again, in its essence.
    I wish I could work much more with this concretely. i can only think about it in my mind, not when I have my camera in hand.

    1. Thank you so much for reminding me! I am wondering if light should be considered in the in the context of abstraction. Maybe light is an own chapter – and maybe not; it really is an open question at this point, and I shall continue pondering it.
      In practice, light is an all-important trigger for me, especially in those moments when pictures ‘happen’ (seemingly effortlessly, seemingly un-intellectually). So you mentioned a subject I am most interested in and often start from.
      But from photography being essentially ‘about’ light, where do we go?
      You seem to face the same question(s). With your camera in hand, don’t you try to get to the core of light, trying to make this essence visible?
      I find this hard to put into words though… For me, light has to do with just looking (rather than thinking?) or observing.

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