Abstraction is one of the most contentious topics among visual artists. There is an inherent discomfort associated with abstract art. It requires greater investment of time and latitude of tolerance from viewers than art that is self-explanatory. Artist Roy Lichtenstein observed: “Everybody knows that abstract art can be art, and most people know that they may not like it, even if they understand there's another purpose to it.” Abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky claimed that abstract painting is the most difficult of all arts, requiring the artist to be a poet in addition to merely knowing how to draw. On the other hand, writer Albert Camus stated that others dismiss abstract art as “a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.”
It may seem that the photographic medium, recording light reflected off actual subjects, is unsuitable for abstraction, but this is obviously not true. In a sense, every photograph extracts a selection of elements from a greater context, allowing the artist to isolate such things as line and form through careful composition, and without the subject being recognizable. As such, in photography we can talk not only about a work being abstract vs. literal, but also about degrees of abstraction.
It is fair to ask why, when our medium is so well suited for rendition of exquisite details, we may deliberately choose to create abstract images. The most obvious answer is aesthetic appeal. There are many cases in which the knowledge of what the literal subject is may overshadow and distract from the visual qualities we wish to emphasize. This image, for example, is extracted from an otherwise largely uninteresting slab of sandstone. I wanted to convey to the viewer the elegance of the graceful patterns, rather than anything having to do with the fact that it is found in a piece of rock. A more nuanced answer is that our brains are very good at re-assigning attention to other things, when encountering something obvious. An image of a flower-filled mountain meadow with distant peaks lit by the setting sun, for example, may elicit ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s on first impression, but is not likely to hold the viewer’s attention for longer than it takes them to recognize that they are looking at something beautiful. Abstract images, on the other hand, can be a tantalizing puzzle for the mind, forcing it to contemplate an image, trying to decipher it, and to decide how to respond to it. This is what artists refer to as ‘visual tension’.
It should be mentioned that in order to fully experience the power of an abstract work of art, the viewer, much like a reader of fiction, must be willing to suspend disbelief, to allow the artist the benefit of opening their mind to new visual experiences. Not all viewers are so willing, which explains Lichtenstein’s assertion that most people may not like it. Still, aiming your art to the tastes of ‘most people’ is one of the greatest handicaps you can impose on your work. A low common denominator may be useful in solving some mathematical problems, but in art it can spell the death of the artist’s unique sensibilities. Rather than chase after popular appeal, create according to your inner voice, and let your audience, however small, find you. Abstract art may well be your way to articulating things that nobody else can, and to transcend the foolish mantra of the creatively lazy that ‘everything had been done before.’
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 32 of Landscape Photography Magazine.