“Abstract” is a familiar word that is worth prying open and thinking about. It’s from the Latin abstractus, which means drawn away. Abstrahere (the verb) is defined as “to drag away, detach, pull away, divert.” The abstracted idea or object is dragged away from its physicality, diverted from its origin. In art, the word abstract has come to describe work that does not intentionally reproduce reality. Likewise, in photography, an abstract image does not depend on a real-world referent but relies on shape, light, form, and/or color to convey visual information and impressions.
Over a hundred years ago a man named Alvin Langdon Coburn had an idea for a photography show in which “no work will be admitted in which the interest of the subject matter is greater than the appreciation of the extraordinary.” (Rexer, Lyle. The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography. NY: Aperture, 2013.) That thought exposes the aesthetic crux that many photographers who work with “reality” (whether that means portraits or landscapes or street photography) are dealing with: is the photograph just a snapshot, or does it say something more?
I think for most people reading this post, reproducing reality is (still) a compelling exercise but “the appreciation of the extraordinary” is probably what keeps that finger clicking the shutter. It’s certainly true for me.
To convey the “extra” that I find in the ordinary, I like to explore different approaches; abstraction is one that can freshen the mind’s eye. The images here come at abstraction from a variety of angles and some are more recognizable as real-world objects than others. But in my opinion, there’s no need to name what you see.
The urge to name what we see is hard to resist though. As soon as we see something, especially a two-dimensional image, labels pop into our minds. When we studied Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in school, we learned to ask, “What’s in a name?” It was a good lesson, but it barely loosened the knot of naming things. We are compelled to tie an identity around everything and everyone, and usually, we tie the knot pretty tightly. That identity, that name, inevitably drags waves of associations along with it – liking, disliking, evaluating, remembering, etc.
Of course, the propensity for identifying what we see is necessary and helpful, but it’s not a bad idea to question it once in a while. Names and identities may be more arbitrary than we realize. Questioning the connection of a name to its referent can open up space in our minds. Even just loosening the bonds of language to simply absorb images without labeling them can be rewarding.
I’m not advocating slipping down into a world where meaning is entirely arbitrary and unique to each person. We need to agree on something, even if it’s only the names of things – times are tough enough! But I think it’s beneficial to step out of the familiarity of our language-based environment now and then. A little muddling and messing about with what we’ve come to rely on as firm and clear can be refreshing.
Lacking a brain, the black box doesn’t know that the flower in front of it isn’t just a flower, but is an infinite web of relationships. The awareness that a subject isn’t separate from its surroundings is something we are able to perceive, along with the awareness that we can choose to focus on any part of the whole, using our camera. Constantly becoming, the flower may be positioned at the center of the field that the camera encompasses, but in fact, the center extends infinitely through space and time, inviting a myriad of abstractions.
These images have been altered by severe cropping, color changes, and tonal manipulations. I followed my nose towards different “meanings” of the scenes above than what the camera saw, subverting the black box’s stubborn insistence on one-to-one reproduction. No matter where I point it, the camera “wants” to make a faithful copy. This is the blessing/curse of photography. Of course, the camera does have a person operating it – a person with ideas, history, and intentions. A moment to record was chosen. And later, when we sit down with the camera’s rendition of reality before us, we’re free to play with it as much or as little as we want.
By the way, I’m happy to divulge the names of these things and whatever I can remember about the process of metamorphosing them into abstractions. Just ask.