Tag Archives: abstraction

Realism and Abstraction in Painting and Photography

Five Cars, Building Clouds. Eaton, Colorado, 2019.

It’s been observed that painting is an additive medium, whereas photography is a subtractive medium.  In painting, you start with a blank canvas and add elements to it to build your composition (for example by painting a house, painting a tree next to the house, painting a blue sky above the tree and house, etc.), while in photography you start with a cluttered frame and subtract elements from it (for example, by moving the camera to exclude the fire hydrant in the foreground, zooming in to eliminate the gas station next to the house, etc.) until you have only the elements left necessary for the composition you are trying to achieve.

It seems to me also that painting is a medium concerned with the adding of realism, whereas photography is medium concerned with the adding of abstraction.  In painting, you start with a blank canvas, the ultimate expression of abstraction.  There’s nothing there, it can be anything you want until you start painting on it.  The process of creating the painting is essentially the process of adding realism to it, right up until you reach the level of realism that you desire, be it a still-pretty-abstract piece of abstract expressionism, a somewhat-more-realistic work of impressionism, or a very-realistic work of (quite appropriately named) photorealism.

Photography is just the opposite.  The nature of the camera is to produce an image that is perhaps the ultimate expression of two-dimensional realism.  However, if you hold a camera up in front of something and simply click the shutter, the resulting image will be photo-realistic, but rarely will be pleasing.  It takes the application of abstraction to make a photograph interesting, and the tools of the photographer are largely used to introduce abstraction into the photographic image.  Such tools include, for example, camera placement, lens selection, long exposure, and dodging and burning, which were the tools used to in the making of the image in this post.


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More Human Than Human

Figures Made of Stone, Study No. 1 Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2018

Figures Made of Stone, Study No. 1
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2018

I’m not a portrait photographer, and in general I don’t like putting people in my images in any capacity.  To me, when you put a person in a photograph, you instantly make the photograph about that person.  If it’s a portrait, then obviously the photograph is about the person whose portrait has been taken.  But even if it’s not a portrait – say, news photography, street photography, or even just a person in a landscape (as sometimes is done to create a sense of scale) – the photograph, to me, still is about that person and his or her relationship to whatever else is going on in the photograph.  By leaving people out of my photographs, I think the photographs are free to be more purely about what my subjects are, typically landscapes, abstracts, or architecture.

Nevertheless, the human condition, as expressed through the human figure, is a fascinating subject in its own right.  The obvious way to explore this subject would be to photograph, well, people.  But again, to me photographing actual people as a way of exploring the human condition runs into the problem I’ve described above.  The photographs are less about the human condition generally, and more about those specific people in the photograph.

What to do?  Personally, I’ve come to enjoy photographing representations of the human figure that are (of course) not actually people.  Using inanimate objects of human likenesses, such as statues, allows the photographs to become figure studies of the human form, without creating the distraction that comes with photographing actual people.  It’s been a wonderful way to explore the expressiveness of figure studies, while maintaining a level of abstraction that you just don’t have when you put a real person into the image.

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Abstraction and Design in Photography

Farr's Co-Op. Ault, Colorado, 2014.

Farr’s Co-Op.
Ault, Colorado, 2014.

The subject of this photograph is pretty obvious – it’s the Co-Op building in the lower half of the frame.  I’ll admit that it was the building itself that drew my eye and was the impetus for making this photograph.  I’m fascinated by old structures like this and the visual possibilities they generate, not to mention the back story and history that underlie them.  Judging by the popularity of this type of subject matter among photographers, I’m not the only one.

Still, simply knowing what your subject is rarely provides sufficient basis upon which to make a compelling photograph.  Rather, it’s important to be able to intelligently arrange the elements in your photograph to make a meaningful composition out of your subject.  Without a meaningful composition, subjects like this tend to end up looking like documentary photos in old newspaper clippings or snapshots casually taken by tourists on the side of the road.

When composing a photograph, one way that I think about the subject is to abstract it into basic, two-dimensional shapes.  I first started doing this after reading some introductory drawing texts, where the lessons emphasized drawing objects by drawing the component shapes that make them up.  A coffee mug, for example, might consist of two ellipses at the top and bottom, a rectangle for the body, and a half-circle for the handle.

However, the principle translates well to photography.  The building in this photograph of course can be broken down into several basic shapes.  However, I was less interested in the constituent shapes making up the building, and more interested in the shape of the profile of the building as a whole.  From the perspective at which I placed my camera, I saw the building’s outline as forming a roughly triangular shape, wherein the tops of the towers formed the long edge of the triangle, sloping towards a point to the right out of the frame.

Having this visualization of the building in mind, and then walking around the scene to see what was available for a composition, I realized the branches of a nearby tree would make a perfect complement to the building because the tree formed a complementary triangle, with the long edge of the tree branches’ triangle sloping upwards towards a point to the left out of the frame.  From there, the design of the photograph came together quickly, by arranging the building triangle on the bottom and the tree triangle on the top, joined together at a diagonal boundary running from roughly the upper left of the frame to the lower right of the frame.

For me, being able to see a photograph’s subject in terms of its abstract shapes is hugely helpful in creating meaningful compositions.  Rather than simply photographing the subject for what it is, abstraction helps me to take control and actively design the composition of the photograph, and my subjects usually come out looking better for it.

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