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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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