Abstract photographers have the aim in mind, pure and simple, to show the harmony and beauty which underlie a composition by stripping away the representational elements of the picture.
Or to put it another way, abstract photography is that which "begins with an object in reality and reduces, enlarges upon, or blurs it beyond recognition".
For a photograph, this means "allowing the lens to focus so acutely that we see the wrinkles but do not recognize the elephant in the picture."
Above: Abstract Light and Shadow by Mo Elnadi, Courtesy of Flickr)
The famous abstract artist and art theoretician, said to be the "father of abstract painting", Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944, Russian) describes in the passage quoted below, his first encounter with the abstract beauty of a painting which appeared to represent nothing.
"I returned home (at dusk) having finished a study, still dreamy and absorbed in the work I had completed, and suddenly saw an indescribably beautiful picture, pervaded by an inner glow. At first, I stopped short and then quickly approached this mysterious picture, on which I could discern only forms and colours and whose content was incomprehensible. At once, I discovered the key to the puzzle: it was a picture I had painted, standing on its side against the wall." (Wassily Kandinsky, 1913)
We can be delighted, as he was mesmerized, by the saturated colours and dreamy forms of one of his paintings (shown above): pure pigment and free shapes on canvas. Perhaps the green splotches remind us of nature or the yellows of drips but that is our reaction to the unrecognizable.
In an attempt to approximate Kandinsky's revelation on art without content, the picture to the right is a rotated version of the landscape below. Get the picture?
Above: Abstract by Kandinsky (standing on its side)
Although Kandinsky had loosely interpreted the landscape, it is a painting that clearly depicts a place. The subject of the picture is an avenue or bridge as it would be seen by someone approaching it.
A mere tweaking of perspective and an assemblage of reality is restored to us. We begin to see familiar objects and may even construct a sketchy narrative that appears to vanish in the distance of the painting. Colour and form reconstruct the familiar and concrete.
Because abstract painting and Kandinsky broke ground for art that lacks content and represents nothing, abstract photography might be best appreciated by first looking at abstract painting. While art forms other than painting such as music for example have been shown by theorists to share aspects of the abstract, photography is especially well suited to the comparison in that it has evolved out of the desire to replicate in our eyes, to represent or depict, things which we recognize or wish to remember.
After Kandinsky's hazy vision of one of his paintings turned on its side had impressed its significance upon the artist, he began to paint more and more loosely. Eventually, nothing was recognizable or inspired by reality. The painting by Kandinsky was never meant to replicate reality and, yet, it possesses an abstract beauty which is expressive and surprising.
Kandinsky wrote much throughout his lifetime about art theory, comparing pure colour and form with music and comparing music with emotion.
While he carried out his program of abstract painting to its logical conclusion of non-representational forms, nothing that consciously relates to reality appears upon the canvas. Kandinsky, instead, considered rhythm and movement hallmarks of his work. A painting would, by nothing more than its media, evoke in us our own colours and rhythms - our emotions. And in a very general sense, this is what Kandinsky's writings about art and his painting itself demonstrate.
The art world, of course, is immeasurably vast. Kandinsky had broken open painting to release other kinds of abstraction. From Picasso's cubism to Pollock's abstract expressionism and anything conceivable between them, abstract painting encompasses sharp lines and geometric forms to accidental drips and spatters. Amorphous, dreamy blobs of paint to punctiliously pencilled shapes.
It is from this point of view that we can now turn to look at the work of abstract photographers. For beginning photographers, especially, making abstract pictures is easy and fun. Anything can be used in the service of abstract photographers - literally.
Let fly open the kitchen cupboard doors or wander your backyard during a snowstorm for inspiration. The results, whether in focus or blurred, will be abstract photographs as long as they do not depict or represent what we know as reality. The picture may remind the viewer of reality in some way, but that would be beside the point.
Abstract painters drip and pour paint; drag rags or brushes across canvas; or draw shapes with exaggerated precision and no obvious meaning. They build up paint or other material to create the painting. Photographers, on the other hand, begin with an object in reality and reduce, enlarge upon, or blur it beyond recognition.
Above: Abstract with Wine - Photo by Shakespearesmonkey, Courtesy of Flickr
Click this link for Part 2 of Abstract Photographers