What is Abstract?
Answering the question What is Abstract is not easy. The approach that I’m going to take is more akin to thinking out loud that it is a carefully structured post as this feels like the right one (I wish I had a better reason). The post will not dole out a potted version of the subject but rather contain ideas, any of which may provide a good jumping off point for experiments or further thoughts.
I think that a good understanding of photography is dependent upon a good understanding of abstraction. Every photographer uses abstraction to a greater or lesser degree. Framing to reduce clutter at the time of shooting and adding a vignette during editing are just two examples out of many possible ones where the photographer is abstracting. Both processes involve a deliberate choice by the photographer to lose information without losing the meaning of the image.
Abstract is not the opposite of realism
The word abstract is often used as to mean the opposite of realistic. If someone refers to a painting as abstract the listener assumes that there is little if anything that is recognizable within its frame. This in turn leads to the perception that abstract is little more than a pretentious way to describe pattern. Abstraction and pattern are not the same thing. Often a pattern is just a pattern whereas an abstract, by definition, has to be a reduced version of something else. It is important to add that a pattern may be an abstraction but it is not an essential prerequisite. I’ll stop now (before this line of thought takes us any further down the rabbit hole) but feel free to carry it on yourself.
Abstraction is about reducing something to its essence
This post extends some of the thoughts expressed in this one: Minimalist Photography. In that post I expressed the belief that true minimalism in visual art comes from starting with everything, the full three dimensional world then reducing it in a series of steps to arrive at its essence.
What the object is has little relevance
Three into two dimensions
Put simply, abstraction is really just another word for reduction. An example will help to explain; Take one fully formed human being in the real world. This is the unreduced non abstracted reality. Take a photo of said human being and a lot of information is being lost. Obviously the depth information always goes, everything is reduced to a a flat two dimensional image. It is no longer possible to see what is directly behind an object – this represents information lost.
Abstraction at the moment of the shot
In addition to this the experienced photographer will make conscious choices, deciding what information will remain and what will be discarded. The photographer can use light for example, to either highlight parts of the figure or shadows to obscure, to discard information. (it has to be said that light can also be used to lose visual information through processes such as deliberately blowing out highlights).
Abstraction in the editing process
This process can extend into the editing where the photographer may, for example decide to crop out unimportant detail or increase contrast to reduce further the amount of information or data that will make up the finished photograph.
What to lose should be a decision and not random (usually)
The important part of this from a practical point of view is that a good photographer decides what information to lose while the person who takes a snapshot is not thinking in these terms, the information loss in the latter case is much more random. Saying that there is some really interesting work being done by photographers who use snapshots and randomness to very good effect.
Different levels of Abstraction
Lets return to our fully formed human being in all their three dimensional glory for a moment. A photographer can perform an abstract process that is very subtle by making minor lighting adjustments or small positional changes. In this case only a little information may be lost. On the other hand said photographer may position the model between the camera and a very bright light and expose for the light leading to a silhouette as an end result. Obviously this represents a dramatic loss of information, all the tones, lines and shapes that make up the model are now gone and all that remains is an outline.
Abstractions can be complex
Not even the whole outline is required. The line of the back or the angle of a jawline for example, there simple lines can convey a wealth of information without anything else to provide context. A back can be erect denoting firmness or rigidity of temperament or it can be curved indicating a submissive nature or even sickness. A jaw can jut indicating confidence or it can be recessed indicating the opposite. No one understands this better than the cartoonist who can denote any emotion from rage to joy with a single mark of the pen. We know exactly which politician has been lampooned by the caricaturist yet practically all the detail is missing and only a few essential lines give all the clues.
There are a couple of other things that I wanted to discuss under the question What is Abstract but this post is already longer than intended so I will deal with them at some point in the future. One is the seemingly contradictory idea that adding something such as a texture layer or some software generated grain does not go against abstraction or minimalism. Another perhaps more important one is how do we know when we have reduced something by the right amount.