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Defining Abstract Photography
Abstract photography is a field that leaves many puzzled as to what exactly it includes. The definition varies so much by photographer and gallery, it seems like there is no common ground whatsoever. However, there are a few commonalities and motifs in abstract photography that will help clarify the field somewhat, even if there is no explicit, all-encompassing rule that all abstract photographs follow.
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Subject & Composition
The most common reaction to abstract photographer is probably an incredulous, curious, What is that? Many abstract photos have no clear or discernible subject, while others try and make the subject appear like an entirely unlike object.
Most abstract photographers focus on the everyday objects around them, familiar things that they show us through their third eye to be less familiar than we like to think, turning sunny suburban sidewalks into dark noir landscapes, grass into exact geometric designs. Our daily life is transformed from something we are entirely used to something we are not entirely at home with.
Many abstract photographs are minimalistic, isolating a subject. Roadways are obscured beneath the snow with nothing but vague shadows to show the way, or a single droplet is left in crisp focus against a soft blur of the background. Simplicity of composition is another common trait of abstract photographs—through utter chaos of form is almost as common. The busy meanderings of twisted spider webs leave our eyes confused without a single place to rest upon, just as the dusty mess of an abandoned house or the fallen leaves of dozens of trees mixed together.
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Probably the next most common reaction is, What is this supposed to mean? Well, there's another hard one. Frankly, most abstract photographs aren't supposed to carry any particular meaning. Many intend to create a certain mood. For instance, cool colors, smooth lines and a soft focus may be intended to create a calming effect on the viewer. A blurred silhouette walking down a grainy, dark sidewalk may cause feelings of urban unease, or macros of an old chipped cup feelings of malaise.
Just making pretty pictures isn't always the point, either. Aesthetic boundaries are broken down without necessarily being rebuilt: a photo isn't necessarily trying to be beautiful, or even all that pleasing to look at. Others try to create exquisite abstract photos from vague changes in color and form.
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Especial attention to color is paid by abstract photographers. Many seek color harmonies, focusing on the symphony of similar colors in the highlights and lowlights of hair, or rust stains on old cold iron.
Others still seek to point out the exact same hue of entirely unlike objects. A bright green grasshopper may be juxtaposed next to someone's eyes, or a wedding ring next to a doorknob. Still others try to show complete contrast.
The use of color filters is a very common technique. Rainbows may be splayed across otherwise color-drained photographs of cities, or the undercanopy of a forest turned to a distinctly underwater shade of aquamarine.
Similarly, color isolation is another technique often utilized. A girl in a bright red dress in a blurry black & white city, a single leaf on a tree remaining green.
Of course, there are countless other color techniques and effects pioneered by abstract photographers, many of which have since moved into other fields of photography.
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Another factor that many abstract photos have in common is close attention to texture. Repeating patterns are a favorite of many abstract photographers, from the repetition of black umbrellas in a rainy city to dozens of converging parallel lines looking down a road into the distance with its sidewalks and powerlines. A common extension of this is a single, conspicuous break in the pattern, a blank spot in a line of plates, or an unusual gap between a crowd of people walking down a sidewalk.
Just as common is the complete lack of pattern, utter chaos, from the clutter on the bedroom floor to the random placement of bathroom stall graffiti.
Texture filters, from dust speckles to exaggerated noise to drip patterns are often utilized, either applied in a digital image editing program or on-site with pieces of glass or plastic placed in front of the lens.
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No Rules: F-stop, Exposure, ISO and more
Abstract photographers are notorious for breaking the “rules" of photography, with obscuring foci, bewildering exposures, extreme f-stops, or abnormal ISOs. Most abstract photographers do this to create unusual effects from otherwise ordinary objects, a tool to help create that change from the familiar to the so very foreign.
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As this article has demonstrated, there is tremendous variety in the field of abstract photography. What determines a good abstract photo is similarly varied, determined entirely by the user. What may deeply please one person may attract no interest whatsoever from another—sometimes for exactly the same reason. Indeed, much of the appeal in abstract photography is the incredible amount of interpretation left up to the viewer.
Nor is it impossible for an amateur to get involved in abstract photography: because of its incredible variety, personal style and the subjective experience reigns. Some find this distasteful, others liberating; just another subjectivity.
Abstract photography, because of the sheer amount of imagination and creativity involved in the process, also serves as an excellent exercise for photographers of other fields to help improve their craft in general, building skills in attention to detail, color and texture, and stretch the boundaries of their own personal style with experimentation. It's a wonderful type of photography to explore—try it for yourself.