Use a search engine and type in “abstract art” and you may get this definition by Rudolph Arnheim:
“Abstract art uses a visual language of shape, form, colour and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.”
It’s often called nonfigurative and…
“Abstraction indicates a departure from reality in depiction of imagery in art. This departure from accurate representation can be slight, partial, or complete. Abstraction exists along a continuum.”
Further down this excellent Wikipedia entry, you read that “Much of the art of earlier cultures – signs and marks on pottery, textiles, and inscriptions and paintings on rock – were simple, geometric and linear forms which might have had a symbolic or decorative purpose.
Exactly – that’s what I wanted to say too: Abstract is a continuum away from re-presentation of the world.
It’s about beauty and decoration with no message, except perhaps beauty. It is nothing new and it can depict a reality – but a reality that we don’t “read” concretely and in a broader sense.
So, what about abstraction and photography? It sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it?
A camera cannot take or make an abstraction, in the above sense, of the reality that we point it at. In principle, yes, but only in principle.
We know that different types of films would reproduce reality in different colour tones – think of Polaroid images – or the differences between Kodak and, say, Fuji films. And we know that processes sometimes happened in the darkroom that changed reality quite a bit. Notice the word continuum above!
But by and large, it is true to reality to say that cameras used to depict or represent reality as truthfully as technology would permit.
Or, to put it this way: It could not do anything else but make a representation of what it “saw”. We could not make it produce an abstraction right away of the light that entered from the real world.
Now, permit a small digression here, entering the realm of philosophy – we have all experienced how the camera can take a picture of reality or a reality that our human eye had not seen, meaning our brain had not registered. But perhaps we wouldn’t define that as abstraction after all? (It was there, we just didn’t register it).
Thus, there may have been several stages on the way to photographic abstraction – for instance shaking the camera and getting a blurred image or letting the shutter open for an extended period of time. And then:
Then arrives Photoshop! – a whole new way of working with images, the raster graphics editor created in 1988 by Thomas and John Knoll! Photoshop, being one of the most complex kinds of software, provides you with the opportunities of endless manipulations of raw images.
And finally arrives the app! – the tiny computer program for your mobile phone camera, the first to arrive as recently as 2008.
Thanks to these innovations, some of these apps made it fully possible to set the (mobile at least) camera to produce an abstract image in the above sense – a deviation from reality out there, produced there and then, on the spot – something that deliberately did not aim at a truthful depiction of the reality.
But still, the argument can be made that these technologies permit us to distort – some would say improve – reality in various ways; it is image-making that takes its point of departure in something real around us.
In my view, this whole process points to the end of photography as re-presentation only.
It is still the dominating photographic mode but contemporary photography can just as well be non-representational, non-figurative and present an original, so to speak, reality of its own.
Now, let’s leave the technology and innovation level and boil it down to something more familiar but still very fascinating – and go back to the reality-abstract continuum.
It may be old hat to say it, but I’ll say it anyhow: The abstract can be found in reality around us.
Here is an example of the abstract in the real – it looks quite a lot like an abstract painting. But it isn’t. It’s a truthful re-presentation of a leather seat on an old chair.
The opposite – an abstract piece of art that is also reality – is more tricky. Philosophically speaking an abstract piece of art – say a painting by Jackson Pollock – has to be an object in reality, something we can take a picture of, something that consists of, say, a canvas with some paint on it. It becomes an object we can see and define as real.
In that sense, it is both/and. But at the same time, it is a reality in its own right, created out of the mind or vision of the artist, non-figuratively.
So, even the most abstract thing exists in reality… whereas every piece of reality does not exist in the realm of the abstract or non-figurative domain!
Let me finally try this – a pattern, yes, but with no figurative elements; it doesn’t depict anything from the real world and in that sense it is abstract – beautiful shapes and form, rhythms, patterns.
However, as you can see by the bricks on top, it is part of a wall in a mosque – a very real thing.
This abstract pattern is certainly abstract and when I take it and show this photo of it it becomes an abstract painting-like object – particularly if I cropped off the tiles on top which do refer to a (known) reality. And unless you read this (Iranian) calligraphy those beautiful shapes are also abstract (as stated above in the introductory definition).
And these are the aspects that I try to explore in my works in the category called Abstract Real. I started out in 2015 and held a small exhibition in my studio of some of the works in September 2016.
And I don’t pretend to know whether what I say here holds water or where further explorations will take me in the future.