Look at that photo. Like all but a very few photos, it’s representational in a straightforward way. There’s a pepper to the lower left, a leaf at center right, and dappled light spread about.
And yet, I rather doubt that I’d have put that shot out there in public (at my Flickr site) if I hadn’t seen lots of abstract art, and made some of it myself. For it does seem to me that abstract art has changed, and enlarged, the range of representational imagery that we create.
For most of its history Western art has been dominated by representational imagery. Yes, we’ve had the decorative scrollwork of illuminated manuscripts, but even those scrolls functioned to set off a portrait or a scene. We created images to represent something, not only to represent it, but to capture its essence. The point of a seemingly casual still life was not that apples and bowls don’t have essences, but that even the most ordinary of objects have essences, and that those essences can be revealed in even the most ordinary of circumstances: fruit in bowl.
Abstraction changed that. Whether the carefully rendered odd objects of a Kandinsky or a Klee, the meticulous geometry of Mondrian, or the expressionist drippings of Pollock, the luminous washes of Frankenthaler, or the austere color fields of Rothko, abstraction, as the name implies, freed artists from the need to create imagery that represents something, whether in a realistic mode or not.
But what has that to do with photography, which is by its nature a representational medium. For one thing, there are photographs where abstract pattern is meant to dominate representation to the point where it may be difficult or impossible to tell what the photo represents (such as in this Flickr group). That’s not what interests me; after all, there’s nothing mysterious about what my photo represents, a pepper, leaves, stems, and light. But if I had been working with nothing to guide me other than the traditions of Western representational art, I’d not have composed, taken, and displayed that shot.
Rather, I’d have centered the shot on the pepper, or the large leaf, or I’d have been sure to get both completely in the shot. Instead, neither is completely in the shot. Further, I’m pretty sure this is one of those shots I took by holding the camera down to the plants, waiting for the autofocus to signal that it’s set, and then took the shot. I didn’t compose the shot at all. I just pointed the camera and snapped the shutter.
But I did some composing in the computer. My camera shoots a 3 by 2 aspect ration, but I cropped that photo to 5 by 4. I don’t simply take those blind shots as-is. I pick and choose which ones I want to keep. But then I do that with shots I compose through the viewfinder as well.
So, what’s the point? Is there a tension between the composition and what the photo represents? I don’t know. Maybe there is. I could certainly assert that that’s what’s going. But I’m not sure I’d want to argue it, not now.
For now I’m content simply to point out that something’s going on, and that something to do with how a mind that’s trained itself to abstract art sets about taking photographs.
Other posts in this general territory include: