Notes from Abstracts- Pictures that cannot be labelled? by Darwin Wiggett
A misconception in photographic circles is that abstracts are pictures where the photographed object cannot be identified. The author quotes a photographer who said that if you can recognise the object then it is not abstract. If the photographer can see the object but someone else such as the audience cannot, does that mean it is not abstract? Does this mean that abstract is viewer dependant? Or is there something deeper going on.
Alvin Langdon Coburn defined abstract as work that “emphasizes form and structure underlying the image.” By most historians he is considered to be the first photographer to consciously creating an abstract by decostructing the identity of his subjects by using a vortoscope. The resulting photos which he took with his kaleidoscope mirror construction results in a photo that emphasises form and structure without revealing the identity. Some of his work like the one titled The Octopus (see picture below) conceal the identity of larger subjects.
Coburn’s work reinforces the idea that abstract photos should not depict subjects as they appear in the natural world. I think that this also resembles the ideas and aims of pictorialism, which say that it is not about documenting the everyday, but creating and constructing a photograph. The Oxford dictionary also defines abstract as “achieving its form by colour and form rather than realism. Wiggett also quotes another definition of abstract that he came across which says that “an abstract image is meant to make you wonder what you are looking at”. From these definitions he concludes that abstract photography rejects the idea or goal of portraying something identifiable, but instead it prefers to emphasise the components of the object as the subject of the photo.
Abstraction is about learning to see the visual building blocks within your subject (line and shape, form and colour) and then arranging these forms in pure design. This will present the subject in an unusual way, most often in a stripped down form, which often leaves the subject unrecognisable. But whether we can still recognise the subject does not negate nor validate the work as an abstract.
Referring back to the first definition that Wiggett heard from a photographer, he says: “if the photographer literally meant that if viewers can identify what the subject is, then it is not an abstract, then he misunderstands the concept of abstraction. But if he meant that he was presenting the object as a recognisable “whole” means we haven’t created an abstract.”