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Abstract Photography

Updated on March 9, 2011

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The camera is basically very much like the human eye. It records the relations of light and shade and draws the relative positions and sizes of various parts of the subject in scientifically correct perspective. So long as the whole photographic process is carried out correctly it gives what is generally accepted to be a true transcription of the scene as it appeared from a given viewpoint. The results are entirely realistic.

This objective realism is very different from the subjective versions of the world produced by the painters, many of whom nowadays hardly ever work direct from nature, but draw their images from impressions absorbed, stored and synthesized in the mind. They commonly express themselves in distorted representations of real things, or even in completely unrecognizable abstract forms.

In the hands of an artist, the camera too, can be made to produce either representational or abstract pictures of aesthetic worth.

There is no rigid dividing line between the two types; whether the picture appears to be representational or abstract will, in some cases, depend on the viewer. Thus specialized photographs made by the scientist may appear entirely abstract when seen by the layman to whom the subject is unfamiliar.

A photograph, though intended to be purely representational, may nevertheless have a strong abstract element in it. This is especially noticeable when an object, possibly of unusual form and texture, is photographed from an unfamiliar angle, or so close up that it can hardly be recognized, or in strange lighting conditions, or with a lack of local color, or by the use of some special technique, such as infra-red.


Early Examples

Many techniques known in early days produced straight photographs with marked abstract qualities. Geological photographs, for example, revealed the abstract beauty of rock formations and strata. This form of abstraction was used from about 1930 with great effect by Edward Weston in his pictures of rocks, sand dunes and close-ups of pebbles and tree forms. Fifteen years earlier, Paul Strand had revealed the beauty of abstract forms.

Studies of motion produced another peculiarly photographic form of abstraction. As early as 1881 Eakins, Muybridge's collaborator, took superimposed action shots which foreshadowed the multiple electronic flash pictures taken later by Professor Edgerton of such subjects as a golf swing and a drop of milk splashing into a bowl. Many photographs of this type, though made for purely scientific purposes, possess fascinating aesthetic qualities.

The first who deliberately made purely abstract photographs was Alvin Langdon Coburn. In 1917 he made abstracts by taking small objects as seen in the middle of three mirrors, clamped together as in a kaleidoscope: he called them vortographs.

In 1918 Christian Schad made schadographs by placing flat objects and cut-outs on the sensitive emulsion and then exposing it to light. These pictures resembled the cubist collages of the period. This and similar methods of producing images without the use of a camera, developed in 1922 by Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy and others, are known as rayographs and photograms. Man Ray and Moholy Nagy were pioneers also in more strictly photographic methods of making abstracts, such as the use of negative prints, multiple exposures on either plate or paper, and the process known as solarization.


Among the special techniques that create abstract images of rare beauty are many that can only be applied by scientists with laboratory equipment. While these are taken primarily for scientific reasons, pictures made by such methods have often been included in books of photographic art and are accepted at some advanced exhibitions.

Among these scientific techniques are: X-ray photography, X-ray diffraction photography, the use of the principle of diffraction to photograph air-waves made by a bullet, variations in temperature round a heated object, the stress in a rod, etc., photomicrography, the Lichtenberg figure made directly on film by an electric discharge in gas, astronomical photography, electron micography, high-speed electronic flash, and time-motion studies in which the movements of a worker are recorded by attaching lights to appropriate parts of the body.

But abstract photographs may be made by less ingenious means, without involved specialized techniques and equipment. For many of them only the simplest of cameras is necessary. But the photographer must possess an experimental turn of mind, aesthetic sensibility and imagination.

A camera with focusing screen and with ample extension is almost an essential for some abstraction techniques. It encourages the beginner to study the photographic image on the screen rather than the object being photographed. The camera should, however, be mobile so that the subject may be tackled from any promising angle. A fixed lens reflex camera is excellent in many ways, but has obvious limitations. Most of these are overcome by the single lens reflex camera, which takes fully interchangeable lenses. Other roll film and miniature cameras can of course be used, but as the optical finder does not give the typically photographic image, this has to be visualized in the imagination. The small size may be a drawback in cases where it is planned to apply special after-technique, e.g., solarization.

Both the simplification of subject matter (primary control) and the modification of-tones (secondary control) are forms of abstraction which, carried further, can produce surprising and fascinating results. These provide the beginnings of the technique for abstraction.

Primary Controls

Among the effects to be studied are scale, viewpoint, sharpness, perspective, and lighting.

Scale (i.e., the size in relation to the frame) should be studied to observe how the subject's importance is increased by coming closer ; how detail can be stressed, how the perspective becomes more violent until the shape of the object is lost and only local surface features remain in almost unrecognizable form.

The viewpoint or angle of approach also changes the appearance of the subject: both in perspective and in the distribution of light and dark masses. A low viewpoint will seem to increase height and importance and looking down may produce a striking, unusual pattern.

Sharpness, blur and combinations of both may be created by suitably focusing the lens. Parts of the subject may be shown bitingly sharp, while more distant ones are left nebulous. This effect is common in extreme close-ups seen through a fairly large aperture and applied to small objects (e.g., fragments of broken glass or glittering Christmas tree decorations) produces fascinating evocative images. Extreme all-over sharpness, especially in very close-up shots concentrating on the surface pattern and texture of such subjects as wood grain, rock erosion and crumbling plaster, can also give many strange abstractions.

Perspective and proportion as controlled by the use of camera movements and optical devices can give further twists to the subject, e.g., by using (or misusing) the tilting of back or front, or both; changing the shapes of things by talcing them as reflections in a distorting mirror or bent metal glazing plate; or through a distorting filter of wobbly glass, or through a crude, uncorrected lens.

Lighting effects also play their part in transforming the subject or in stressing certain aspects of it. Surface undulations can be emphasized by oblique side lighting, form can be simplified by strong contrasts in light and shade, or by depriving a part of the subject of light altogether and reducing it to a silhouette.

In dealing with small objects a good method is to use a "light box", i.e., a box sealed except for holes through which spotlights can be directed and an opening for the camera lens. A variety of objects can be placed inside or suspended. In this way the subject and its shadows cast on to the walls can be made to form abstract patterns.

Out of doors lighting effects can be modified only by varying the direction of approach or waiting for the sun to move, but subjects can be found in unlimited number by looking at things through the camera from all sorts of angles. Any material can be used once the necessary photographic imagination has been cultivated.

Secondary Controls

In addition to the effects that can be directly seen on the focusing screen, the experienced abstract photographer can look at the image and visualize how he can change it in the final print by one or more of a number of after-processes, e.g., after it has been enormously enlarged, modified by a filter, or photographed on an infra-red emulsion. If the subject is moving or has moving parts, he will try to visualize it as wholly or partly blurred. He may even visualize it with another image superimposed on it.

The following are some of the methods that may be used. Many of them are processes of simplification. The aim may be to cut out halftones and reduce the image to a simple statement in black and white, or to eliminate local color in order to stress form, or to modify the color rendering so as to set off one part of the subject against another.

Exposure and development are the first and most obvious controls. Over-exposure with full development applied to a flatly-lighted subject can give an interesting effect: printed on a contrast paper the lighter tones will be almost invisible, but the edges of objects and other darker areas will stand out boldly. The effect can be made stronger by applying Farmer's reducer to the negative. Underexposure is useful for simplifying shadows and stressing the planes and ups and downs of the subject. If in addition the negative is greatly over-developed, there will be very fierce contrasts of black and white, especially if there was also contrasty lighting.

In flatly-lighted subjects contrast can be obtained by the use of blue-sensitive or special contrast emulsions, combined if necessary with prolonged development. This technique is useful for stressing local detail and texture; such things as the grain in wood or the surface texture of stone. Local colour patterns can be emphasized in various ways by the many filters available. Infra-red plates give great scope for creating weirdly unreal landscapes, and pictures of plant forms. They can also give surprising results when applied to other subjects: the results are not always predictable, but experiments are well worth while.

The negative can be modified either during or after development. Solarization is one of the most promising ways of making radical changes in the normal negative image. The process is, however, somewhat uncertain and it is always advisable not to use a valuable negative, but to experiment with duplicates. Enlargements of solarized negatives have a peculiar beauty of their own, abrupt contrasts are absent and contours appear as if outlined with a light crayon. Solarization gives the best effects with subjects having strong contrast and good outlines. The method can be applied equally well to positive transparencies, when the outline will print black.

The abstract qualities of the negative itself may be exploited by making a positive transparency from it to give a negative instead of a positive print. Or by placing negative and positive in contact, slightly out of register, and printing them together on a contrasty paper, the contours of the subject will be outlined in black or white. By altering the position of the positive on the negative, the width of line may be varied, and by varying the degree of hardness of the plates and printing paper, the print may be made in either strong black and white or grey tones.

Greatly enlarging a coarse-grained negative, or better still, deliberately inducing reticulation may destroy fine details and local textural qualities, thus simplifying the image and giving it a monumental quality. Grain and textural effects can also be introduced by printing through a texture screen, but the method of using a grainy negative or positive is more interesting, because the graininess forms an organic part of the image. A granulated negative will give a white network in the print, the positive a black one. Further effects may be created by combining negative and positive, one or both granulated.

Another technique that has been occasionally used with effect consists of distorting the image by heating a wet negative until the gelatin just melts and begins to run. The whole or part of the negative may be dipped in hot water, or heat may be applied locally by other means.

In enlarging, the negative or the paper, or both, can be tilted and the picture can be elongated or compressed. Or the paper can be curved or distorted in various ways. Opaque and semi-transparent masks suitably shaped make it possible to hold back or change the definition of certain parts.

Multiple Images

In addition to superimposing negative and positive versions of the same image, entirely different images can be combined in negative or positive form or both. They can be either enlarged together, or one printed and developed first, the print rinsed, but not fixed, and replaced on the enlarger for a further exposure from another negative. For further control, parts of the images may be held back in the printing or wholly or partially bleached away.

Super-imposition can, of course, also be done direct in the camera, and every photographer will know that even accidental double exposures can sometimes be very attractive. When they are planned, an effort should be made to memorize the arrangement of masses in the first picture so that the second image falls in the best place to achieve the desired contrasts, balance and rhythm. Subjects with large, simple masses of shadow generally give the best results. Interesting effects may also be created by making multiple exposures on the same subject, and slightly moving (or better still, revolving) the camera between each exposure.

Odd combinations and strange contrasts can be obtained also by photo-montage done on a fairly large scale and then copying the mounted composite print. This method, however, unless done very skilfully, tends to look unconvincing and rather unphotographic, because the blending of the images is not really organic.

The recording by the camera of movement, moving objects and lights, has been extensively exploited for obtaining abstract images, either as blurs or clearly-defined patterns. And multiple exposures of arrested movement have also produced interesting abstractions. Complex linear patterns have been made in large number by recording the diminishing travel of a small light attached to a pendulum. Often referred to as physiographs, the idea can be further elaborated by using several lights fixed to a whole system of pendulums, or by making overlapping patterns by means of multiple exposures. Interesting linear effects can be created in other ways, e.g., by recording the lights of moving traffic.


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