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Introduction

It is difficult to assign a single definition to abstract photography. In its simplest form, abstract photography is a picture of subject matter that becomes disassociated with its original self. When something becomes abstract it changes its inherent meaning. Existing as a thought or idea but not as a recognizable object. That being said, abstract photography may not be as difficult as it sounds. Some may actually prefer this type of photography because you can create it and then derive its meaning afterward. Instead of starting out with an idea and trying to recreate that idea in your camera. I think the best way to explain abstract photography is by understanding how its done and looking at some examples of some artists. In this article, I will explain some of the techniques used in abstract photography and show some famous abstract artists and their work.

There Are No Rules

Before I  explain some different abstract techniques, I must stress that there is no right or wrong here. Art has everything to do with the artist and the viewer. If someone else thinks that your art is good, then it is good in their eyes. Therefore you should not feel like you have to stick to a certain list of guidelines. I am going to talk about some different techniques that you can use as a jumping off point. From there you can make this style of photography completely your own. Just try to make art that you love and would be proud to hang on your walls.

Long Exposure

Most photographers know the rules about motion blur. Try to keep your aperture at a certain speed when you are shooting to eliminate blur. This is a very important skill to have when you are doing professional photography for a client…Not so much when you are trying to create abstract photography. By dragging your shutter, or slowing it down, you can create beautiful abstract photographs. You probably have already done this by accident by accidentally clicking the shutter when you were not ready. You usually end up with a blurry picture of your feet.

While I will admit that most blurry photos don’t look amazing if you push the boundaries you can create something beautiful.  By experimenting with different techniques for creating blurry photos, you will begin to hone your skills. Instead of creating a low-quality blurry image, your images will begin to look polished and beautiful. Try out different shutter speed combinations. The longer the shutter speed, the more abstract the image tends to get. You can also set up on a tripod and have your subject move around during a long exposure. It will create a really cool ghosting effect that can be very effective.


By using a tripod and a long shutter you can create beautiful images.

Remove Context

This is one of my favorite ways to create abstract photography. Personally, I think that this takes a little more thoughtfulness than other abstract techniques. Some of the really great abstract photographers of the past were able to transform everyday objects by simply seeing them differently. By either photographing a subject really zoomed in or by flipping a photograph upside down, you can transform it. Even to the point where the subject is unrecognizable. This is the definition of abstract photography.

Taking away the context of something can involve a few techniques. By using a very long telephoto lens you can eliminate certain things from a frame to confuse the viewer. Our brains are wired to find patterns in everything. When you take away the ability to create a pattern or recall seeing something before, we are left with abstraction. You can also change your perspective. For instance by shooting directly down at something from a plane it gives a viewpoint that most people have never seen before. Couple this with a long zoom lens and it can be nearly impossible to comprehend what you are looking at. By covering up certain parts of a subject, you can also trick your subject. It makes it difficult to put the puzzle together and gather the information necessary to understand what the viewer is seeing.


By taking a photo up close, it makes the subject hard to place. 

Free Lensing

Did you know that you can still take photographs with your lens detached? Its true and the technical term for this process is called free lensing or lens whacking. This is a technique that is used primarily by videographers but you can get really cool photographic results as well. By removing your lens all of your automatic functions will be disabled. So flip your focus mode to manual and keep an eye on your exposure. The f-stop will automatically become the largest your lens will go to, so you have to rely on shutter speed and aperture for proper exposure. The further you pull the lens from the sensor the more abstract the image will become. Just be careful not to let dust and other particles into your body and don’t drop your lens! Freelensing is a really fun technique that can offer some amazing results.


This image was created by putting a little vaseline around the edge of a filter creating a dramatic blurred edge.

Distorting Your Lens

Altering what your sensor is seeing through is another way to create a really cool abstract image. For this, you will need a few different items. By placing a sheer fabric or anything else that has some visibility over the lens you can create stunning results. Experiment with different materials to create a varied look. I have seen people use everything from wrinkled plastic to lace. Another interesting way to alter your lens is by using petroleum jelly. Make sure that you have a lens filter first, this will make cleanup a lot easier! Dab the petroleum jelly around the outside edge of the filter. Make sure there is a small hole in the middle so you can still slightly see through the lens. By doing this you can achieve a vintage look as well as a very distorted image.


By covering your lens with a material you can alter the look of the photo.

Using Photoshop and Manipulation

Using photoshop to manipulate photographs can be really fun as well. Instead of having to go out and create something abstract, you can do it with what you already have. There are many ways to manipulate photographs in photoshop. If you need some help getting started I would recommend looking up some videos on youtube, such as this one. If you want to try a more hands-on approach to post process manipulation, try altering a printed photograph. The possibility is endless of what you can do to a photograph. By using everything from paint and markers to fire and chemicals, you can create stunning pieces of art.

Abstract Photographers

The following are a few famous photographers that used abstraction as a primary focus in their work. The best way to understand abstract photography is by looking at it. These people were able to create careers out of manipulating their subject matter. By looking at the works of these artists you can get ideas of where to start and how to create successful abstract photography. A lot of these photographers shoot in black and white. This is one technique of pulling out the context in an image.  If there is no color it takes a lot of contextual clues out of a photograph. Black and white photographs are also a lot less distracting. They serve as a wonderful way to isolate your subject and let the image shine on its own.

Aaron Siskind

Aaron Siskind was an abstract expressionist photographer. He received a camera for as a wedding present and began using it on his honeymoon. Aaron fell in love with the medium and decided it would be a great creative outlet for him. During his life, Mr. Siskind focused on the details of both nature and architecture. Many have described his images as a cross between photography and painting with his images of peeling paint and decay. All of his work is in black in white, this makes the subject unidentifiable in many cases and aids in the mystery of the photographs. When I look at his photographs I am reminded of the abstract impressionist paintings from the 50’s and early 60’s.


Siskind took pictures of peeling paint and detail of building up close to confuse the viewer. 

Edward Weston

Edward Weston worked mostly as an abstract photographer in the early-mid 20th century. He photographed everything from people to landscapes but what he was most famous for was his still lifes. Edward was able to turn a simple bell pepper into an erotic looking scene. He was meticulous about picking out the perfect fruit, lighting, and angle. He photographed using an 8 x 10 film camera so the detail in his negatives was incredible. The way that he is able to transform fruit and shells had never been done before and has never been replicated exactly. Edward’s nude and landscape photography are equally impressive. He had an eye for framing an image in order to create exactly what was inside his head. Weston shows us a great example of how you can isolate your subject and create an entirely new image and scene.


Weston could magically make a vegetable look like a human body. 

Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans is a modern photographer who uses all different types of techniques to create abstract images. He still works in the darkroom quite a bit using wet chemicals to create interesting images. Instead of doing the more traditional black and white darkroom printing, Tillmans shoots on color negative and does color darkroom printing. A majority of his abstract photography is created by simply experimenting. Something he even saves works that have been mistakes and shows them as final art pieces in shows. You will realize sometimes that by taking a step back you can see the beauty that was not originally there.

You can do plenty of experimenting even if you don’t have a dark room. By painting on photographs, threading string through them or even using chemicals, you can manipulate photographs. Abstraction doesn’t have to be done in camera and it can definitely be an afterthought. Sometimes you might just surprise yourself with how creative you can be.


Tillmans abstractions are simple, beautiful, and calming all at the same time. 

James Welling

James Welling is another modern abstract photographer. He earned both his BFA and MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. Over his career, Welling has worked with many variations of photography including polaroids, traditional silver gelatin prints, photograms, and digital prints. Although digital printing can seem somewhat limiting, it actually gives an artist an incredible amount of freedom. That is if you are doing the printing yourself. By printing your work personally you have the ability to control the many aspects of the final product.

A few of James Wellington’s projects include pairing his grandparents writing with photography and using colored gels to transform architecture photography. By transforming what color we think a subject should be it completely changes the subject itself. Some people may think that “artistic” photography is very alien but creating abstract art can easily be obtained. If you have the time you can turn even the most sterile commercial photoshoot into art. It just depends on what you want to depict and how you want your audience to see it.


By implementing colored gels Welling transforms the landscape.

Conclusion

Abstract photography can seem foreign or even weird to lots of people. That’s not a negative thing. If art serves one fundamental purpose it is to make us question. Dialogue and conversation are the cornerstones of any art piece. That’s why art becomes such an important catalyst in society. If you do want to try to create abstract art,  just know that it’s not as difficult as it may seem. You just have to practice and figure out what works best for you. If you love the final product and everyone else hates it, that’s completely fine. You may have created the perfect converstation piece.