I photographed my resurgent Sago palm plant a couple of weeks ago as it showed renewed life following our hard winter freezes. Since then it’s been growing at a furious pace and I’ve had trouble keeping up with it. The photographs here are of the plant five days ago. I really need to shoot it again as it’s already changed.
Spending extended time photographing this one object, even if a changing one, has gotten me thinking about the nature of abstraction in photography: what it is, how we employ it in our shooting, how it varies from genre to genre.
I think that when most people think about abstraction, they think about things that are unrecognizable: abstract. For me this doesn’t quite fit as a definition. Most of the abstract photographs I’m drawn to shoot are in the natural world, and seem to present themselves whenever I slow down and look closely. Patterns are sometimes the factor; other times shapes or textures may be the thing.
In the case of the Sago palm, it’s got everything! Patterns, textures, shapes. Things that aren’t what they appear to be. All classic examples of abstraction, jammed-packed into this one amazing plant.
The photographer that I think has most influenced my approach to abstraction was not really known as an abstract photographer at all: Irving Penn. Penn, who only recently died at 92, made his name, and his living, as a high-end portrait and fashion photographer in New York, beginning in the 1940s, working primarily for Vogue. He changed fashion photography by being the first shooter to place models against plain backgrounds, a revolution at the time which still affects our shooting today. Later he produced a highly regarded book of simple North Light portraits of primitive cultures from around the world, Worlds in a Small Room. Later still, he exhibited the photographs I’m thinking of right now: large platinum-palladium prints of greatly magnified cigarette butts, things he picked up out of the gutter in New York. As the New York Times observed in a 1984 article about Penn:
In his hands, however, a cigarette butt in the gutter becomes more than trash; it is an object as imposing as an Egyptian stele.
If you get a chance to ever see these images up close, do it. They are amazing! Cigarette butts transformed into art, monumental shapes and forms that have transcended their very existence through Penn’s vision and artistry. Many of his books are out of print, but many more are still available. The Pace/MacGill gallery in New York represents Penn’s work.
So my abstractions are usually small scale, up very close. That’s just the way it works for me, I suppose. What about you? Are you drawn to abstract photography? Have a favorite abstract shooter? Is this something you’ve ever pursued in your own shooting? Maybe you like a different type of abstract photography. If so, what type?
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog
Related articles on the web:
Photos of Irving Penn: Sublime to the Perverse story in the New York Times
Obituary for Irving Penn in the San Francisco Chronicle
40 Outstanding Examples of Abstract Photography at The Photo Argus
Abstract Photography at Abstract-photography.com
Abstract Photography — Flickr pool