Abstract Photography—a few personal thoughts

Palm fronds emerging, Sago palm. Canon 50mm macro, 1/80th @f2.5, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Palm fronds emerging, Sago palm. Canon 50mm macro, 1/80th @f2.5, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

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.

Frond patterns. 1/50th @ f2.5, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Frond patterns. 1/50th @ f2.5, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

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.

Palm swirl from above. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Palm swirl from above. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

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.

Palm fronds emerging. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Palm fronds emerging. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

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.

Palm frond eruption. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Palm frond eruption. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Sago overall, for reference. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Sago overall, for reference. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

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

Posted in: Nature

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

7 Comments on "Abstract Photography—a few personal thoughts"

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  1. David Joachim says:

    I am extremely drawn to so called abstract photography. I have never much cared for the term abstract art or abstract photography. I have always considered the term tautology. All art (photographic or otherwise) is abstract in that it abstracts, or eliminates the clutter that mere documentation often involves. Finding design in the mundane objects around us (like Irving Penn’s cigarette butts) requires an eye that appreciates the infinite variety in everyday shapes. I love your shots in this post. Well done.
    David Joachim

  2. Hey, thanks David! Well put there yourself.

  3. Steven Boothe says:

    Andrew! So excited to happen across your article about abstract photography here! I’m a huge fan of this approach and have been enthusiastically studying, practicing and developing technique for a couple years now!

    I even have a couple of artists I can recommend whom I have found along the way!

    I even have some of my own which you can check out here:

    I apologize in advance for not having my own work more organized. I am a middle-aged dad with a young family who works full-time trying to keep everyone fed and clothed here in our little trailer home. But that doesn’t slow me down from practicing my compositions though. — last year I shot 60k+ images! So while I haven’t published much, I am still active and reviewing my work constantly in the most compressed of time frames!

    Please continue to explore and respond to let us know what abstract work you have been up to since this writing!

    Peace and respect!

    P.S. I just posted another abstract tonight that I’d love you to see at http://boothefam.com <– which is where I will be publishing most frequently going forward.

    P.P.S Do you have a twitter feed yet? I'd love to follow it! Ours is @boothefam.

  4. Steven,
    Sorry for the delayed response. Your abstracts are nice: keep at it! Yes, there is a Twitter feed : @DiscernPhotog. Top right of the home page will also take you there and to the Facebook page.

  5. Nice post! andrew! i like the the abstract photography, your shots are good! job well done! keep it up!

  6. Thanks for your thoughts, Stephen!

  7. Morgan says:

    These are some fantastic photos! I love to do nature photography, but I only have a standard digital camera. The kind you might get at Target. I’ve been wanting to get a high quality, affordable cam to be able to do images like these. What would you recommend?

    Thanks for sharing by the way 🙂

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