The difference between abstract photographs and abstract paintings

As we see more abstract images these days I though you may be interested in the attached article. It should throw some light on being able to understand them a little more clearly through the questions posed and the answers given.


Why is it when we look at an abstract photograph, we always have to try to decipher what the original subject matter really is? Is There a valid reason when looking at an abstract photograph for asking the following the question, “What is it?” or to ask the question more fully, “what is the original subject matter shown in the photograph?” Why do we not ask the above question when looking at an abstract painting?

Here we must touch on the subject of meaning in an abstract photograph. When the viewer asks the question, what is it? Are they really asking, what is the meaning of this photograph? Most photographs are unavoidably interlocked with the illusion of reality and this is main difference between an abstract photograph and an abstract painting.

Most viewers of an abstract photograph cannot seem to disengage from their inherent need to instantly recognise what it is there in front of them, particularly if it is a photographic image. Instant recognition of objects and things as far as human beings are concerned is a build in aspect of protection and is their safety system that protects them from impending danger. On occasions the system fails to recognise what it is there in front of them as their brain and memory bank cannot create a recognition link to the object being viewed.

These are interesting questions but if one is to delve deeper into the way we look at and perceive abstract photographs one has to realise that all photographs are essentially abstract images, be they black and white or colour. We do not see colour the way the camera see’s colour, and we certainly do not see the world around us in black and white. Colour images are perceived as more realistic representation of the world around us. Black and white images are more graphic in their representation of the world around us, and tend to more accepted as abstract images. Until we overcome this sticking point that all photographs are essentially abstract images, we can never fully understand or interpret any abstract photograph that is presented to us.

In the first place we have to find out what an abstract photograph is. An abstract photograph is an image of recognisable subject matter removed from its original context and photographed in a particular way, with the image scale and perspective removed makes it less easy for the viewer to see what the original subject matter really is. Abstract photographic images are not complicated images they are essentially simple images of recognisable subject matter pared down to the very bare essentials. This makes the image appear to be something completely different.

Let us look more deeply at this very enigmatic question. Could it be that it is not understood that abstraction is inherent in photography whether the image is a supposedly realistic image or an abstract image. The only reality in a photograph is either the silver emulsion of an analogue print, or the ink on a digital print, and the paper used for both.

Therefore all photographs are an illusion of reality, as they are two dimensional representations rolled out on a flat plane. With an illusion of depth and space and also a slice of time captured from the constant moving flux of the three dimensional world that surrounds us.

Is the reason for asking the above question because it is imbedded in our brain from the past that we must always seek realism when looking at things, including photographs? As photography was always accepted as a realistic art form from its invention, could this be the reason for asking the above question. Could it also be that due to the subjective definition of a photograph that makes our brain react to a photograph in this way, and why we do not have the same reaction when looking at an abstract painting?

Is it when we look at an abstract painting that our brain accepts the abstraction without seeking realism, because an abstract painting is a non subjective art form? Could it be that the difference between an abstract painting being a manufactured form of art created from the mind of the artist, whereas, a photograph is a subjective form of art recording subject matter that already exists there in front of the camera?

Does it come down to the way a painting differs from a photograph? An artist creates a painting from a blank canvas, where a photographer has to deal with the subject there in front of him or her. To paint a picture is an additive process where as making a photograph is a subtractive extractive process. In composing a picture the photographer has to make compositional decisions as to what should be included in the camera viewfinder frame and what has to be left out. An artist painting a picture has a free hand to put any of the elements of the picture he or she is creating anywhere on the canvas; where as the photographer has to arrange the picture elements in the strongest composition.

A digital photographer, to a certain degree is less constrained in his picture construction at the post editing stage, as he too has the ability to put the picture elements where he likes in the picture frame.

It is true that the digital photographer can manipulate any image in any way he or she wants, but there are certain constraints involved here. The photographer unlike the artist has to contend with the original light direction, contrast, colour and scale of the original individual elements of the image, and make sure that there are no conflicts of these elements to create anomalies in the image.

As stated earlier in this article the only reality in a photograph is either the silver emulsion of an analogue print, or the ink on a digital print, and the paper used for both. All photographs are a false impression of reality, as they are two dimensional representations with an illusion of depth from a three dimensional world.

Therefore to sum up, an abstract subjective photograph is the illusion of the reality of the subjective subject matter with its depth and scale removed, and relocated from its original context to give it a completely different meaning to the viewer.

We therefore have to accept these criteria to understand why abstract photographs differ from abstract paintings. Therefore when we are asked the question, what is it? when the viewer is referring to one of our abstract photographs, our answer has to be, whatever you want it to be.

Further to the above question, what is it the relevant questions that the viewer of the image should be asking are, What is this image to me, and what is the image saying to me? By asking one’ self these questions one can more readily formulate one’s thoughts to come up with a more informative answer about the image.


Copyright Sandy Wilson 2016 

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