As I grow older I have noticed how I have become more and more drawn towards things that I don’t necessarily understand at first glance. What attracts me are things at which I need to look at least twice, or, preferably, even more; where I must think about it order to make sense of what is being presented to me. This has led to an interest in Philosophy where a lot of the writing appears impenetrable at first glance, Jazz or modern classical music that can appear to be a cacophony of sounds at first listen and to abstraction in art and photography. All of these force me to concentrate, to think, to use my imagination and my creativity.
Increasingly I find that the world around me appears to be wanting simplicity, to reduce things down to a one (or at most two) dimensional substance, what American philosopher and writer Ken Wilber called “Flatland.” But life is not like that, we live within four dimensions!
There is a story, more than likely apocryphal of how the artist, Pablo Picasso, was sitting in a cafe when he was recognized by a businessman who was used to getting his own way.
The businessman introduced himself and, after exchanging pleasantries, told Picasso that, while he admired his success, felt his paintings could be improved.
“How so?” replied a bemused Picasso.
“Well,” the businessman began. “Your paintings are too abstract. You should paint things as they really are.”
“Could you be more specific?” asked Picasso politely.
“Certainly!” replied the businessman and took out a small photo of his wife from his wallet.
“Take my wife. This is how she is, not a silly stylised representation.”
Picasso took the photograph, studied it for a few moments and asked: “This is how your wife actually looks?”
The businessman nodded proudly.
“She’s very small,” observed Picasso wryly.
According to the Tate Museum, the word abstract means to separate or withdraw something from something else. And the term can be applied to art that is based an object, figure or landscape, where forms have been simplified or schematised.
In photography probably the most basic, and certainly the oldest, form of abstraction is Black and White (or monochrome). Apart from the 0.003% of people who have monochromacy (the condition of being totally colour blind and only seeing in shades of grey ranging from black to white) our everyday representation of the world around us is in colour, however when we are presented with a monochrome picture we need to take a longer, or perhaps second look as it is not exactly what we are expecting to see. Another way that photographers can produce abstract pictures is by going in close and changing the perspective on the subject. We can change lenses, use a zoom and get in really close on a rusty piece of metal, or the flaking paint on a piece of wood. Doing so changes what we are looking at and suddenly we have imagined landscapes in front of us; or even just a series of shapes, patterns and colours in which we can get lost and use our own imagination.