Abstract Photography: Famous Artists, Examples, and Techniques

Graham Crumb, "Abstract Wall" (2011). Image via Wiki Commons.

Photography is one of the most prolific forms of art, as it revolutionized the way we see and capture images around the world. Initially, artists working in the medium focused primarily on portraiture, still lifes, and landscapes, but advances in both technology and chemistry have allowed the medium to evolve significantly. During the late 19th century, in both France and the United States, artists eventually began to create pictorial photographs that imitated the effects of painting, prints, and drawings, which is referred to this as abstract photography. Today, a vast array of photographs rife with experimentation and abstraction exist.

Art fairs and museum exhibitions devoted solely to the craft have driven demand for photographs in recent decades. When it first emerged in the early 20th century, abstract photography went against many of the rules of traditional photography, and this experimental, non-objective way of approaching the medium resonated with collectors and photographers.

Celebrated photographers like Abstract Expressionist Aaron Siskind and many others have perfected the craft and have contributed to its expansion across the globe.

What is Abstract Photography?

Abstract photography is difficult to define. In general, abstraction occurs when a photographer captures a portion of a specific scene, isolating it from its contextual environment. By focusing in on something, whether it be color, shape, form, or texture, the artist is able to create a unique perception of familiar objects. This method of expressing ideas deviates from photography’s traditional realism and is intended to capture the viewer’s imagination.

Abstract vs. Surreal Photography

Both abstract and surreal photography are conceptual fields, which is why many confuse the two. Abstract photography offers a different point of view and usually only captures a portion of a subject. By contrast, surreal photography offers a completely new point of view of the subject at hand through the use of special effects and editing.

History of Abstract Photography

Jaroslav Rossler, “Light Abstraction,” 1903. Sold for $62,500 via Christie’s (April 2013).

The world’s first photograph was taken by Joseph Niéphore Niépce in the 1820s. The image captured the view from an upstairs window at his estate in France. From there, the first photographic process, introduced by Louis Daguerre, was made available in 1839. It was aptly named the “Daguerreotype,” and was primarily used for capturing portraits. These two developments paved way for an artistic movement and since then developments such as reduced exposure time, sophisticated printing papers, and portability have contributed to the success of abstraction.

It wasn’t until American photographer Alfred Stieglitz came onto the scene that the practice really started to gain traction. In 1922, his series of cloud studies titled, Music – A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs, became the first intentional set of abstract photographs ever produced. This series of images were an expressive form of nature free from its literal representation. Stieglitz even wrote to a friend, “I had told Miss [Georgia] O’Keeffe I wanted a series of photographs which when seen by [composer] Ernest Bloch he would exclaim: Music! music! Man, why that is music!”

From there, artists continued to push the boundaries and explore the concept of abstract art, drawing much inspiration from Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Photographers such as Aaron Siskind and Minor White, known for their work that evokes painterly qualities, helped demonstrate the importance of the movement. Siskind even worked alongside Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock in the 1950s.

Once computer software and digital cameras came into the picture, the possibilities of abstract photography became endless. Today, the genre is led by impressive abstract photographers including Gaston Bertin, Penelope Umbrico, Wolfgang Tillmans, and various others.

Abstract Photography Techniques

The beauty of abstract art is the freedom of expression that artists can tap in to. While there is no clearly defined interpretation of abstract photography, there are various techniques you can employ to create a successful image that draws upon abstract elements. Ultimately, each abstract photographer will have their own unique set of criteria, but below are some basic elements and tips that define the genre.

Key Elements

Colin Knowles, "Skytrain Abstract," 2012. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Lighting is an important factor in any photograph, but it’s particularly crucial in abstract photos. Lighting has the ability to emphasize and dramatize subject matter, giving prominence to objects that need attention. Many famous abstract photographs utilize silhouettes and backlighting to create shadows and dramatic elements within the frame. The direction of the light source can also highlight textural characteristics of an image as well.

Larry D. Moore, "Abstract Perspective of a Treadmill." Image via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the main purposes of abstract art is to make a singular statement with your image without involving distracting, unwanted elements. The best way to do so is to eliminate features that are distracting or that do not trigger emotions. Instead, focus on clean, uncluttered design elements that are easier for the viewer to interpret.

Ansgar Koreng, "Pillars of the railway bridge across the river Spree at the Museumsinsel in Berlin-Mitte," 2016. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Abstraction does not equate to forgetting all compositional best practices. A clear, structural design is paramount to the success of your abstract piece. Always consider how you’re going to frame elements like patterns, shapes, and colors. Think about how colors contribute to the structure of your image or how each color’s use can highlight points of interest. Creating a sense of balance will help with the visual weight of the photo.

"Light Festival in Jerusalem," 2012. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The use of motion helps to reduce unwanted information. Simple things like moving your camera upwards when taking a photograph has the ability to capture your subject from a new perspective while simultaneously removing aspects that deter from the main focus. By experimenting with different angles and finding the best vantage point, you can eliminate all distractions. Many times, photographers will even experiment with flipping or rotating during post-processing.

Augusto De Luca, "Kodak Instant," 1980. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Many works of art are intended to evoke an emotional response from the viewer, and abstract photography is no different. Abstract images in particular are meant to inspire wonder and intrigue. They should be inviting yet mysterious and always aim to capture the viewer’s imagination and curiosity.

Robert Gombos, "Abstract Photo Example," 2017. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Distance is a powerful component of abstract art. Moving closer to a subject can surface details that weren’t apparent from far away. Similarly, moving away from a subject uses space to distort perception and make subjects seem smaller than they actually are in reality.

Tips for Beginners

Double exposures of Mission Street and glitched computer screens (2013). Image via flickr.

Perhaps one of the best ways for artists to sharpen their skills in abstract is to practice and experiment. While the lack of rules that surrounds the genre might seem intimidating, it’s also the perfect outlet for experimentation. Find everyday objects around the house and practice with those. Shoot out of focus, rotate your photos, and try different angles. Don’t be afraid to manipulate your images and create something that is far different from the intended purpose of your subject.

Animal Abstract Photo, 2012. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Using a macro lens can help capture minute details without zooming or cropping. While these methods are suitable as well, a macro lens will enable you keep the sharpness of your image without losing any resolution. Magnifying tiny objects and details can enhance abstraction in your image.

Neal Fowler, "Hiding in the Shadows," 2009. Image via flickr.

Using an off-camera flash makes it easy to manipulate the strength and direction of light. By holding the flash at different angles and distancing yourself from your subject, you can create interesting effects such as shadows or highlights. This will contribute to the uniqueness and intrigue behind your images.

"Abstract Textures," 2008. Image via flickr.

Textures and patterns are key, especially for novice photographers. Use different types to make a normal object seem more abstract. Textures have the ability to help the viewer move their eyes across the image and make the composition more dynamic.

Andreas Wecker, "Lines," 2009. Image via flickr.

It’s important to begin with subject matter that is of particular interest to you. Avoid falling into the trap of what you think would would translate well, but rather choose what’s compelling to you as an artist. This will resonate more with your viewers.

Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel, "Papilio ulysses," 2013. Image via flickr.

Artists that work in abstraction are encouraged to alter their works throughout the post-process. In fact, this is often where the image really comes to life. Don’t worry about going overboard, but instead play with colors, cropping, rotating, and distorting images to your liking. It’s all part of the craft.