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Curious Frame - Issue #25 - Abstract Photography

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #25 - Abstract Photography
By Leanne Staples • Issue #25 • View online
I have long been involved in making abstract photography. This has come about by both experimenting in photography as well as discovering the work of many photographers. And it has also happened through making ‘mistakes.’
Often when I mention the idea of abstract street photography, people find the concept difficult to grasp until I show them some examples that don’t require fancy equipment or difficult techniques.
The pleasant surprise is that when they try it out they realize that not only are they able to shoot abstract street, but that it’s fun and they like the results. So this issue is about the concept of abstract photography.
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Don’t keep those thoughts to yourself. Curious Frame is about dialogue and I’d love to hear your comments or even questions or inspirations. And it’s easy. Just hit reply in your email.
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One reader wrote:
Wow, that Apple commercial is genius — so scary and powerful and prescient!
Another reader wrote:
I kept thinking about what to write to you and the only thing that came to me is how photography has changed the way I see the world. I have been photographing for many years, the camera is already an extension of my hand and its viewfinder my eye. My stigma or myopia must be 24x36, 6x6 or 4x5. I married Nikon and my children are called Rollei and Hassel, my dog Leica …..
Joking aside, most of my life taking photos, I was captured by photography and today I am a prisoner of it.
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Abstract Photography
To go by lulling, New York City, December 2019. This is a combination of intentional camera movement and multiple exposures to create a painterly look.
To go by lulling, New York City, December 2019. This is a combination of intentional camera movement and multiple exposures to create a painterly look.
Abstract can only be truly defined when compared to what you consider normal or purely representational. Abstract is an abstract concept. Brilliant!
Abstract - conceived apart from concrete realities, specific objects or actual instances… emphasizing lines, colors, generalized or geometrical forms etc. Random House Dictionary.
The inkblot test created by the artist and psychiatrist, Hermann Rorschach, is also known as the Rorschach test
The inkblot test created by the artist and psychiatrist, Hermann Rorschach, is also known as the Rorschach test
The inkblot test was created by Hermann Rorschach to find a method of combining art and science and to be used as a tool in psychology as well as still being one of the most widely used personality tests.
While inkblots were not designed to be art, some consider them to be so and in that respect they could be considered abstract art. A few years back, Damion Searles wrote a book about Rorschach titled The Inkblots.
While I haven’t read the book, he wrote “You can manage what you want to say but you can’t manage what you want to see.” I think that this is a helpful statement when thinking about abstract art.
Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist, Number 1. c. 1950. oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist, Number 1. c. 1950. oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
In the art world, a drip painting by Jackson Pollock is abstract. You could say that his work is the height of abstract art and that he is often the first artist to come to mind when thinking about abstract art.
There is no part of most of his paintings that illustrate a thing, person, place, object or landscape. They are pure abstraction. Many people have difficulty understanding his paintings or abstract art in general.
When it comes to purely abstract art I might go so far as to say that you either like Pollock and others, or you don’t. It’s possible that you can gain an appreciation when understanding the life of the artist and the meaning inherent in their work.
I am not a fan of the work of Pollock and I admit that I don’t get his work. To each their own.
Helen Frankenthaler, Eden, 1956, oil on canvas, 103 x 117".
Helen Frankenthaler, Eden, 1956, oil on canvas, 103 x 117".
At about the same time that Pollock was painting purely abstract, Helen Frankenthaler combined the two. That is to say that her paintings were abstract and on occasion you could also see identifiable things in them. 
She was criticized by Clement Greenberg, one of the leading art critics of the time for combining abstract and figurative images in the same painting. As if she had broken an unwritten rule.
It could very well be a case of sour grapes as she broke off her extramarital relationship with him. Regardless, Frankenthaler really opened the door for others to combine two aspects of art that were not normally seen in a single work.
There are of course many examples of how we are now living in a post-binary world. But when Frankenthaler was doing so it wasn’t that common.
William Klein, Backstage Alaïa Blonde + Hood, Paris, 1986.
William Klein, Backstage Alaïa Blonde + Hood, Paris, 1986.
It is perhaps normal for an artist to push the edges of what’s possible to further their style. This is probably particularly so with photography as it becomes an experiment in pushing the boundaries of the technology.
In the above photo, William Klein embraced blur. This example is like a bridge between his straight photography and his purely abstract work.
One of the main aspects that are revealed in both abstract photography and abstract street or any photography that begins to blur the divisions on what is considered straight photography, is that an image can become unique. That is to say that you or anyone else cannot easily replicate it.
Brave New World, New York City, December 2020. This is a photomontage.
Brave New World, New York City, December 2020. This is a photomontage.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between art and photography in general is that for the most part, a photo can be reproduced infinitely. That of course means that in theory it has less market value as there is no original.
But that is an entirely different topic as the idea of the worth of an image should not be confused with the concept is it art or not? Many artists are consistently criticizing the role that money has taken in the world of art.
In photography the division between abstract and straight photography is not necessarily defined in such black and white methods as it is in art.
Certainly there are photos that are purely representational and there are photos that are purely abstract. However, there is a middle ground between the two that is very large and perhaps is growing even as I write this. 
Aaron Siskind, St. Louis 9, 1955
Aaron Siskind, St. Louis 9, 1955
If you look very intensely and slowly things will happen that you never dreamed of before. Aaron Siskind
At about the same time that Frankenthaler, Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists were painting (circa 1940s to 1960s), a number of photographers were also exploring various degrees of abstraction in their work.
Abstract and abstract street photographers include Aaron Siskind (shown above) William Klein, Saul Leiter, Ernst Haas, Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, Ray Metzger and many others. And their styles vary widely.
East Village Puddle, New York City, January 2020
East Village Puddle, New York City, January 2020
Abstract photography, like art, is always in the eye of the beholder. It’s a lot of fun and it’s interesting when I’m providing a workshop and pointing out different ways of creating abstract street how people become very enthusiastic about shooting abstract street.
It can be as simple as a reflection like the photo above or even, minimalism, silhouettes, shadows, blur, geometric images and much more.
A purely abstract photo cannot be considered street. But as soon as an abstract photo has a human element in it, it becomes abstract street.
Saul Leiter, Red Umbrella, 1951, from “Early Color.” Courtesy of Steidl.
Saul Leiter, Red Umbrella, 1951, from “Early Color.” Courtesy of Steidl.
I couldn’t write an article about abstract street photography without including a photo and a mention of Saul Leiter. When looking at his work and abstract street in general, one of the most common aspects is the use of color.
Using minimal colors while zooming in, both literally and metaphorically, you choose the most important elements for your composition. We see a human element in the umbrella. But not actually the person.
I have a real love of abstract street photography as it has a very poetic appeal. Rather than telling you what you should think or feel, it asks of you to provide your own story. It requires our interpretation.
Windows to the Future, New York City, March 2021. This is a photomontage.
Windows to the Future, New York City, March 2021. This is a photomontage.
The word abstract all by itself can sound problematic. But I say fear not the unknown. While it may take a little extra effort to understand an abstract photo or painting, if it doesn’t attract your attention you don’t have to feel a necessity to spend more time on it.
We always choose what to photography and what attracts our vision and even what the important elements are. Too often the instinct is to take a photo of an entire building rather than perhaps just the windows.
Ernst Haas, New York City, USA 1962.
Ernst Haas, New York City, USA 1962.
When you browse through the history of photography, you will find a very lengthy list of photographers who have experimented with different methods to shoot and create images.
If you have an open mind and a little curiosity you may find yourself delving into abstract photography. Maybe without even realizing it. Perhaps giving a genre label is not always helpful when you’re out shooting or viewing. Either you like it or not.
I look forward to your comments, questions and experiences on abstract photography. Let’s dialogue!
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Curious Frame Newsletter | Exploring Photographic Possibilities
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Further Viewing:
Ted Forbes provides a good brief overview of many abstract photographers beginning with early photography and stops short of the abstract photographers that I have written about in this issue.
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You can also find me at:
Artist, Photographer & Writer - Leanne Staples
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
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Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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