Abstract art is not for everyone. I have had people tell me some of my abstract photography 'hurts their eyes'. I understand this idea, you either love or hate abstract art, especially photography. Abstract photography is often referred to as experimental, non-objective or conceptual. Maybe it will be a reflection of an object in a window or water or it might limit the view of a specific area of a scene showcasing random patterns or even repeating patterns of manmade objects. It can also be created with special camera techniques such as using low shutter speeds and panning or moving the camera during the exposure. I love all the techniques used to create abstract photographs and am always looking for new ways of creating my art.
Abstract Fine Art Photography Does It Make Your Eyes Hurt?
When I got into photography in 1986 I did not know of any famous photographers. I learned of photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and his son Cole Weston while living in the Monterey California area where they had lived. I remember seeing prints from these masters and being inspired to capture images with my own vision. I quickly began to learn of other famous photographers and loved seeing their work and learning how to use the camera as they did. Almost all famous photographers have experimented with abstract scenes and compositions and some choose to make abstract their life's work. Even though I was concentrating on people photography at the time I spent many hours photographing nature, landscapes and anything that caught my attention. Some of my favorite subjects were impressionistic, abstract reflections of buildings in the water.
The photograph above is a perfect example of an abstract reflection. This image is one of the first abstract photographs I created. I took this one back in 1987 or 1988 in Monterey, California of the Sam's Fishing Fleet building on the Old Fisherman's Wharf. I remember exploring around looking for interesting subjects and saw this shimmering reflection of twisted colors in the water and had to photograph it. I went back numerous times afterward trying to get some different patterns but the light was never the same again.
Reflections in water have been a very popular subject for many famous nature photographers. One of my favorite nature photographers who has excelled in abstract photography is Art Wolfe. The son of commercial artists, Art Wolfe was born on September 13, 1951 in Seattle, Washington, and still calls the city home. He graduated from the University of Washington with Bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and art education in 1975, where he studied under professors such as Jacob Lawrence. His photography career has spanned five decades, a remarkable testament to the durability and demand for his images, his expertise, and his passionate advocacy for the environment and indigenous culture. During that time he has worked on every continent, in hundreds of locations, and on a dazzling array of projects. Art's work has always inspired me and made me want to improve my own work.
Here is another example of a reflection abstract from the late 1980's. This photograph was also taken along the Old Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, California. I loved the backside of this old building and went back numerous times in the morning to photograph this reflection.
Another popular technique in abstract photography can be isolating the view of static objects. Many times we look at the larger scene instead of looking for particular points of interest. I find putting on a long lens and scanning the scene for subjects can be very helpful in finding compositions I like. Another American landscape photographer who has influenced me has been David Muench. Muench was born on June 25, 1936 in Santa Barbara, California. He made his first photographs as a teenager in the late 1950s, and had his first photographs published as front and back covers of Arizona Highways when he was still in high school. Muench said "There was never any question of my career". His education in photography and in art — both at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY, and the Los Angeles Art Center School of Design — provided him with the formality of a degree in photography, and an understanding of the technology of the time, but he felt — and continues to feel — that his most profound learning experiences are in the field. Even now, as the technology of photography explodes in directions undreamed of in his early days, and as he continues to learn, to expand in new directions, he said "it is nature that remains my teacher". One of my favorite images of David's is 'Blue Wall', it is a classic example of an abstract photograph isolating a specific scene with a reflection in the water.
In the photograph Timpooneke Footprints, I loved the abstract scene spread out below my feet. I did not want to show the cliff face or towering peaks so I isolated the mountain basin by zooming in, leaving very little context of the scale of how large the scene was. American photographer Robert Glen Ketchum is a master of this technique. Ketchum has been one of the pioneers of using photography in unusual ways and has also transitioned into the digital age creating amazing abstract digital art. Born on December 1, 1947, Ketchum grew up in California. He received a B.A. in design from UCLA and a MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 1974. He studied photography under the direction of Edmund Teske and Robert Heinecken. After he graduated he began a lifelong friendship with Eliot Porter, who helped form his ideas about photography and about how photography can be used to help change the world. His commitment to conservation photography is unique amongst academically-trained photographers.
I have learned to visualize the photograph before I even setup my camera. For Serpentine Snow, I knew I needed height to show the scene properly. I also needed the sun to be a little more in the western sky so the shadows would accentuate the curves of the snow-covered stream. So I waited for the light to get better and then I positioned my tripod in the bed of the UTV we had rented, which gave me the altitude needed to get the proper perspective.
Architecture is a very popular subject to photograph in abstract. Ola Kolehmainen is one of the contemporary masters of abstract architectural photography. Kolehmainen's studies on light and its effects on architecture are phenomenal examples of the art. Born in 1964 in Helsinki, Finland, Kolehmainen graduated with a masters in photography at the Helsinki University of Art and Design in 1999. He studies and works in Berlin, Germany.
My in-laws were living in Surrey, England in 2014. We traveled there to see them, tour the UK and photograph. The above image, Eternity, is of a train bridge not far from where they lived and they knew I would want to photograph this old viaduct. As we pulled up alongside the edge of the road to park, I immediately knew how I wanted this photograph to look. The warm low light of the March afternoon was shinning through the bridge and I did not even think of taking a picture of the whole bridge. I walked to the far right and stood up against the embankment dead center under the bridge and then zoomed in to compress the scene visually. My mother- in-law could not figure out why I was not out in the field getting a shot of the whole bridge, but I knew this shot was what I wanted. I did eventually take a photograph of the viaduct from the field as a reference, which is nice but not as amazing as the abstract image.
MASK IN THE WINDOW
This image, Mask in the Window, combines many of the examples of how to create an abstract photograph. I was walking down the narrow street in the village of Castle Combe, England looking for interesting doors and windows when I saw this strange face peering out a window at me. It kind of freaked me out at first, then I took a closer look, loved what I saw and stood across the street to take the photograph. At first you just see an old window of a stone building with flowers growing in a box. Then you realize the window is a picture in the picture with the strange wooden mask composed perfectly in an intersection of thirds in that window frame. The reflections in the window give the scene more depth and interest. I do not usually point this out but the splash of green to the upper left of the mask is me in rain gear crouched over my camera photographing the scene. If you look closely you can see most of the whole right side of my body down to about my ankles.
DEER CREEK TREES ABSTRACT #1
One of my favorite techniques for creating abstract photographs is called Intentional Camera Movement (ICM). This style of photography has gotten really popular in the digital age because the photographer can quickly check their results and try again if needed to master the speed of movement to properly blur the image. Andrew S. Gray of Northumberland, England is one of the masters of this technique and I just love his work! Gray stumbled upon ICM photography accidently and not long after found the work of Valda Bailey captivating. Gray eventually all but abandoned his work in "reality" photography and is heavily influenced by 19th century English painters. When you concentrate on one specific style as Gray has done you can become very adept at it. I personally have too many interests to settle on one niche and find it restricts my creative process, but I often find myself looking for subjects I can use ICM on to create these abstract images while out photographing.
One of the basic techniques in ICM photography is to keep the camera steady and using a slower shutter speed, move the camera up or down in a straight smooth motion. This technique works extremely well with subjects that have strong vertical lines such as forests or in the above scene a sunset over a river.
You can also move the camera side to side in a smooth horizontal motion. I find this technique works best with compositions that have strong horizonal lines like waves on a lake or the ocean as in Creamsicle Sky. I also like to keep my camera on the tripod for this type of ICM photography to insure that there is no up and down motion, though in some instances that can actually make for beautifully crafted images.
Another popular technique for creating abstract photographs is Motion Pan. This technique is similar to ICM photography in that you use a slow shutter speed but your subject is moving and you pan the camera at the approximate speed of the subject to cause the blur. Ernst Hass was one of the first photographers to experiment with this technique and his cowboy and wild horse photographs done in this style are my favorites. Hass (March 2, 1921- September 12, 1986) was born in Vienna Austria. He moved to the United States in 1951 and soon began experimenting with Kodachrome color film. Haas is acclaimed as one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century and one of the pioneers of color film.
When I went to Arizona to photograph wild horses on the Salt River I had specific concepts in mind and motion panning was my main goal. Blue Ghost was actually shot in the moonlight of blue hour about 45 minutes after sunset. In fact, the moon was the second full moon in the month of January 2018, which made it a blue moon! I was lucky to be able to take this photograph as the horse crossed the river. I had my camera on a tripod but I loosened the head so I could easily pan from side to side. The trick with this kind of photography is to follow through as you shoot the subject and keep following after you have pressed the shutter button. In this case I shot a number of times and just kept moving the camera in one smooth motion even between shots.
THE GHOST STALLION
Motion Pan shots happen fast and you have to be ready. You can not be fumbling with your camera when the action happens, have your settings set and be ready to go. I had been watching this herd of horses in the image above for a few hours just waiting for them to move. The light was dying and I knew if it did not happen now it would not. I was waiting for something to make the horses run. I had my camera set at ISO 800, f/10 and 1/20 seconds and my 300 mm f/2.8 lens attached. I would adjust the ISO as the light changed to keep the shutter speed and aperture settings constant. I wanted a motion blur of running horses and I was not going to try anything else that night. I grew up around horses and know how to watch their body language. All of a sudden the stallion became alert and started to whinny, I braced myself. Something was going on up river that was upsetting the stallion and I was not sure what was going to happen. I kept him in my frame and waited. He started snorting and running up and down the river, the mares joined in and they turned and started back down stream as I started shooting panning with them as they ran. I nailed it with the fist shot! The Ghost Stallion was exactly what I wanted to get when I planned the trip! Sometimes the photo gods smile on me! I found out after the excitement was over what had caused the commotion... some riders on domestic horses were crossing the river. Animals generally do not like strangers and wild horses really dislike domestic ones.
These last two photographs were done from a moving car, which is in essence motion blur and ICM put together. My wife and I were headed back to our cabin after enjoying an autumn day on the Mirror Lake Highway, Utah and we did not have time to stop at every pretty grove of trees so, I pulled out my camera and started shooting from the passenger seat of the car. I wanted a deep depth of field to ensure objects in the background might be in focus so I set my aperture to f/22, my shutter speed to 1/3 of a second and changed the ISO as needed between 31 and 100. The trick to these shots was trying to match the speed of the car. I would pan from left to right while at the same time moving the camera up to help elongate the trees. It really was just an experiment but after a few tries I looked at the images and liked what I saw so I kept going. I was really shocked at how amazing some of these developed!
The image Whirl really turned out otherworldly, like flames of a fire or sea grass moving in the waves. I was blown away when I saw what I had captured. If I had to pick one image of the series Autumn in Motion I would probably pick this one though I also really love Sway.
Abstract art is not for everyone. Some people do not understand it and can not stand to look at abstract paintings or photographs. Other people love the chaos or the order in abstract art. I personally find most abstract photography absolutely cool!
Here is a list of some more photographers who have exceled in the art of abstracts.
If you are just starting to explore the world of photography and are interested in creating abstract photographs but you don't know where to start, I hope this article offered some help. I would suggest getting a camera that has a manual function and become comfortable shooting in manual. Learning any skill is all about practice so get out as often as you can and shoot to your hearts content! It will also be helpful in this digital age to have access to a computer and the programs Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. You don't need to become an expert in Photoshop or Lightroom but using an editing program to adjust contrast levels and color balance can be a great help in getting the most out of your photographs.
Here is a link to see more of my abstract images!
Tomas W. Mitchell