I started a new book this week - All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. In the first few pages, I came across a sentence that made me think:
The sea glides along far below, spattered with the countless chevrons of whitecaps.
This immediately formed a picture in my mind. But imagine if the sentence read like this:
The sea far below has many whitecaps.
UGH! The author's real sentence contains metaphorical language. There's the motion of the sea, gliding, even though the sea doesn't really glide in the sense that a bird glides through the air. There's the word "splattered," which evokes a certain randomness. Of course, the whitecaps can be counted, but the word "countless" conjures up an infinite amount. The most powerful metaphor is the use of "chevrons." Whitecaps aren't chevrons, but the metaphor makes a mental connection; it engages our mind.
Sentences have the same problem as images. There are billions and billions of them. The most difficult thing is to get someone to spend more than a couple of seconds viewing them.
The second sentence is a "lazy" one. It has just the facts. It's the asphalt on the road. We see it, we register what's there, and move on. It all happens in a flash.
Much of abstract photography strikes me this way. I even do this sometimes. For example, when I started my Sand Vision series, I was entranced by just the patterns I found. I took dozens and dozens of photos of every sand pattern I could find. I categorized them all as "abstracts."
They are abstracts, in the sense that the referent, i.e. the beach, is not the main point of the image. It's the fractal character of the patterns in the sand that catches the eye.
Nevertheless, these are images that I now use as backgrounds. I don't include them in my portfolios, for the most part, because they are forgettable. They are "lazy" abstracts.
This is the primary reason I use metaphor so much in my work. When I'm on site, looking for images, I'm attracted first by form, line, color, etc. -- all the things that initially attract us. But then I look for something beyond that. I look for a story.
Fortunately, even if I don't see the metaphor right away, I've been doing this long enough that my brain senses it's there. Sometimes I don't see it until up to a year later. That was the case with this image, called "Lady in Blue."
I took this photo in Spring of 2014, and didn't publish it until a year later. In its raw form, the image was horizontally and vertically the reverse of what you see. The color was muted. Then I started playing around with it, and realized I had something worth saving.
This is also why I don't create many abstracts from architectural work. First, I feel like I'm basically plagiarizing someone else's creation. Yes, I know it isn't really plagiarism, and that architectural photography in general, and architectural abstracts in particular, is a valid medium.
I have taken some of these myself, for example, this series of the Disney Center in Los Angeles.
Still, I ask myself, is this really MY image, or a detail of work by Frank Gehry? After all, he is the one who designed this building, including every curve and straight line, every form and contour.
I ask myself, how would I feel if someone took a piece of one of my abstracts and presented it as their own?
Now what makes one stop and look at this photo is that the Disney Center has been photographed a million times, and to the extent this image is different, that makes one look a few seconds longer.
Many abstracts I see on popular web sites like 500px, 1x, etc., don't have that going for them. They are simply line, contour, shape, and form. Yes, they might feature something eye-grabbing like bilateral symmetry. However, it takes a few nanoseconds for my brain to register that, and then I'm wondering, what else is there?
If there's nothing else, I move on, just as I suspect everyone else does. The "lazy" abstract catches our eye, but because there's nothing there to take it to a higher level, to forge new connections in our brain, the sensation is over very quickly.
That's the difference between infatuation and true love. A complex abstract infatuates us through its visual elements. While we're in that stage, we sense there's something else there. Most often, the image uses metaphor to push our mind to a deeper place. As our imagination engages, we pass through infatuation to true love.
That's what I aim for in my work. I may not achieve it in other people's minds. But if I don't get there in my own mind first, what's the point?