In February 2015, I’m scheduled to give a presentation on abstract photography to my local camera club, the North County Photographic Society. Since I’m primarily an abstract photographer, I thought this would help me better understand what I spend so much time doing.

It’s turning out to be a tough topic to deal with, starting with the very definition of abstract art. A fairly typical definition of “abstraction,” from merriam-webster:

the act of obtaining or removing something from a source : the act of abstracting something
a general idea or quality rather than an actual person, object, or event : an abstract idea or quality

In the art world, “abstract” generally means an image for which the “reality” portrayed is not the most important element. In fact, it is often disguised or distorted beyond recognition.

The dogmatic definition insists on this separation of reality and its abstraction, suggesting that if there is a discernable connection between the two, it is no longer an abstract.

From representational to abstract — a continuum

Georgia O’Keeffe wrote,

Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

In Some Memories of Drawings, she wrote:

“It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colours put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.” Some Memories of Drawings”, Georgia O’Keeffe, Viking Press, New York, 1976

ALL Photography is an abstraction

The world we live in, at least the one we readily perceive, is four dimensional: three dimensions of space, and one of time.

Photography, and other “flat” art forms), eliminate the dimension of time and volume, or at best “abstract” them. Time may be represented through blurring. Volume is represented through perspective, tonality, etc.

In fact, photography as a whole is a continuum of abstraction. This is certainly true of my work. Some of it is quite representational, even documentary.

  Lettuce Workers ©2003 Tom O Scott

Lettuce Workers ©2003 Tom O Scott

My portfolio, “Liking Lichen” consists of macro images of lichen that are both representational and abstract.

  Point Reyes #8 ©2014 Tom O Scott

Point Reyes #8 ©2014 Tom O Scott

Even more abstract are my portfolios with images of sand, such as this one from the Sandscapes series.

  Dusk Migration ©2014 Tom O Scott

Dusk Migration ©2014 Tom O Scott

And finally, I have images that are almost completely divorced from their referents:

  Wave Remnants #3  ©2014 Tom O Scott

Wave Remnants #3  ©2014 Tom O Scott

While I do not agree with the dogmatic definition of abstraction, i.e., that the image presented must be entirely divorced from its referent, I do agree that the relation to the referent is what defines “abstract.”

In this connection, it is interesting to note that the genres “documentary” and “abstract” are the only two that are defined by their relation to their referent. In the case of documentary images, it must be as close to 1:1 as possible, while for “dogmatic” abstracts it must be as close to 0:1 as possible.

All other categories don’t concern themselves with this relationship.

The rigid, dogmatic definition, which requires that 1:1 relation with the referent, is of no use to me. It’s like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Instead, I prefer this definition:

An abstract image is one for which the referent is of purely secondary importance. Primary emphasis is instead on metaphor, imagination, shapes, lines, textures, structures, symmetry, etc. Insofar as the referent is recognizable, it is put into a context in which the abstraction of its reality is the predominant aspect.

In future posts, I’ll explore some of my work and why it appeals to me from an abstract point of view.