4 Reasons To Use Abstraction In Photography Plus 20 Experiments To Try

1 Structure Clarified

2 Process Detailed 

3 Concept Visualized

4 Pattern Created

5 Extreme Simplification



To one degree or another, every photograph is abstract. At a minimum, photographs are flat rather than three-dimensional. Some photographs are more graphic than others. And the origins of a few photographs are virtually unrecognizable. Answering to what degree a photograph is abstract, how it is abstract, and why it’s abstract will help you understand more about it and its creator’s intentions – this might be you.


So what does abstract mean? First used in the 14th century the word abstract comes from the Latin abstrahere meaning to draw away (ab = away + trahere = to pull) and was used to mean “withdrawn or separated from materials objects or practical matters.” As a noun abstract means a condensed piece of writing. As an adjective or adverb the meanings of abstract are widely divergent; general, summarized, distilled, not specific, qualitative, disassociated, nonmaterial, theoretical, geometric, formal, non-representational, not applied, unreal, transcendent, abstruse … The list goes on until the meaning of abstract becomes diffuse to the point of being more suggestive than specific. Long used in fields as diverse as religion, philosophy, and science, surprisingly, the word abstract wasn’t widely used in the arts until the early 1900s during the modernist movement, when painters and sculptors departed from realism and even representation, which was in part a reaction to photography.

How Abstract Is It?

When looking at images it’s useful to ask a number of questions. Beginning to answer these questions will tell you a great deal about both individual images and their relationships to other images, even if the answers you arrive at are neither definitive nor complete. Sometimes the toughest questions are the most rewarding. They keep giving and giving, for a long time, perhaps even a lifetime.

Regarding abstraction, try these questions.

 “On a scale of 1-10, how abstract is it?” It may be only a little or it may be a lot.

“What’s abstract about it?” While some images are entirely abstract, in other images only certain aspects may be abstract and this may be partial or complete. What’s done and how it’s done can direct attention in specific ways, describe particular graphic qualities, and display interpretation.

“What kind of abstraction is it?” Though they may all coexist in a single image, conceptual, minimal, and non-representational, are three very different qualities, which often identify intent.

 Intent brings us to the most important and often most difficult question to answer. “What purpose does abstraction serve?” This is essential to answer before asking “Is the means appropriate for the end?” and “How well is it done?”

How long visual attention is sustained depends on whether the stylization has purpose, how well it serves the message, and how well it’s done.

The Many Uses Of Abstraction

Abstraction can serve many functions; it can stimulate, structure, inform, and express.

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  • Mike Nelson Pedd

    11.07.2022 at 15:27 Reply

    One comment from painter Robert Bateman when it comes to looking at abstract art:

    “This is a painting. It’s not a painting OF anything. It’s a painting.”

    When you stop trying to determine the subject of an abstract piece, what it represents, you can begin to look at what it IS.


  • Caryl Ritter

    18.07.2022 at 09:49 Reply

    Loved that first image. What is it? Looks like part of a glacier.

  • Nancy Zarider

    18.07.2022 at 10:05 Reply

    Creating an image uses the same elements whether abstract or figurative.

  • Lorin Duckman

    18.07.2022 at 12:14 Reply

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaroslav_Rössler Just to share a favorite abstract photog with the family. Everyone does Man Ray, Siskind, Tillmans, etc. This guy gets overlooked.

  • Joyce Meyer

    18.07.2022 at 17:16 Reply

    Looking at abstract images is seeing the unseen, the outside inside, and the miracles of day-to-day life.

  • tan meng poh

    19.07.2022 at 06:27 Reply

    no comment

  • Anne Miller

    21.07.2022 at 14:06 Reply

    Very nice article! If a photograph is taken out of context, the subject becomes more mysterious. It may be formal elements such as color, texture, form, pattern, contrast, etc… I like your description of full vs partial abstraction. There is interest in that balance. The most successful abstract paintings or photographs provoke some kind of response, even a connection or an emotional response. My goal is to produce an abstract image that stimulates my imagination and provides more than one interpretation – a picture or painting that I can hang on my wall, and find that the image keeps my interest over time. I especially like it when other people see the same image in different ways based on their own experience and imagination.

  • Ernie Notbert

    22.07.2022 at 15:20 Reply

    I think fotos deserve cations being an ex-paper fotografer. Then inter play twixt the wotds & the image can be another abstraction. A seniot HS English teacher turned me on to poetry: 1st reading it aloud & 2nd by not asking what the poet “meant”, but by asking what image he may have evoke as we listened. So if words bring forth an image is when that image is juxtaposed with a foto what is abstracted from whatm Sort of a Chicken Egg dilemna. For example I like writing & reading Haiku from which the surprise element if the final 5 syllables can scramble to image of thw preceding 5/7 syllables like with this try Titled –
    SINnamon Shadows
    “Morning breaking fast
    Croissant SINnamon shadows
    Lentil stew supper?”
    was definitely triggered by image on cutting board, but how do I post the foto of Croissant cinnamon shadows? TIA

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