Working with Abstraction in Photography

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to


My entry into photography came via hiking and backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The monstrous river canyons with crashing waterfalls and cascades below 14,000′ granite summits and forests of enormous sugar pines, themselves dwarfed by giant sequoia trees, were so exciting to me that I was inspired to “capture them” on film. That was in the mid-1960s. Today my attitude has completely changed.

First, I don’t think you can “capture” anything. I think you can document where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. If you’re really serious about things, you can go beyond mere documentation and try to convey your feelings about what you’ve seen. But how can you possibly “capture” a 3,000′ granite cliff on the 16″ side of a “large” 16 x20″photograph? You simply can’t. Even Ansel Adams didn’t “capture” Half Dome or Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite. What he did, however, was convey the essence of those monumental forms so well that some people who have seen his photographs first, and then go to Yosemite to see the real thing, sometimes walk away disappointed. That’s a monumental achievement on Adams’ part and an exceptional demonstration of the power of photography when it’s done really, really well.

My recognition of the futility of trying to “capture” things via photography came slowly, over many years. But along with that realization came a wider appreciation of the possibilities of photography as a personally interpretive and expressive medium. And with that came an appreciation of a far wider set of things that I was attracted to photograph: architectural subjects, the slit canyons of Arizona and Utah and even pure abstracts in their own right.

Ghosts and Masks

What do I mean by “abstract”? That term, in fact, is difficult to define. When I consider abstraction, I start with a general dictionary definition, which says that it is something that is not concrete, perhaps not easy to understand, not representational and in the realm of art may be characterized by design and form. That’s a good start. To me, it is also something that is not easily recognizable upon first viewing. The mountains, forests, canyons and rivers that brought me into photography did not fall into the category of abstraction. But my interests gradually expanded to encompass abstraction. It is now a major part of my photography.

Though I was already moving in that direction, the most dramatic transition in my thinking came in two stages. The first was in October, 1979 when John Sexton, Ray McSavaney and I, as workshop co-instructors, took students to Brett Weston’s home, where he showed us a number of his images, all of which were exceptional, most of which were amazingly abstract. It fully opened the door of abstraction to me, a door that I had been knocking on, but now Weston’s work told me that I could unhesitatingly go through that door.

Five months later I walked into Antelope Canyon. Instantly and instinctively I saw the lines and forms as forces in nature. (See portfolio in photo technique, Jan/Feb 2010). I didn’t look upon it as a sandstone canyon, but as a visual representation of forces from the subatomic realm to the cosmic realm. So I used the walls of the canyon―the actual subject matter―as representations of those forces in nature. It was not my intent to “show” the canyon, but to “use” the lines and forms of the canyon walls to express my ideas about forces. With those two ex-periences, I was fully into abstraction. Minor White said, “You photograph something for two reasons: for what it is, and for what else it is.” When you’re into abstraction, you photograph for what else it is.

Dream Distortions

For those producing photographs, this generally means keeping your eyes open to things that you may often overlook, even those things that you see on a daily basis, but never consider as subject matter for your photography. Or it may come from using entirely different procedures when exposing the negative or when enlarging the negative. It could even come from a bizarre invention or thought process on your own part. For example, the renowned photographer Frederic Sommer produced a stunning series of abstracts by letting smoke from a hearth fire accumulate on sheets of 8×10 glass that he had first coated with Vaseline, then using those sheets of smoke-encrusted glass as negatives for enlargement. No camera was in- volved in the process, nor any silver, except for that of the final prints. Yet the metallic tones achieved in those prints were stunning, compelling, exciting. His comment about the process: “Soot beats silver any day!”

I have been surprised to see some viewers befuddled by the underlying subject matter of my work, sometimes even when the work was not intended to be abstract or the subject matter to be obscure. Of course black and white photographs are one step further away from reality than color, so that may be enough to mask the subject matter a bit for some viewers. Black and white is certainly an easier vehicle for abstraction than is color, which is closer to reality.

Most viewers seem to need to define exactly what the subject matter is. (Sometimes the definition is completely wrong, but that doesn’t matter: it satisfies them.) Some don’t care, delighted to let their minds wander into their own interpretation of what the image means to them, even if the underlying subject matter is unclear or mysterious.

Crystalline Light-Black Star

Offering a few of the abstractions that I have produced over the years leaves me with a dilemma: do I reveal the subject matter or how I produced them, or do I put them out there with no explanation? I have decided on the latter. I fully recognize that those who dislike abstraction will not only find the work unappealing (or worse!), but will also find me despicable for not setting forth a full explanation of each image. Those people are looking for a handle to gain access to the images. In essence, they’re looking for a lifeline. (Of course, some others will have skipped this article entirely after just one glance at the imagery!) But for you who appreciate abstraction, I’ll remain silent to allow your minds to wander freely without being constrained by the reality of the situation.

Very few photographers, or artists in any medium, start out producing abstract work. Those who produce abstraction tend to work toward it over a period of time, as I did. I find that my students who dislike abstracts are certain not to produce any themselves―at least not now, but maybe later in time as their own thinking evolves. Students who respond favorably to abstracts are probably ready to produce them.

Through my workshops and gallery exhibits I have found that abstraction cleaves the viewing audience in two: some people enjoy it immensely; others dislike it intensely. There tend to be few people whose thoughts lie between those two ends of the spectrum.

About the Author

Bruce Barnbaum
Bruce Barnbaum teaches photography workshops throughout the year, focusing on the art of seeing and the art of conveying impressions of your photographed world (real or imagined). He has two monographs in print: Tone Poems - Book 1, 2002; and Tone Poems - Book 2, 2005. Both are collaborative efforts, featuring a CD of classical piano music performed by Judith Cohen.