How Abstract Photography Has Evolved and Still Continues to Inspire Art

What is abstract photography?

Clockwise from top left: Thomas LohrRoland FischerKim Keever.

When we think of the abstract in terms of art, great painters like Jackson Pollock or Piet Mondrian come to mind, but painting isn't the only artistic field where abstraction comes into play. Since the world's first photograph in the 19th century, artistic photographers have been experimenting with how a camera—ostensibly used to capture reality—can be manipulated to give a different view of the world around us.

But just what is it that makes a photograph abstract? It can seem difficult to pin down an exact definition, but there are many characteristics that make up abstract photography. Most commonly, abstraction takes place when a photographer focuses in on a fragment of a natural scene, isolating it from its context.

By zeroing in on the color, texture, line, shape, geometry, symmetry, or reflection of a scene, that photographer warps our perception of the real world and familiar objects. For instance, if you take a picture of a green apple, but zoom in on just a drop of water running down the bright green peel in a way that a viewer doesn't immediately recognize the object, but is more driven by the sensation, then you've taken a shot at abstraction.

History of Abstract Photography

The genre got a push by Surrealist Man Ray and Bauhaus leader László Moholy-Nagy, but it was really American photographer Alfred Stieglitz who took the practice to a new level. It's generally accepted that his series Music – A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs, is the first intentional set of abstract photographs. Created in 1922, this started twelve years of Stieglitz taking hundreds of cloud photographs, which he ended up titling Equivalents.

Putting practice into theory, in his 1929 essay about the history of photography, Walter Benjamin astutely observed that abstraction and photography aren't mutually exclusive. “It is another nature which speaks to the camera rather than to the eye.” This gave further permission for artists to push the boundaries of photography, using it for other purposes outside of realism.

Alfred Stieglitz Equivalent

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1926. (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Abstract Photography Today

Now a widely accepted artistic genre, photographers like Aaron Siskind and Minor White are known for their work, which borders on painterly. In fact, Siskind worked closely with Pollock during the 1950s and 1960s.

Currently, Thomas Ruff and Wolfgang Tillmans are two of the leading names in abstract photography. Ruff, in particular, explores the possibilities of manipulating web images into unrecognizable forms. He also often takes from scientific sources, such as in his Cassini series, which originated from NASA photographs. Interestingly, Tillmans uses the development process itself in his work, with his Silver series using the reaction of photographic paper to light in order to create abstract photographs.

Wolfgang Tillmans contemporary abstract photography

Wolfgang Tillmans, Freischwimmer 55, 2004. (Photo: Regen Projects)

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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