Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Abstract Realism in Photography

Photography tends to be regarded as purely realistic, but if you crop objects in ways that are unusual, you can create abstract effects. I am reminded of this when I look at some of Andrew Wyeth's watercolors, which are sometimes so graphic and even calligraphic that the realism is combined with abstraction; people think of Wyeth as a realist painter, but there's a lot of abstraction in there. (Just as most critics who accused Wyeth of sentimentality had no clue as the real nature of those lives and places he chose to paint, and how hard-edged and unsentimental they really were.)

In photography, you can focus in on design elements to make an abstraction. This is cropping, or editing, composing carefully to create a non-specific, even non-realistic effect. Patterns exist everywhere, in nature and in man-made objects and structures. Modernist architecture, with its glass-and-steel forms, is a goldmine of layered reflections, geometric angles, and abstracted forms meeting in angles of refraction and reflection that are studies in pure geometry with no humanist content.

The pure line of trees in winter, black on white, can be graphic content with no narrative, no illustrative interpretation, nothing but calligraphy. We give meaning to what we see by putting our projections into it. A line of trees can convey a mood, but it's abstract realism. Fractal math shows us how much symmetry there is in nature, while at the same time conveying higher levels of order that subsume chaos. But meaning doesn't require an answer, if it is self-contained and self-confident. A line of trees become pure line.

Realism in photography is itself an illusion. What we think is accurate recording of image as fact is, rather, open to interpretation and dissolution into something less solid with meaning. The ambiguous line is a real line. Abstraction arises out of observation of natural forms; a truth seen in painting after painting by Georgia O'Keeffe.

So let's not delude ourselves into believing either that photography is a purely naturalistic medium, or that photography only represents objective views. Photography is both realistic and capable of high levels of abstraction, even without manipulation or extended techniques. Sometimes just composing the image in the viewfinder is a discovery process about form and line, rather than a portrait of something claimed to be real.

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