Monday, 23 July 2012

Art in the abstract?

Woodland at sunset (4 seconds handheld, no manipulation)
I’ve been thinking a great deal about abstract photography and images in general since reading an article on abstract art in New Scientist last week.  I’m not sure exactly what it is that makes a picture ‘abstract’; in a lot of my photography, I like to explore the grey area between the recognisable and the unrecognisable in the visual image.  Is abstraction a form, or is it a mood?  

To my mind, abstract nature photography usually means one of two things:

1)      It could be a picture of a particular detail or pattern in nature, something which challenges your understanding to recognise what it is.

Pine cone
2)      The picture has been taken with some element of blur, either out of focus, or with a long exposure or movement blur.
Woodland at sunset
(4 seconds handheld)

What seems interesting to me is that these two approaches offer directly opposing means of creating a picture.  In the first, the image is made from showing the detail without the wider picture to make sense of it; in the second, the wider picture is shown without the details in the shapes.  Perhaps we need both shape and detail in order to show an image of visual reality, but what is it that we’re looking for in an ‘abstract’ nature photograph?  Perhaps it’s a picture that forces the viewer to engage the imagination; a picture so general in its content, and so lacking in detail, that it won’t make sense without input from the viewer. 

This understanding of the general is a difference between human nature and animal nature recognised as far back as 1755 by Etinne Bonnot de Condillac in his Treatise on Animals [Treaté des Animaux]:
‘As the instinct of beast make no, or almost no abstractions…And because they make few abstractions, they have few general ideas.’ 
So perhaps abstract art has a deeper sense of humanity; it’s a way to turning the visual image to a more general idea to be interpreted with the most human of imaginations.  In photographing wildlife and nature, I tend to think of myself offering pictures of nature that people are wired by evolution to find meaning in.  Abstraction gives the general idea, without the details, just as the paragraph of a scientific paper labelled ‘Abstract’, tells of the overall form of the whole paper, without the details.  So how do we find meaning in an image so general that it doesn’t depict a recognisable image?
Pine woodland canopy from below

Kat Austen’s enlightening article in New Scientist (14th July, 2012), ‘In the eye of the beholder’, or as the front cover puts it, ‘How abstract art appeals to your brain’, has some very telling findings about the nature of abstract art and the relationship it creates with the human viewer.  In summary, Austen makes a strong case that appreciation of abstract painting is genuine – in scientific studies, people can (on the whole) tell the difference between a picture painted by a human and one painted by an animal (the automatic assumption being that animals don’t do art).
One interesting implication from the British Journal of Psychology (vol. 102, p. 49) is that the human brain responds positively to fractal patterns, ‘repeating motifs that reoccur at different scales, whether you zoom in or zoom out of a canvas’.  Examples such as the unfurling fronds of the fern and the jagged peaks of a mountain are given.  But this goes back further in the history of art: only last weekend, I was presenting some of my own research on the aesthetics and expression of nature in visual art (in relation to music and language), at a conference in London.  I’ve been thinking in particular about William Gilpin’s ‘picturesque’ aesthetic of the late 18th century, which finds expression in the irregularities and imperfections of nature, rather than perfect forms and smooth shapes:

Tho art often abounds with regularity, it does not follow, that all art must necessarily do so.  The picturesque eye, it is true, finds its chief objects in nature… The point lies here: to make an object in a peculiar manner picturesque, there must be a proportion of roughness; so much at least, as to make an opposition [with beauty]. [‘On Picturesque Beauty’, 1792].

As soon as we hear such qualities and visual shapes alone described as expressive, no matter what type of picture they may be seen in, the argument for abstract imagery based upon natural forms begins to make sense.  The great painter and lover of nature Claude Monet once told Lilla Cabot Perry that he wished he'd been born blind, suddenly gaining sight later in life so that he could begin to paint "without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him."
Pine woodland in the rain (photographed out of focus and
underexposed through a rain-soaked car windscreen).
This tendency towards natural forms also suggests that a nature photographer may have the upper hand in creating abstract images successfully, since the patterns of nature themselves are always the subject of the picture.  This also brings to my mind Frans Lanting’s photograph of the big bang which opens his stunning Life project – the object in the picture is in fact nothing more than the rings of a tree trunk, although that hardly matters – the pattern is a natural one and is aesthetically intriguing.

One of my interests in abstract images has been creating blurred pictures either by handheld long exposures (four seconds is usually good) or simply by shooting out of focus.  So how might the human viewer make sense of such an approach?  Research suggests that people looking at abstract art often claim to be able to see something in the picture, even if they cannot identify what it is.  This is a point made brilliantly by the artist Robert Peppernell (who has been personally involved in much of this research), whose abstract paintings are often influenced by older masterpieces though rendered entirely abstract (compare his Paradox with Valerio Castello’s Moses Striking the Rock).

I love Pepperell’s paintings for their poetic qualities which can be sensed, perhaps even seen, throughout his work, whether or not there is a clear subject in the image.  Good abstract imagery doesn’t just create some sensuous response in us: it can reveal something about the world, perhaps even in a more profound way than realistic photography by hiding the details, leaving only their shadows; the image has a more poetic appeal.  Perhaps it takes a poet to explain, so this is how it was put by Rainer Maria Rilke:

‘Things are not all as graspable and sayable as on the whole we are led to believe; most events are unsayable, occur in a space that no word has ever penetrated, and most unsayable of all art works of art, mysterious existences whose life endures alongside ours, which passes away.’ [Letter of 17th February 1903].
You can sense the overall form more strongly when the details are covered over, just as in reading Rilke’s poetry you might not always grasp the meaning of the words, but you sense the tone of voice.  Sometimes the poetic is more telling.

This is not always the case, of course.  Most of my abstract images have been influenced by the great pioneers of art-photography just at the time Rilke was writing his best work, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Pictorial movement in photography was created after many photographers attempted to move the art of photography in line with the art of the Impressionist painters (this is rather ironic, since it’s often said that the Impressionists were themselves attempting to move away from the hard reality of the photographic image).  As an art form, Pictorial photography flourished into the early decades of the 20th century, only to be destroyed (like so many things) by the First World War, in which the emotions of shock, heartache, death and destruction gained a sense of immediacy that had not been seen before.  The photographic image that was most lifelike was able to convey the deepest emotion, even if that emotion was of horror: the disbelief that such an image could be real, competing with the certain knowledge that it was only too real.

Tree by a pond at twilight
(16 seconds handheld)
But of those 19th century photographers, I perhaps identify most closely with the approach favoured by the English school; the idea that the abstract nature photograph should not be manipulated – it should be a true photograph. The photographs of Alfred Maskell and the American Photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn demonstrate this visual mystery created only from blur and texture in a photograph.  The truth of an image is most important now in the digital age when any wonders of modern imagery can be created – some of this is wonderful indeed, but if the point is to reveal something about the natural, visual world, then a fabricated image loses its meaning.  

Good, abstract art will always hold a strong element of truth in abstract art.  These, for me, are photographs which do not lie, but which reveal a truth that is hidden from the eye.  There’s poetry in nature: real poetry, in real nature.

(n.b. none of the photographs in this blog have been digitally manipulated during processing. So there!)

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