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  • Jon Brock

Seeing the Subject Part II: Abstraction and Representation

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

In Part I of Seeing the Subject I talked about the process of finding a subject and imagining ways of seeing it as a precursor to making an image.

The subject of course does not need to take a physical form. As well as making a photograph that represents a physical entity such as a place, a person, or an object like a tree or rock, the subject can be more abstract such as a concept, an idea or an emotion.

What is more many pictures have multiple subjects on different levels. This is an inevitable consequence of a photographer trying to create depth by provoking an emotional response from the viewer or using their own relationship to a subject to trigger ways of seeing. The subject can be about more than the objects in the frame. Indeed many photographers seek to convey a message (usually an abstract idea or concept such as climate change or celebration) or utilise metaphor in their image making.

It is worth defining terms here. Abstraction is the cognitive process of representing ideas and concepts in a simplified or generalised manner through the use of distillation of key features and qualities and applying these in another domain.

I will not rehearse the lengthy historic argument between on one hand representative photography which prioritises depicting physical subjects in a recognisable way both objectively and faithfully and abstract photography which seeks to move away from literal representations. But there are a few points to make that I think that helped my understanding.

Firstly no photograph can fully represent the objective truth of a subject. Selection and distillation mean we see only a partial view of the subject in any one photograph. When you add digital manipulation, the potential for composite techniques or even AI generation of images we rely entirely on the integrity of the photographer to represent a subject faithfully. If the intent is to depict a particular subject in the physical world the image has to be congruent with that subject.

Secondly techniques like Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) or deliberately throwing the image out of focus do not by themselves make a picture meaningfully abstract. The picture may not be as literal as a well focused picture but what then is the subject? A subject less picture has little chance of longevity.

Once you are clear the subject is not in the frame, it can become liberating

Thirdly the distinction between subject and object is key. As mentioned above although at one level most deliberate photography has some element of abstraction in the form of selection and distillation there is a rubicon to cross between aiming to depict a physical subject inside the frame and what we might call abstract work. It is one thing to reference an abstract idea as one makes an image intending to depict a physical subject. It is quite another to completely take the subject out of the frame. In other words make an image where the real subject is not at all the object in the frame.

Again intent matters here. If a photographer intends to represent a subject that has physical existence in the real world (and the frame) then we can describe the work as primarily representational. This is true even if the photographer intends to communicate associated abstract ideas such as their emotions and relationships with the subject. In fact it is important for the photographer to clearly identify these associated abstract ideas because by identifying them one can start to look for these qualities in the main subject and use these ideas to shape the imagination.

To bring this to life, my work depicting place is primarily representational. I want to represent a physical place faithfully via a photograph. I tend to work in places I have come to know well seeking to express my feelings for the place, ideally showing it in unique or special conditions or showing a unique perspective. The abstract ideas I have about the subject due to my relationship influence how I see it and I can weave these into my imagination - but the subject remains primarily the place. The goal is representational and the main subject is rooted in the physical world.

It is only by defining the subject of a picture one can begin to see it properly

By contrast my abstract work is not just inspired by or references abstract ideas, the abstract idea is the subject - alchemy, beauty, industrial relics, the processes of time, inner worlds. These all sit on an abstraction spectrum from working a thematic abstract idea like the colour of light through to fully abstracted concepts like my symbolic representation work. My Mulgrave project in particular was an exercise in exploring what was possible with abstract art in one location. The subject of each picture was rarely the object or objects in the frame.

Why is it important to be clear in one’s own mind about this distinction when making a picture of a subject? Because it is only by defining the subject of a picture one can begin to see it properly. If the subject is in the physical world then it helps to also explicitly identify the abstract ideas you might have about that subject and use those to stimulate your image making. If the subject itself is an abstract concept then again defining the qualities and features of that subject can help shape your imagination.

Once you are clear the subject is not in the frame, it can become liberating. Everything in front of you such as rocks, geology, boats, windows, paint, rust, trees, water, ice, machinery, leaves, bricks, mud, colour, light, nails, flowers, seaweed, jetsam, rope or any other thing you choose becomes a tool to paint an image in your imagination.

Seeing the subject whether or not the subject has physical existence and using the imagination to construct an image that is unique is at the heart of original photographic art. It is the photographer’s intent for the subject of the work that determines whether we can see the work as abstract or as representing a physical subject. Either way seeing further into that subject is key to better photography.

In Part III of this series I will explore the role of project orientated work and in particular the value of portfolios and sequences in shaping (I will use the word feeding) your vision.

(c) Jon Brock 2023.


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