Reading Photos – Abstract Reality

Some photographs make me want to keep looking at them or return to them again and again. Why is this? It’s not just subject or composition, but a generic set of cues and clues that seem to apply to many of my favourite images.  I thought I’d share my ideas about some of these: Abstract Reality; Message; Symbol; Metaphor.

Abstract Reality:

All photographs are abstractions to some extent: we frame a slice of time and present it as a 2-dimensional image, often in black & white, so we’ve removed time, depth, information from outside the frame and often colour from our representation of reality.  Doing this means that the photograph is bound to be an abstraction of reality.  Even apparently “straight” photographs have a degree of abstraction about them but our brains are trained through life in an image-based society to interpret them as literal.  If you doubt this, bear in mind that previously-isolated hill tribes without a culture of image making do not recognise a photograph taken of a person or object then shown to them immediately as an image of that person or object.

dead trees with telephoto lens

This image was taken at about twice normal focal length (100mm on 35mm format) to compress distance and give a more 2-dimensional appearance.  The effect I wanted was that the sand dune and sky appeared as if it were a backdrop in a stage set and the trees were the performers.
Deadvlei, Namibia. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

The same telephoto shot of dead trees with the colour removed, giving a very different feel

And this is the same image as above with the colour removed, giving a very different feel.  It has lost the backdrop effect I wanted but has a more graphic, drawn quality, which in this case I didn’t want.
Deadvlei, Namibia. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

As a visual code we allow moving objects to blur and we concentrate the viewer’s attention by manipulating what is in and out of focus.  We also imply the third dimension of depth by changing the focal length of the lens and the depth of field.

Beyond this, we can also manipulate the lighting.  Done subtly we may not notice that a mood has been enhanced or a detail highlighted.  We might also detect that something is different – not quite real-world without realising why.  Artificial light or computer manipulation might be used to give a controlled look to the image.

musician with abstract qualities

A telephoto lens to compress distance, use of monochrome, selective focus to blur the instrument and flash to add light and reflections were all used in this image for their abstract qualities.  The focus is on the musician’s ear, putting the horn out of focus but it remains the first thing that draws the eye due to the highlight reflections.  The shadow around the musician was added in the computer to make it look like an aura surrounding him.
Flugelhorn, London. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

infrared image of surrealist garden

A moderately wide lens and a small aperture were used to keep detail in focus but infrared film and filter give an other-worldly effect. The picture was taken in a garden (Las Posas, Mexico) whose creator was fascinated by surrealism. The monochrome infrared was used to enhance this dream/nightmare quality.
Copyright Malcolm Raggett


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