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May 12, 2014

Abstract action: Why smartphone photos don’t have to be of anything

Thanks to smartphones, more photos are taken these days than at any other time in human history. Yet the majority of these shots have a very obvious, clearly identifiable subject.

However, if you’re looking for ways to experiment with your Lumia you don’t have to go obvious and the reason why not can be found in the history of art. Just like all history, art history has some key turning points. One such example would be the first oil on canvas painting in the 15th century. Another would be Kandinsky’s ‘first’ abstract painting in 1911. (Although there’s a good claim that Swedish artist Hilma af Klint may have beaten him to it in her studio in 1907) Another would be when Marcel Duchamp produces his first ‘Ready Made’ in 1915. And yet another would be that moment in 1947 when Jackson Pollock began his first drip paintings. All are momentous points in the history of art that have gone on to alter everything that comes after them.

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Did photography give birth to abstract art?

Of course, the invention of photography was also a dramatic force in altering the direction in which painting would develop. If a camera could make ‘perfect’ ‘copies’ of the world, why should a painter try to mimic it? Why not set off in a another direction altogether? Some may argue abstract painting was a direct result of the invention of photography.

Due to a cameras unfailing ability to capture real life, it is easy to think that is all it should do. In some ways photography, in our social consciousness, has got stuck in representation. But it needn’t be stuck there forever. There are many ways to make photographs which do not rely upon representation.

Abstract since the beginning

In fact, ever since photography first appeared, people have explored these abstract ideas. In the days of enlargers and darkrooms it was possible to create ‘photographs’ without even using a camera. ‘Photograms’ were made by directly placing objects on light sensitive paper. The resulting image is dependent on how much light passes through the object and therefore always maintains a certain serendipitous nature. Famously, Man Ray (who called them ‘Rayographs’) used this technique throughout the 1920s.

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More recently, numerous artists have made the most of making abstract images with a camera. Richard Caldicott’s beautiful, ethereal images of floating colour are actually Tupperware containers with coloured light passing through them!

And superstar German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has also made the most of darkroom accidents and explored the properties of photography’s chemical basis. Tillmans is famous for his documentary style recording of everyday life and even before his experiments in abstraction some of his work, such as this close up of the T-shirt, had a distinct abstract quality.

In short, if you’re looking for inspiration for your own abstract photography, there are many photographers to check out. More importantly though is having your Lumia at hand and looking at the world with a different eye.

Doubtless many of you have gone done this road already. If you fall into this group, we’d love to see examples of your work in the comments below as well any tips you’d like to share. If you’re just starting out, be sure to leave your questions their too.