on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Abstraction in Photography

The Willing Suspension of Recognition

Guy Tal

Professional photographic artist, author and speaker working primarily in the Western US.


This question of realism, let it then be clearly understood, regards not in the least degree the fundamental truth, but only the technical method, of a work of art. Be as ideal or as abstract as you please, you will be none the less veracious. ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

Two experiences come to my mind when I think about abstract art. The first occurred nearly two decades ago at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. I was there to see an exhibit celebrating what would have been Ansel Adams’s 100th birthday. After getting my fill of photography, while wandering around the museum, I heard muffled giggling from one of the other exhibit halls. A young couple was standing in front of what seemed to be a large purple rectangle hanging on the wall, pointing and snickering. I waited for them to leave and went to take a closer look. I wondered if I had missed something; but no, that’s all it was: a large purple rectangle hanging on a white wall. My next thought was: “This is why so many people think modern art is absurd,” but I soon realised that several seconds had passed and I was still standing there, transfixed, staring at the thing. Its colour mesmerised me: a shade of deep, warm violet I have never seen before and can’t describe. It seemed to penetrate my mind and dominate my attention despite offering no details, or anything else I could associate any coherent meaning with. Something about it was jarring to me and I couldn’t look away. I could feel it in my gut, and I enjoyed it. Hours later, I still thought about it and something in me wanted to go back, just to stand there and stare at it again.

Lichen Moon - Abstraction in Photography Guy Tal

The second experience happened when I was a university student. On my way to meet a friend at the art school, I noticed a poster of stacked white and coloured rectangles hanging in one of the halls. When my friend arrived, I pointed to the poster and made a cynical remark. “It’s a tree,” my friend told me, and at first I thought he was joking. He pointed to another poster—a beautiful painting of a red tree against a blue backdrop hanging further down the hall—and told me it was painted by the same artist: Dutch painter Piet Mondrian.

..our visual system evolved to recognise what we are looking at, decide how to feel about it (or associate some meaning with it), and what to do about it
“Why would someone who could paint like that end up drawing stacked rectangles?” I asked my friend, who tried to explain, but admittedly I didn’t fully appreciate his answer and wrote it off as pretentious artspeak. The true answer and its profound implications in fact didn’t occur to me until years later when I recalled this exchange with a tinge of embarrassment.

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