It dawned on me recently that a kind of photograph I especially enjoy – whether mine or other peoples’ – is what I would characterize as “nearly but not quite abstract”. Abstraction is found across the visual arts, in disciplines such as painting, drawing, and photography. A defining feature of abstraction is the absence of objective referents. Abstraction in art is not concerned with representing the real world faithfully, or at all.

For photographers, abstraction creates some special challenges because photography is a representational medium. When the shutter release is pressed, the digital sensor or film records what is imaged by the lens. As a result, photographers whose goal is abstraction are working against the medium’s inherent nature. To create abstract photographs, they must draw on techniques that reduce or eliminate reference points to the reality that was in front of the lens.

Based on this conception of abstraction, I don’t make abstract photographs. However, I especially enjoy making nearly but not quite abstract photos. These may look abstract at first glance, but they are not because they are fully representational. They are a record of what was in front of the lens – just not necessarily an obvious, easy to understand record. I am particularly interested in making nearly but not quite abstract photographs that many other people could easily have seen had they simply looked. These don’t rely on exotic locations that few people will ever see, or viewpoints that can only be achieved at great expense, or with enormous difficulty. Rather, they surround us in our daily lives, but are rarely noticed.

This photograph, more than any other I have made, comes closest to the ideas I’m trying to articulate here.

Most people who look at this image find it disorienting, and are happy to describe it as “abstract”. And yet it is full representational: this is what I saw when I stood there, with water nearly pouring over the top my boots in this flooded forest.

Shadows of tree trunks blend together with reflections of branches. Stones, twigs and branches on the submerged forest floor are clearly visible in patches of sunlight. The planes of the water’s surface, the forest floor and the sky merge together in the frame, yet can still be distinguished.

People sometimes use the term abstract when what they really mean is "not obvious what it is". Pictures that emphasize simplicity and form are not necessarily abstract.

This is a celebration of the form of the eastern white cedar. Even if the viewer is from a part of the world where these trees do not grow, it should be clear that the subject is tree-related.

There is no abstraction in this image.

The line between abstract and nearly but not quite abstract is blurry. Its position depends strongly on the viewers, and what they bring to the table in terms of knowledge and experience.

Where the previous image wasn't meant to be an example of nearly but not quite abstract, this one was, but it doesn't quite succeed.

I very much enjoy this picture. However, anyone who has ever watched water move around a rock in a stream should quickly recognize what they're seeing.

For a picture to succeed as nearly but not quite abstract, not only does it need objective referents that viewers can understand, but also it needs to have a high degree of non-obviousness. As much as I like this picture, it's perhaps too obvious.

Then again, many people don't take the time to study water and how it moves -- so for those people this image might work as nearly but not quite abstract.

This image and the next one are fully representational and absolutely literal. Nonetheless, they approach abstractness, especially the second one, due to the unusual patterns and textures.

A naturalist familiar with southern Ontario's flora and fauna might immediately recognize the tooth marks of a beaver in the first image, and the traces left by a boring beetle on the inner surface of the bark that came off a dead tree in the second image.

Absent this knowledge, both images might seem mysterious and somewhat obscure -- nudging them towards nearly but not quite abstract.


Animals are not the only creatures that leave traces in nature that can take us close to abstraction.

Dozens of people walk past this scene every day on a forest path. Seen in its context, there is no mystery here. But separated from its context through a photograph on a cold, wet day, this heavily worked surface becomes a near-abstraction for anyone unfamiliar with the tools of forestry.

Reflections, especially at night, are a reliable source of abstraction, in both natural scenes (as in the first photo in this series), and in human constructed landscapes.

Unlike the previous two examples, no particular expertise is needed to understand the reference points in these images. Most city dwellers will have no trouble recognizing that buildings and glass are present in these scenes.

Nonetheless, as in the first example in this set, whether or not the images succeed in being "nearly but not quite abstract" depends on there being just enough ambiguity to create some uncertainty.

In playing the "nearly but not quite abstract" game in photography, we're always in danger of being too obscure even when we include objective referents.

This image is full of reference points. The inner side of a metal culvert is clearly visible, as are the stones on the stream bed surrounded by the culvert. A knowledgeable observer might recognize the bright curved line for the water's surface, and might understand that the stones are being seen through clear water.

But these reference points definitely are not obvious, perhaps even to someone who spends a lot of time around water.

If the viewer doesn't see or recognize any of the reference points we've included, does the photograph become abstract?

I enjoy this photo for itself. But I also recognize that most viewers will need a little help to understand what they're seeing. Therefore, when my goal for a photograph is to build understanding of something, I will surround it with other more understandable images that provide a larger context.

True abstraction in photography doesn't currently interest me. I am not yet bored with what I can actually see. But that doesn't mean that every photograph has to be literal and obvious.

Much of my work is quite literal, but as these examples show, I'm drawn to nearly but not quite abstract images that celebrate ambiguity while holding on to the representational tendency of photography.

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