In the mid eighties, I wandered into a dive shop looking for new fins. On the counter was a coffee table book of underwater photographs. The title was Within a Rainbowed Sea, and the photographer was somebody I’d never heard of named Chris Newbert. I picked it up and leafed through it, my jaw dropping a bit further with every turned page. . I’d never seen anything like the abstract close-ups. They were arresting in design and color, and they were full of gorgeous detail. I bought a copy on the spot, even though it was expensive.
Most of the photographs were taken in the South Pacific or the Red Sea, both places that I’d never dived at the time. I didn’t know the animals in the photographs, so I didn’t have a frame of reference, When I looked at the pictures, I was looking at the patterns and shapes. Years later, after many trips to the South Pacific and one to the Red Sea (some with Chris), I looked at the picture differently. I knew the flora and fauna (mostly the latter) well, had photographed most of them, and, rather than shapes, I saw the animals. A lot of the magic was gone.
Now I say that I was looking through the picture at what I imagine the photographer saw. In documentary photography or journalism, that can be a good thing. In art, it’s usually not. I want my viewers to look at my pictures. A lot of what I do photographically is arranged at making that happen.
In painted abstracts there may be no reference to the real world at all. However, even paintings can suffer if the viewer creates a reference in her mind. For many years, my wife and I had a abstract watercolor in our dining room. One day, I said, “You know, that shape right there reminds me of a sting ray.” She replied, “I wish you hadn’t told me that.” In a month or so, the painting was in the garage.
Photographic abstracts are a tricky thing because there’s always something in the world that forms the basis for the image. The point of an abstract photograph is to get the viewer to appreciate the image without regard for the thing that was actually in front of the lens. Sometimes—consider Weston’s pepper—the image is so strong and so well-seen that knowing the subject well doesn’t get in the way; in fact, that knowledge can enhance the experience, as the viewer realizes that he’s never seen a common object that way before.
Most of us lack Weston’s eye, and most of the time, the viewer’s knowledge of the subject gets in the way. If the image is strong enough, the viewer puts the subject out of her mind. If not, well…
Last night I attended an ImageMakers meeting. Many of the attendees said that when presented with an abstract, they didn’t want the photographer to explain what they were looking at; they wanted to appreciate the image without all the mental baggage that comes along with too much knowledge.
For some of the other people in the room, the first questions were about the subject and about how the image was made. Those are the easiest questions for the viewer to ask, and the simplest for the photographer to answer, but they are not the most important questions in appreciating art, and, for many people, they may be counterproductive.