If Truth be Told

lines, photograph

“That’s part of what I love about abstracts.It’s not the symbolism; it’s not the metaphor. It’s the simple chord of tonalities… Such tones just make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.”

– Brooks Jensen

I also love abstraction but have sort of a love-hate relationship with it. The quote from Jensen comes from an essay he wrote that states categorically that abstract photographs do not sell (he concludes that if you do them, you’ll have to do it for yourself). This has also been my experience. It’s too bad…

I suspect abstraction in all art forms can make it less accessible to many people. Think of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, 20th century atonal music, your most recent trip to any Museum of Modern Art… I happen to enjoy a lot of that type of thing (or I used to, as I get older I sometimes don’t have the energy to unravel the tones in the chord).

Photography bears perhaps an extra burden when it comes to abstraction because, by it’s very nature, photographs have a quality of verisimilitude – the quality of truth. Unlike any other art form, photography is always of something out there in the world. It cannot completely divorce itself from that pedigree, no matter how much interpretive license the photographer takes. Usually the first thing a viewer asks about an abstract photograph is “What is that a photograph of?”. They try to relate it back to the object that was actually in front of the camera when the shutter clicked.

A good abstract photograph actually takes advantage of this – it relies on the close juxtaposition of the object the photograph is of and the degree to which that object is somehow hidden behind the chord of tonalities Jensen refers to.

But an abstract photograph can never completely let go of what it is a photograph of. I wonder to what degree the weight of that underlying thing-ness undermines the abstract-ness of the piece?