June 17, 2016
I frequently lead workshops called “Urban Abstracts” and the question that usually comes to mind for any potential attendee is “What do you mean by urban abstracts?”. Of course, as a creative photographer who likes to keep his options open, I don’t tend to fence myself in with pedantic barriers. My definition is therefore intentionally loose – an urban abstract is any abstract graphic image found in a town or city. For the type of images I enjoy taking, I’ve found that the cityscape holds the most potential, but these abstract photographs can be found in any setting.
That’s one of the charms, of course, because these images can be found almost anywhere and mostly very close to home, no matter where you live. There is no need to travel to distant exotic places to find valuable photos. In fact, your neighborhood is a great place to start. It can be both visually stimulating and creatively rewarding to discover successful imagery in the mundane and ordinary things that most people pass by on a daily basis without giving it a second thought.
In order to make an attractive image out of the ordinary (e.g. street signs or lane markings), we need to develop the ability to see the familiar with new eyes – to see the world around us as a child experiences this environment for the first time . As Austrian photographer Ernst Haas once said, “I’m not interested in photographing new things; I’m interested in seeing new things.’
This requires regular practice by constantly looking at the world and looking for photographic opportunities. Very soon you will see images in the most unusual and unexpected places. That’s one of the reasons why I always have a camera with me.
It’s important to shed all preconceptions about what makes an attractive topic. We have to look beyond the everyday function or purpose of something to see it as a purely visual entity. I call it “looking beyond the obvious.”
For example, a manhole cover, drainpipe, or road markings are not immediately recognizable as photogenic subjects until we begin to see them in terms of pattern, texture, shape, color, and tone. Then we start photographing what we really see. This leads to a significantly different approach.
This process is often aided by isolating part of the subject – by getting closer (zooming in with our feet or with a telephoto lens) and focusing our attention on the element or elements of the subject that are most visually appealing. I refer to this as a “reductionist” approach to composition – removing any unwanted or unnecessary elements in the viewfinder until we’re left with the core of the image.
Attention to detail is vital in this process, so pay close attention to what’s left in the frame – especially around the edges. The use of color, line, and shape are important considerations. Think about compositional balance (how elements like light and dark tones relate to each other) and use lines to move the viewer around the image, bringing them to your focal point (if any).
I’ve written before about the value of working on projects or themes, and this is an approach I find particularly useful in my urban abstract work. Ironically, since these images can be found in abundance just about anywhere, creating photos can be more difficult as the number of options can overwhelm our visual senses. A thematic or project-based approach limits possibilities and focuses our attention, thereby making it easier to choose what to photograph. For example, you might go out with the intention of photographing the color red or focus on transportation. It takes a disciplined approach, but I know from personal experience that the rewards make self-restraint worthwhile. Working on a subject in this way gives us purpose and gives coherence to the resulting images we capture.
I close with a health warning drawn from personal experience. This type of photography can be incredibly addictive. It becomes impossible to leave the house without seeing potential images everywhere (I even take a camera to the local supermarket). Friends and family will refuse to stand next to you as you kneel at the curb for a particularly photogenic double yellow line. Your dog will crave regular treats as a reward for his patience every time you spend 15 minutes photographing the lines and colors of parked cars. Trust me – your life will never be the same again.
ideas to try
Yellow double lines, painted arrows, stop and give way markings can be transformed into works of art.
Rust and rot can be found in most areas. I’ve spent hours photographing rusty fence posts, rotting railroad ties and peeling paint.
You can find interesting patterns and shapes in the most mundane buildings. Lighting and frames are the key to success.
Puddles, glass-fronted office buildings and storefronts offer abstract potential to the keen-eyed, imaginative photographer.
Analysis of images
The spiral piano
The image below was taken at a hotel in Reykjavik, Iceland. I was initially drawn to the winding staircase, but it wasn’t enough to warrant a picture of its own.
Looking at it a little more closely, I noticed that the design and the way the light fell created shadows that reminded me of piano keys (hence the title). That was the extra dimension needed to make the image more interesting than just a simple architectural record shot.
Wheels within wheels
I took the shot below on a long weekend trip to Copenhagen, Denmark. Bikes seem to be the preferred mode of transportation downtown, so I wanted to make sure I had a photo to remind me of that. The blue bike lane with the symbol painted on it was a good place to start, but it needed something different. I waited for a passing cyclist to come into view. The slight blur of the wheel (indicating movement) and the warm slash of the orange reflector on the wheel (as opposed to the blue) were happy elements that make the shot for me.
You could be taking a close-up one minute, a telephoto shot of a distant building the next, or a wide-angle shot of a nearby subject. To minimize the time spent changing lenses, a wide-angle zoom lens offers maximum flexibility and portability.
A polarizer is great for boosting colors or removing reflections from non-metallic surfaces.
A macro lens is useful if you like taking lots of close-ups. However, many “standard” zooms (and even compact cameras) offer close-up capability (not true macro), and this can be good enough for all but the most specialized applications.