(© Ian Plant) We all know the familiar world which we see and experience in our daily lives, chocked full of cars and strip malls and fast food restaurants, a literal world where a tree is a tree and a rock is a rock. But there’s also a second world, one that you can only see if you learn to look with your “other eyes” as a photographer: a world where a tree is not a tree and a rock is not a rock. I’m not talking about bizarre futuristic surgical implants or some cryptic mystical philosophy. Instead, I’m talking about the power of abstract thinking.
Minor White once famously said: “One should photograph objects, not only for what they are, but for what else they are.” This isn’t just mumbo jumbo. What White was getting at here is learning to think in the abstract.
But what does it mean to “think in the abstract” about objects? On one level, it means thinking about your subjects not in terms of waterfalls, mountains, and trees, but rather in terms of perspective (depth and scale); space (the placement and arrangement of elements); and shapes (triangles, curves, lines, circles, and other shapes). This is a vital first step towards improving one’s composition skills.
On another level, thinking in the abstract means seeing past the mere literal manifestation of your subject; it is about trying to reveal that which is hidden from casual observation. A photographer’s job is to see the world as others do not, and to find a way to capture that vision to share with others. Part of this is finding a way to tell your subject’s story, waiting for the “decisive moment” when something revealing or poignant happens.
For the photo above, I used a long exposure (30 seconds) to capture something that would not be seen by the naked eye—in this case, a record of the cumulative passage of time. In doing so, I was able to portray my subject (geothermal steam rising from vents on the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park) in a unique and unexpected way. The long exposure reveals compositional shapes that would have otherwise not been apparent; the preternatural colors of twilight help enhance the mood.
Abstract thinking helps unlock the doors of creative artistic expression. All you have to do is to learn to see things not only for what they are, but for what else they are. Sounds easy, right?
P.S. Visit my Dreamscapes photoblog for more tips and techniques from me and some of my colleagues. Join my monthly email mailing list for photo tips and exclusive offers delivered straight to your inbox!