Abstract Nature Photography

Abstract photographs ask viewers to solve a riddle, engaging them more deeply with the image

The mind is a fascinating thing. One of the great unknowns when we share our photographs is how the viewer will respond. Once the artist has made an exposure and then edited it for presentation, a new life begins for any image shared with others. Each of us brings his or her mind full of personal and photographic history to the viewing process.

When a scenic landscape photograph is viewed, we know where the sky is and where to “stand” in the image. But on the other end of the spectrum, when we make abstract photographs of nature, questions about orientation or scale or subject come immediately to mind for the viewer.

example of abstract nature photography: eucalyptus bark

Photo A.

Recently, I’ve been adding new images to my long-evolving series of abstract nature photographs using my patio waterfall, which has wonderful water ripples right in my backyard. My very first ripple abstracts were made in 1976 at Golden Gate Canyon State Park in Colorado, where I built trails for the park. One day, I sat next to a small stream as I ate my lunch and noticed the patterns of ripples in the stream. I had my camera with me, and the series began. Fast forward all these years, and I’m still fascinated by the endless patterns and blending colors that I can capture with my macro lens.

As I have shown these images over the years, I have enjoyed people’s reactions. Their first instinct is to define the content. “What is that?” It’s as if knowing the content is required to appreciate the artist’s effort. “Ah, so it’s mud. Well, then, it is beautiful. I had no idea what it was at first.” If I don’t tell the viewer what the subject is right away, then their imagination is activated. The mind works to solve the riddle, and, in the process, the viewer gets more engaged with the composition.

abstract nature photography: water ripples

Photo B.

The intriguing part is how differently people see an abstract photograph. “I see a face.” “I see silk fabric.” “I see an elephant!” If the questions are answered quickly, then the viewer tends to disengage sooner. I have often watched people flip through photography books. “Ah, lovely view of the Grand Canyon…” Flip the page. “Wow, what great light on Half Dome that day…” Flip the page. “Now, what is this? Is it a rock or a tree?” If the caption is readily visible, the reader looks urgently for the answer. “Oh, of course, it is rock detail!” Flip the page.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the word abstract, related to art, as “having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content.” Photographic abstractions of nature are based in reality but composed to give no clear reference to it. With an abstract photograph, we know the subject is real. The mind wants answers!

example of abstract nature photography: abalone shell

Photo C.

So, here are the answers: Photo A is eucalyptus bark. Photo B is one of the new ripple images taken of my waterfall on my patio. Photo C is also newly taken of my waterfall and is of an abalone shell with water and bubbles flowing over it. Does knowing the subject help with your appreciation of the image?

I find the idea of abstract nature photography an exciting challenge and the results a significant addition to the overall portrait that I want my photographs to make about the landscape. I want my portrait of the earth to be like a symphony, sounding the many notes of the land’s diversity. How do you want to develop your portrait of our planet?

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.