This posting begins a series that will focus on the aesthetic tools that visual artists and communicators use, singly and in combination, to create still and moving images that accomplish specific communication objectives. Knowing the objective before we pick up a camera can help us select the most appropriate visual tool—or a combination—to maximize effectiveness. While the aesthetic dimensions (line, contrast, symmetry, gradation, composition…) are discussed in “how-to” art books, they generally don’t make the connection to either expressive objectives or communication strategies. To follow this series, go to <davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com> and click on “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page).
Photography provides a way of relating to the world in ways that are more conscious and engaging. In order to apply image making to these ends and accomplish specific objectives, there are some fundamental questions to consider. Why am I photographing? What subject matter and locations interest or attract me? And what are my aesthetic preferences? It’s this latter question that prompts this series. Being aware of our aesthetic tools as we photograph and then analyze the results, we gain clarity about our preferences, and that’s how we develop an “eye,” the ability to consistently produce images that successfully accomplish their objective. For instance, in the process of attenpting to make photographs that feed my soul, I discovered that the dimensions of Simplicity, Exquisite light and Geometry, singly or in combination, more often accomplished that objective—images I regard as “numinous.”
In studying healthy people, psychologist, Abraham Maslow, expanded his “hierarchy of needs” to include “Transcendence” and “Self-actualization” at the top of his pyramid. Just below these, he situated and described “Aesthetic needs, the appreciation and search for beauty, balance, and form.” My postings, taken together, constitute an abbreviated course in visual communication and aesthetics. If you’re serious about developing your “eye,” you could list the titles for reference, perhaps even copy and paste the descriptions to have at hand. Then, as you experience these dimensions in your image-making, by noticing which of the dimensions that hold the greatest appeal, you will be able to narrow and specify your preferences and work more consciously with them.
In addition to the information relating to the aesthetic tools and how best to use them toward accomplishing an objective, I will include contemplations or reflection on the personal and social significance of the topic or a keyword that relates to it.
First In The Series: I. Abstraction / Abstract Thinking
Anthropologists and sociologists consider thinking in abstractions to be one of the key traits in modern human behavior. It developed between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. They believe it was closely connected with the development of language. For instance, the word “Happiness” is an abstraction, referencing a state of being. The word “community” is an abstraction that references a kind of social grouping. (Above: An inverted candy dish).
Abstract thinking and seeing involve a process of inductive reasoning, synthesizing particular facts into a general conclusion or theory. In 1620 BCE, Frances Bacon, writing in Novum Organum, encouraged thinkers to collect specific facts before making generalizations. Before then, deductive reasoning was the norm, even prior to the ancient Greek philosophers. For instance, Thales (624-546 BCE) believed that everything in the universe was fundamentally water, and from that generalization, he deduced its forms as ice, snow, rivers, and seas. Deductive reasoning says “X” is bad (or good), therefore every example of “X” is bad (or good). It’s irrational because it begins with an assumption or opinion. On the other hand, scientific thinking is inductive, working from particular facts to develop generalized theories. It says every example of “X” has been proven to be bad (or good), therefore “X” is bad (or good). It’s rational because it synthesizes—constructs truth—from proven facts.
The universe is constantly moving in the direction of higher evolutionary impulses, creativity, abstraction, and meaning.
Artists and visual communicators use abstraction as a way to capture and hold attention. Subject matter that’s abstracted may not be readily identified, so viewers sometimes have to linger a while with an image in order to understand what they are seeing and why the artist chose to present it in a frame. Is there some meaning here, or is it just a pleasing image? (Above: Railroad wheels side-by-side)
Taken to extremes in modern art, when the image or form is unconcerned with literal depiction altogether, we refer to it as an “abstract” painting or sculpture. Whereas abstractions bear some resemblance to the real world, abstract works are free from it. I’m reminded of a Steve Martin movie where, confronted with a purely abstract sculpture, he says with a lilting voice, “What kinda deal is that?” (Above: Fender of a 1974 Javelin).
As an aesthetic dimension, abstraction tends to invite the viewer to make a connection to the real world—and thereby make generalizations. Individual to general; inductive. Purely abstract works, however, more often hide the artist’s intent and in the process create cognitive dissonance, challenging viewers to form their own opinion. Sometimes, the meaning of a work can be suggested by clues in a title, explanation, or artist’s statement.
Abstraction demands more from me than realism. Instead of reproducing something outside of me, now I go inward and use everything I’ve learned thus far in my life.
Susan Avishai (Artist)
In photography, abstraction is is an excellent tool to use when the objective is to capture and hold the viewer’s attention longer than if the subject could easily be identified. This is particularly the case when the photographer wants to challenge viewers to work a little harder to identify the subject and ideally to seek its meaning or significance. Because abstraction is largely a matter of minimizing easily recognizable features, it’s not good at providing information at a glance. (Above: highlights from water reflecting on the hull of a boat).
Reflections On Abstract Thinking
Psychologist Carl Jung wrote about abstract thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. In each instance, he said the process is inductive, requiring the rational-logical mind to assimilate and process the particulars in order to reach a more comprehensive understanding or feeling. In whole systems terms, it’s the relating of parts within a whole, ordering them in ways that produce a concept, picture, or sensation of the whole. Inductive process is higher order thinking in that it synthesizes a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
The same is true in social relations as an organizing principle. In Nation Formation: Towards a Theory of Abstract Community, Paul W. James argues that “a nation is an abstract community bringing together strangers who will never meet, resulting in real but abstracted and mediated relations—as opposed to personal relations.” At election time the American social climate becomes supersaturated with abstract labels such as “liberals,” “conservatives,” Democrats,” “Republicans,” “nationalism,” “democracy,” “socialism.” If asked, twenty people in separate rooms would provide twenty different opinions on what these abstract words mean.
Even the guiding principles of the United States Constitution are expressed in abstractions—purposefully, to allow for interpretation—which ensures vigorous debate. Generalities such as “liberty,” “freedom,” “justice,” “welfare,” “prosperity,” “militia” are polarizing because we don’t have a common understanding of their particular meanings. Politicians use abstract terms to gain votes and pass legislation. Words like “jobs,” “civility,” “great,” and “integrity” are never defined, leaving the context—and too often the attitude—for us to create meaning. Take the word “integrity.” Adolph Hitler was a man of integrity, totally convinced of the soundness of his vision for Germany. And he remained true to it until the end. In my opinion, one of the great contributions that journalists could make is requiring politicians and other interviewees to define their terms—be clear about what they mean—specifically.
Pay attention to minute particulars. Take care of the little ones. Generalization and abstraction are the pleas of the hypocrite, scoundrel, and knave.
Systemically speaking, “the whole organizes its parts.” That’s what a Constitution does for a nation. With that in hand, it’s incumbent upon the parts—“members” in a living system—to function simultaneously on two levels: self and others, that is, to continuously maintain the health and functionality of the individual, while ensuring the health and functionality of the wholes within which the members play a part. It’s right relations from individual to planet. (Above: An American Flag abstracted).
The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.
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