The term “abstract” has this interesting double meaning as denoting pure shape and form (“abstract art”) but also as a summary (of e.g. a scientific article).
I rarely undertake to make abstract pictures. But seemingly they are all around me and somehow I come back from many shoots in nature with at least a few pictures one could call abstract. Hm, I am taking pictures without intention. What’s going on here?
Under the influence of modernism (and especially Kandinsky), Alfred Stieglitz came in the 1920’s up with his theory of equivalence. Equivalence there means that colors, shapes and lines reflect the “inner vibrations of the soul”. For Stieglitz, these reflections of his inner life could be found in quite abstract pictures of clouds. He said “My cloud photographs are equivalents of my most profound life experiences, my basic philosophy of life.”
Hilariously, his wife Georgia O’Keefe much later commented in an interview that these photos were “really scary stuff”. Well, if the checkerboard on top of the post is equivalent to my inner vibrations maybe I should be scared or rather worried…
But, yes, I think Stieglitz’s theory is a good reminder that we don’t approach nature as objective observers. In seeing we always carry the baggage of who we are, our values and experiences. As I mentioned earlier, this is not something I greatly appreciate but I do recognize, as Ansel Adams said, that in every photograph there are at least two people: the photographer and the viewer. But I don’t think this means that this is all that is there. In fact, I believe that most of my abstract photographs were born in moments when I could throw off this baggage and started seeing things as they are.
We perceive nature in layers. If I look down on a forest from a mountain the forest will be all lines, texture and pattern. If I walk in the same forest, it will look very differently. If again, I knee down and stir among the leaves I will see an abundance of life at a different scale. And I can continue to reveal layers of the forest if I dig into the earth and into the kingdom of roots and fungi. Of course, all these things are part of the same reality and entity we call a forest. But somehow our perception can process these things only piecemeal. Of course, I can only speak for myself, but I can’t get an even mental picture of the forest where it’s shape on the outside, inside and on different scales are all part of one single entity. I can’t, indeed, see the forest for the trees. At any given time, it seems to me, our perception is locked into a certain scale, perspective and – meaning.
Looking at the lake surrounded by trees we do notice that trees are reflected on the water and that the water is rippled by waves. It takes me usually quite some time to let go of this “meaningful” picture and to see abstract forms, shapes and patterns like in the photo above. Is it then, that in calming down I can see a different layer of nature? Or is this just proof for the remarkable human talent for pattern recognition and abstraction? Is abstraction, the fondness of pure shape and form just a peculiarity of the human mind or is it, as Plato thought, something immanent to and transcending reality?
If we look at the history of abstract art we realize that it is with us since the days of cave paintings. That seems to suggest that abstraction is part of the human experience of reality. Interestingly, the first “school” of abstract art might have been Ch’an (Zen) painting in 13th century China. There, however, abstraction was not understood as expression of our inner life but as revelation about the inner reality of nature.
I can’t tell what might be the objective truth here. What I can tell, though, is that these moments, where I can see abstraction in nature, seem to me like glimpses beyond my own limitations. And that means not only seeing pure shapes and patterns, but in fact a summary, an abstract of how things truly are.