Straight Photography And Abstraction

November 1st, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Philip Hyde, Straight Photography, Documentary and Abstraction

Reflections, San Juan River, Utah by Philip Hyde. This medium format 6X7 photograph exhibits aspects of abstract photography but is not entirely abstract. The shoreline sandbars, grasses and rocks help clarify what is depicted, while the cliff face is only abstract in that it is upside-down. It can be readily identified as a reflection. Philip Hyde on numerous occasions photographed up-side-down reflections, in some cases without any visual orientation of nearby right-side-up objects. He was the first landscape photographer to photograph an upside-down reflection without any nearby clues.

Some contemporary photographers believe that straight photography is documentary and limited to showing “reality” exactly as it might be seen on an ordinary day as you or I walk by it. A few photographers even try to “brand” themselves natural or straight photographers by sticking to realism and realistic portrayals of their subject. See photographer Guy Tal’s rant against this tendency, “No Lesser An Art.” The realism-only interpretation of straight photography is narrow and defeats the original purpose as envisioned by straight photography’s pioneers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston.

The objective of the photography of Paul Strand for example was not to appear “real” or to depict “reality.” Conversely, Paul Strand’s photography, without any manipulation, showed ordinary objects in a way that caused them to transcend reality.

The website, Ted’s Photographics, describes the work of Paul Strand:

Paul Strand fused together the two seemingly contradictory approaches of documentary and abstraction. For years he only produced contact prints, his pictures were pure, direct and devoid of trickery. His work represented the final break with the traditional concepts of photographic subject matter.

Paul Strand was both the “Father of Abstract Photography” and the “Father of Straight Photography.” Recently photographer Paul Grecian wrote a thought-provoking blog post, “Abstract? It’s All Abstract…” He said that all photographs are abstract because they are different than the objects they depict. While this may be true, a comment by Marty Golin argued that the reverse is also true, that photography is all “reality.” An interesting discussion developed.

Pool In Scorpion Gulch, Escalante Wilderness, now the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, 1970 by Philip Hyde. First published in "Slickrock: The Canyon Country of Southeast Utah" by Edward Abbey and Philip Hyde. Scott Nichols of Scott Nichols Gallery in San Francisco has been a good advisor from time to time, helping me select images of Dad's to make into archival digital prints. He voted against this one. Paraphrasing, he said for an abstraction it was not abstract enough. He said that collectors wouldn't get it and wouldn't buy it. What do you think? I don't necessarily disagree with his conclusions, but this photograph is one of my own personal favorites, even if it won't sell. Fans of "Slickrock" probably like it. I did not respond at the time but I might have said something about Dad doing with this photograph partly what Paul Strand did. This is an example of the cross-over between documentary and abstract photography. Whether people 'get it' or not, it is a documentary recording of what was there, with a touch of abstraction.

Today some photography intentionally, some unintentionally, is going toward Pictorialism, often taking on aspects of the worst of that genre, sometimes exhibiting the best it offered. In some instances creative expression beyond and after the point of capture can be quite freeing. Extraordinary new types of work are developing. Straight photography has held back some photographers, they feel. With the advent of Photoshop and image alteration, combination, stitching, shifts in focus, and many other special effects or manipulations of color, the creative juices are flowing again. To read more on advanced Photoshop techniques see the blog post, “Monday Blog Blog: Photoshop For Pros.” On the other hand, some photographers today take subject matter that could potentially be transcendent and render it ordinary or even cliché through photographer-imposed affectations and stylization.

Alfred Stieglitz devoted the last issue ever published of his magazine Camera Work to Paul Strand. In Camera Work, Alfred Stieglitz described what constitutes an important contribution to photography:

In the history of photography there are but few photographers who, from the point of view of expression, have really done work of any importance. And by importance we mean work that has some relatively lasting quality, that element which gives all art its real significance….Paul Strand has added something to what has gone before. The work is brutally direct. Devoid of all flim-flam; devoid of trickery and of any “ism”; devoid of any attempt to mystify an ignorant public, including the photographers themselves.

In Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends 1839-1960, Helmut Gernsheim wrote:

Paul Strand brought a new vision to photography, discovering in the most ordinary objects significant forms full of aesthetic appeal. Nearly all of his pictures broke new ground both in subject matter and in its presentation…. “Abstract Pattern Made by Bowls” and other experiments in abstraction were the result of Strand’s seeing at “Gallery 291” the work of Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and others. [Modernist Abstract Impressionists.]

Paul Strand himself explained this process:

I was trying to apply their then strange abstract principles to photography in order to understand them. Once understanding what the aesthetic elements of a picture were, I tried to bring this knowledge to objective reality in the “White Fence”, the “Viaduct” and other New York photographs…. Subject matter all around me seemed inexhaustible….Yet what makes these photographs is their objectivity. This objectivity is of the very essence of photography, its contribution and at the same time its limitation. The photographer’s problem is to see clearly the limitations and at the same time the potential qualities of his medium, for it is precisely here that honesty no less than intensity of vision is the pre-requisite of a living expression. The fullest realization of this is accomplished without tricks of process or manipulation, through the use of straight photographic methods.

Alders Reflected, Andrew Molera State Park, Big Sur Coast, California, 2009 by David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90. This photograph was made in honor of a well-known vintage black and white photograph by Philip Hyde made on the far Northern California Coast in the Redwoods also called "Alders Reflected." Philip Hyde's "Alders Reflected" does not show any trees or other objects right-side-up, but frames only the up-side-down reflections of alders with a slight wind movement of the water that causes the reflections to break up into diamond-shaped bits of water surface in places. Philip Hyde's "Alders Reflected" has not yet come into the digital era and may not. We may make modern darkroom silver prints of it instead.

Abstraction, more than a technique is the result of selecting a composition that removes the objects in the frame from their context as found in “reality” and changes their nature in the photograph. Another one of the great abstract photographers was Brett Weston. Read more about Brett Weston’s influence in the blog post, “The Hidden Brett Weston.” Webster’s Third International Dictionary Unabridged defines abstract as, “Expressing a property, quality, attribute, or relation viewed apart from the other characteristics inherent in or constituting an object; of a fine art: presenting or possessing schematic or generalized form frequently suggested by and having obscure resemblance to natural appearances through an ordering of pictorial or sculptural elements.” Thus, photographing a field of corn and defocusing the image does not make the photograph abstract, it merely makes it fuzzy. Photographing a corn leaf in such a way that it takes on separate characteristics from those typically associated with corn, is abstract photography.

Do you agree or disagree? What do you feel makes a photograph abstract? Are you drawn more to straight photography, Pictorialism or something in-between?



  1. pj says:

    Wow. Much to ponder here David.

    I tend to agree that photography by nature is abstract, at least to some degree, simply because by framing a photograph a certain way we abstract out only part of what is in front of us. Black and white is even more so because we remove color.

    I’m particularly drawn to doing abstracts, but at the same time I work in a way that would be called ‘straight’, and I do little in the way of post processing — maybe some minor cropping and contrast adjustment and the like. Pretty much just basic darkroom stuff. The abstracts already exist in front of me when I’m out with a camera. I don’t need to create them, I just need to find them.

    I once read a site where some guy was bloviating about how to make abstract photo art. He said all you need to do is make an exposure, it didn’t matter what of, dink around with it in Photoshop, distort it beyond recognition, and bingo — you have a work of art ready for a gallery wall. It wasn’t a blog so I couldn’t comment and tell the guy what I thought of that, so I just got out of there. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Abstraction comes before the shutter is released, not after, regardless of whether you shoot straight or more pictorially.

    And before I forget, the photos on this post, both yours and your father’s, are superb.

  2. Thank you, PJ for your thoughtful contribution. The idea that just installing a Fuzzbaby or reworking a straight photograph in Photoshop makes it abstract is a misconception of contemporary photographers who have never studied photography and don’t know the history of the medium. Why not benefit and learn from the trail blazed by previous masters? Many photographers today might be pleasantly surprised to discover some of the astounding abstract straight photography by Paul Strand and others. If they studied it, as Paul Strand studied the original abstract impressionist painters, they might learn the true essence of abstraction. There’s nothing wrong with changing a photograph in Photoshop to the point where it might be called abstract, but at some point it is no longer a photograph. It has become another art form.

  3. pj says:

    As long as we’re on the subject of abstract photography, I’d recommend looking into the works of Brett Weston and Aaron Siskind to anyone interested. Two true masters in my opinion.

  4. Hi PJ, thank you for those recommendations. I am a big fan of Brett Weston. I’ll link to my post about him from this post. Now that you mention Aaron Siskind, I’ll look at his work again. If you have any more abstract photographers you would suggest looking into, please don’t hesitate to share with readers here. I know you have studied it more than I have. I’m mainly familiar with how abstract photography started. I believe that your studying the work of abstract photographers before you is part of the reason your own abstracts are so good…?

  5. I have a picture of ice that I took. Most photographers would know it is ice, but it is mostly a deep blue abstraction of lines and patterns. To me, that is what abstract means – something that doesn’t have to be defined to be appreciated.


  6. Hi Sharon, thank you for the icy comment, ha ha. I like your definition. It’s simple, practical and yet open-ended. If you would like to post a link to the page on your website where your ice photo is, that would be great, if you have it up on your site or blog.

  7. Greg Russell says:

    David, I think PJ’s comment about all photography being at least somewhat abstract holds some merit, and I definitely agree with Guy’s blog post you linked to. For some, there seems to be this stigma that in photography, the creative process never really begins, or most generously, ends with the click of the shutter.

    Although I don’t think that you can take *any* photograph and make it abstract in the digital darkroom (sensu PJ’s comment above), I think that we do have a huge number of creative tools available to us today.

    I create in the field AND in the digital darkroom.

    To answer your question more specifically, I find abstract in the intimate landscape. I suppose its all about framing, but I love that aspect of landscape photography.


  8. Hi Greg, thank you for sharing your thoughts about Photoshop use and abstract photography. I have no problem at all with the skilled creative use of Photoshop, or even making photographs more abstract in Photoshop, but the practice of making photographs abstract in Photoshop that were not already can in some cases be dubious, in my opinion. I’m sure somebody will show me images that prove me wrong and I would be happy for it. I believe all rules are made to be broken, even those I lay down here, maybe especially those I lay down here. Huntington Witherill’s abstract floral images were made specifically with the idea in mind to render them abstract in Photoshop. However, he exhibits a great deal of skill in Photoshop: He also was a straight photographer for 30 years, was exhibited in the best venues and taught workshops next to some of the best landscape photographers including my dad. He’s not merely making poorly executed images with poor technical quality and deciding to fuzzy them up or some other control in Photoshop to make them into a decent photograph. In other words, he’s not using Photoshop as a crutch for bad photography. That is what I object to in myself and others.

  9. Richard Wong says:

    I don’t know if I have a strict definition of what makes an abstract photograph but what I label as abstract in my own work typically implies that the photo is about lines or colors while with less of an emphasis on subject matter.

  10. Thanks for the insight into the way you label your own photographs, Richard. Your definition is particularly of interest in light of one of my favorite quotes by Cole Weston, “To see color as form means looking at the image in a new way, trying to free oneself from absorption in subject matter,” that his family has on his website: . I happened to read that quote of Cole Weston’s right after I bought my first digital camera in March 2009. I took it as I sign and an unspoken guideline to what I was to do with a camera. My father’s career and work was tied to the places and to a particular type of landscape photography, or wilderness photography as you might call it, with little or no sign of humans in the frame. In writing, a sense of place, setting or scene is very important, and I like to convey that in my photographs too, but I also do not want to be attached to any particular type of place or category of subject matter ever, not just when photographing abstracts. At the beginning and near the end of my father’s career, he too broke his own mold and made more portraits and photographs of architecture and places that were not wild, but held interest. However, what I take you are saying is that usually your work is tied to place and subject matter, but when you make abstract photographs there is more emphasis on lines and colors. Very interesting. It shows in your work. I feel you capture place and subject matter very well, and do interesting abstracts too, though I haven’t seen as many of those.

  11. Here’s a link to my shot, David. The only post-processing was a crop, adding some contrast and sharpening. The original file was this blue.


  12. Hi Sharon, thank you for sharing that beautiful photograph here. I like the patterns. It is a great example of abstract photography. The idea is not that we cannot recognized the subject matter, as I misstated on Paul Grecian’s blog post about abstract photography, but that the forms and artistic aspects of the image transcend the subject matter, which is similar to what Richard Wong said too.

  13. pj says:

    First of all, just to be perfectly clear, I have no issues with artists using Photoshop to continue their vision beyond the tripping of the shutter. It’s as valid an approach as any other and much striking work can be done that way when it’s used thoughtfully. It’s just not the way I work.

    Your example of Witherill to my mind reinforces what I said earlier about vision and abstraction coming before the exposure is made. He made these specifically with the idea in mind to abstract them further in Photoshop, but the intention was there before the photo was made. They were planned that way, and they worked for him. That’s a far cry from making a poor shot, mangling it in Photoshop hoping to salvage something, and then calling it abstract art.

  14. Hi PJ, thank you for clarifying the way you see it. I agree completely. You have also further clarified my position on the issue as well.

  15. Terry Gratuit says:

    I always loved abstracts. Most other landscapes now look like others before.

  16. Thank you, Terry, for the comment. I can understand how you feel.

  17. Thank you so much for “Landscape Photography Blogger”… I enjoy reading… I think it is like a bond connecting people who feel close to the way your parents perceived nature. They must have been extremely fine people. The photographs and the writings of your father show it. And I think, your mother took part of many of his work.

    Referring to your question… about Straight Photography and Abstraction, I agree fully. For photographing “straight” it is of no importance, if the photograph is showing an abstract image or not. “Straight” means: pure photographic technique. Nothing else. And I am sure that there is no “in-between”. There is no “half-straight” or “half-pictorialistic”.

    When I made my first “abstract” looking photographs, I was not aware of it. They just happened. I remember, sitting in the Alps anywhere between Italy and Switzerland, looking around at the extremely exciting panorama, I suddenly thought: I am surrounded by such a beautiful and really impressive landscape, – and where do I point my camera? (You can see it on my website).

    A photograph is going to become “abstract”, when you internalize its motive so far, that you forget it; when you begin to see nothing else than lines and image areas, composed in the rectangular field of your focusing screen. Later, working out the idea that caused you making the photograph, it may happen that you begin to feel that there in this developing abstract picture is located the spirit of the moment you pressed the button.

    Thanks again! Receive my best wishes, coming to you from the other side of the earth,

    Peter-Cornell Richter

    (Freiburg and Bochum, Germany)

  18. Hi Peter-Cornell Richter, Thank you for writing and reading. It is an honor to hear from a photographer, scholar and teacher of photography like yourself. I enjoyed your website and images, particularly the various photographs of water and waves. All of your photographs exhibit a refreshing way of seeing the world. I appreciate your kind words about my blog and especially my parents, without whom of course, none of this would be possible. I like what you say about no half and half: a photograph is either straight or pictorialist, period. Also, it makes sense that abstraction can be especially revealing of the spirit of the photographer at the moment of shutter release.

  19. Hi David, Thank you for another excellent, thought provoking article. I just wanted to say I have enjoyed this blog since the beginning and it has been a valuable resource in my own photographic career. Reading about your Dad and his place in history along other great photographers has been fascinating, educational and refreshing given the obsession with technology and equipment in the industry today.
    I am truly looking forward to reading more and learning along the way, both from your writing and the photography in the site.

    Best, Robert

  20. Hi Robert, thank you for your comment and for reading. I looked at your site and appreciate what you are doing in photography as well. I will enjoy looking more at your blog too. Your images are admirable because they are perfect examples of landscapes that will sell, yet they are tasteful and artfully done. I like that you have specialized in the close-up and that you have been teaching and sharing an awareness of nature. Great work. I am honored to have your participation here.

  21. Greg Boyer says:

    Is black and white photography abstract? Very good article and I have enjoyed the responses also. Much to ponder.

  22. Hi Greg, thank you for participating in the discussion. Dad said black and white is more abstract than color. I believe other masters have made similar statements as well. I read somewhere that black and white is abstract by its very nature because of course “reality” is not black and white, but is in color.

  23. Greg Boyer says:

    Only if you’re not color blind…… 😉

  24. Hi Greg, nope that’s right. A bizarre story about color-blindness: Dad originally wanted to be a pilot. Along with taking photography in high school and San Francisco City College, he also took pilot ground school at City College before World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in what was then the Army Air Corp. In those days every guy coming in wanted to be a pilot and they were “washing them out” as fast as they could. They washed out Dad when he took the color test. They said he was color blind, which of course is quite ironic considering that later he became famous for helping to pioneer color landscape photography. He was also renowned for his dye transfer printing that took quite an accurate color eye. Later in his service when he was up to become a gunnery trainer, they gave him the color test again and the officer said, “You’re not color blind at all. You’re just a little nervous about this test.”

  25. My dad had a similar experience, David. His eyes weren’t good enough so he became a paratrooper and was a pathfinder at DDay. Later in the war, they relaxed their standards and he would have qualified. He loved to fly.


  26. Hi Sharon, thank you for adding this. Sounds like your father played an important role in one of the few, if not the only “good” war.

  27. Subhash says:

    Thank you for this article! I am very interested in abstract photography and in spite of being able to work with photoshop quite well I try to get the picture done widely in the camera. But no matter if the Photograph is abstract or not, for me it has to be transcend in some way otherwise I would not make it or at least would not show it.

  28. Thank you for your visit here, Subhash. I agree. A photograph must be transcendent in some way to be a portfolio image worth showing widely.

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