Photo Fetishes: Abstract vs. Vernacular Photography

Many photographers, including myself, have particular fetishes when it comes to photography. For some strange reason, I find manhole covers and overhead power lines fascinating. Quite possibly it’s because I associate them with geometric forms. But I generally shoot them from a distance, often in context with their surroundings. I used to tag these “abstract” in my photo library, but I’ve since found a better way.

You’ve probably heard me use the term “vernacular” before, a moniker applied to the practice of photographing common, everyday objects because you’ve made observations about them and find them of visual interest. Family snapshots, vacation photos, even photos of friends all come under the umbrella of vernacular photography, but I reserve this label specifically for objects I find intriguing.

“Vernacular photographs are types of accidental art, in that they often are unintentionally artistic.”

— Wikipedia

Knowing this as I do, I still find myself at odds when it comes to differentiating these two genres. Often the shooting distance itself can make all the difference. I don’t usually get down on my hands and knees to photograph a manhole cover (which may account for me still being one with the living) but if I did, it’s geometric forms, removed from the context of the object itself, would most definitely qualify as abstract.

“An abstract photograph may isolate a fragment of a natural scene in order to remove its inherent context from the viewer, it may be purposely staged to create a seemingly unreal appearance from real objects, or it may involve the use of color, light, shadow, texture, shape and/or form to convey a feeling, sensation or impression”

—Wikipedia

In art, the difference between the abstract and the non-representational is a little more concrete. Art can be an “abstraction” of a recognizable subject, but it can also be “non-representational” in that the abstraction is taken so far as to make any resemblance to the physical world unrecognizable. I think the real challenge of abstract photography, in which our cameras literally “record” what’s in front of them, is to compose the shot in such a way as to use the subject’s pure form to convey a feeling or emotion. And since that may mean getting closer, I often equip myself with a macro lens, or bring an extension tube or closeup lens along for the ride.

So regardless of whether your goal is abstract or vernacular, load up some film, drop in a flash memory card, and have fun!

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Dreux Sawyer

Dreux Sawyer

Thoughts on user experience, product design, photography, cameras and life in general