abstraction, critical writing, large format

on abstraction

February 3, 2023

I want to pick up on an earlier post on photography and abstraction in relation to the practice of large format photography in order to begin to dig into what we mean by abstraction. There are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, the word abstract is vague, imprecise, and ambiguous, and secondly there has been little written about abstraction despite its centrality to the visual arts in the 20th century. Thirdly, there is even less written on abstraction in photography.

These reasons are underpinned by the habitual disdain for theoretical abstractions, which once informed empiricism, the philosophy with which the English-speaking world is most associated. This restricts abstraction to the mind wherein is identified as an abstract or general idea formed from sense data or sensory impressions of classes of objects or patterns in nature–ie, the general idea of rocks as opposed to these particular rocks. This post, then begins to explore what is conceptually meant by abstraction.

rock abstraction #1

Abstraction in the visual arts in Australia is traditionally tied to both the modernist paintings in The Field Exhibition in the late 1960s, and to the modernist understanding of abstraction of Clement Greenberg’s conception of abstract visual art as the pinnacle of the medium of painting, due to it having succeeded (according to Greenberg) in stripping away other media.  The art historical conception that is found in exhibition catalogues and art history books interprets  abstraction as the absence of figuration or depiction of everyday objects. The consequence is that Patrick McCaughey, an Australian modernist follower of Greenberg, held that photographers should forget abstraction because it is not suited to the medium of photography. That was Greenberg’s position as well: the medium of photography in its essence was an art of documenting the world as opposed to documentary being a subdivision of photography.

If we are to explore abstraction in photography we need to step away from the habits and conventions of this modernist cultural frame in the sense of shifting our patterns of thought beyond familiar aesthetic norms so we can open up abstraction more broadly to new tendencies to stasis or change, eruptions and becomings. We need to look at abstraction conceptually, and not just in terms of what it has been as outlined in Lyle Rexer’s The Edge of Vision.

Pages: 1 2

You Might Also Like


  • Reply David Hume February 15, 2023 at 3:28 pm

    I enjoyed reading your article thanks Gary. I struggle with the idea of this photo as abstract, because I see the notion of dividing things into whole or part as rather arbitrary: a whole flower is a very small part of a garden for example, and yet a photo of a flower would not be considered an abstract photo. A garden in turn is only a fragment of a city, and so on. And yet if what we generally agree to be an an abstract painting – an abstract Gerhard Richter, for example, (because with Richter it’s easy to classify his abstracts as such because lots of his work is figurative) that work can be seen to be abstract because of its lack of figuration. So I don’t think we need to introduce a special case of the idea of abstraction just for photography. To my way of thinking it’s easy to make an abstract photo – by exposing light-sensitive materials but without there being a recognisable physical object in the photo – but a photo of a part of a rock is not abstract in that way unless it’s not obvious as a rock. So I think we can use the same definition of abstraction for painting and photography (and sculpture) without any problem; but we just end up with different sets of what photos are abstract and what are not. To me it seems more complicated than it need be to have different meanings for abstraction for photos when you could have the same meaning for photos, paintings and sculptures if you wanted to. It sort of ties it all in and makes it easier to follow, and easier to see what each medium has to offer. Anyway, it’s always fun to read and think about your blog posts – so thanks, and keep ’em coming! Cheers.

    • Reply Gary Sauer-Thompson February 15, 2023 at 4:11 pm

      David, The post was an attempt to start moving beyond the modernist art historical conception of abstraction as an absence of figuration or the depiction of physical objects. Hence the emphasis on the etymology or the root meaning of abstract and abstraction –the latter being “the act or process of separating in thought, of considering a thing independently of its associations.” This perspective allows us to start to see abstraction from a different perspective which opens up the idea of different levels of abstraction.

      I would accept that this conceptual approach to abstraction would apply to both painting and photography.

    Leave a Reply

    error: Content is protected !!