Diarmuid Costello
The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 58, Issue 4, October 2018, Pages 385–400

An interesting article on Photography and Abstraction. Costello outlines some key considerations and definitions relating to:

  • Abstraction in Art and Photography
  • Photography itself
  • describes a taxonomy of different categories of abstraction

Paper Abstract
There is confusion about what counts as abstraction in photography: art theorists class very different kinds of photographs as abstract, and common philosophical views of photography, if true, should cause us to doubt their very possibility. I address two questions here: ‘What is Abstraction?’ and ‘What is Abstraction in Photography?’ To the answer the second, I briefly consider a third: ‘What is Photography?’ so that the resulting account is not undermined by a poor theory of photography. In answer to my target question, I outline a schematic (and non-exhaustive) typology of kinds of work generically typed as ‘abstract’ in order to bring out some differences between them. I distinguish ‘proto’, ‘faux’, ‘constructed faux’, ‘weak’, ‘strong’, ‘constructed’ and ‘concrete’ abstraction, although the differences between them are not always clear-cut and there is room for debate about borderline cases. My goal is not to resolve all such cases, but to show: (i) that there is a range of broadly identifiable kinds of abstraction in photography; (ii) that images can be abstract in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons; and (iii) why certain images are not abstract, despite being widely typed as such.

My Notes from Costello’s paper


  • In art theory, ‘abstract’ tends to be used as a contrast category to ‘”figurative’ and means essentially non-depictive.
  • A picture is abstract when one can no longer see any recognizably three-dimensional objects in it.
  • Pictures that are abstract in this sense may still trigger a perception of depth (as when one shape or colour seems to float in front of, or recede behind, or be seen through, another) but cannot prompt us to see three-dimensional objects in their surfaces, on pain on collapsing back into depiction.
  • Clement Greenburg (1993) indicates Recognition of everyday three-dimensional objects is sufficient to cue perception of such space, and is as such incompatible with abstraction proper
  • Abstract pictures may facilitate an experience of seeing relations of depth, overlap and transparency that are not literally present (but not everyday objects) as ‘non-veridical seeing without recognition of volumetric form’ (Newall 2011). Perception of volumetric form, so construed, would mark the difference, in Wollheim’s terms, between ‘abstract’ and ‘”figurative’ seeing-in.11
  • Abstract painting is twofold in a distinctive sense; it permits limited perception of depth and spatial relations between forms, planes and lines … but rules out perception of three-dimensional objects on pain of collapsing back into “figuration … or depiction.
  • Abstraction in art is typically eliminative or reductive: it removes features deemed inessential to something’s continued existence as an entity of a given kind p399


  • key component of photography “is the role of light in generating the image”
  • an item is a photograph if and only if it is an image that is a product of a photographic process, where a photographic process includes (1) a photographic event as well as (2) processes for the production of images (drawn from Dominic McIver Lopes 2012).
  • An item is a photograph if and only if it is an image that is a product of (1) a photographic event and (2) processes for the production of images that (3*) generally ensure belief-independent feature-tracking.

Photography & Abstraction

  • Gottfried Jäger, on such questions, by presenting photographic abstraction, in broadly modernist terms, as a reduction to essence

Costello’s Abstraction taxonomy is described in this additional post.