7 categories of Abstraction in Photography

Costello, D. 2018, ‘What is Abstraction in Photography’, British Journal of Aesthetics Vol. 58, No. 4, pp. 385–400.

Costello identifies and describes 7 categories of Abstraction in Photography. While I am not convinced about the titles Costello has developed as there is a suggestion of hierarchy embedded in these titles, the descriptors are really useful as are the artists Costello identifies as examples.

1. Proto Abstraction

It typically depicts recognisable objects, but framed or lit in such a way as to draw attention, when photographed, to the resulting image’s design properties.
This is achieved by a combination of bold and simplified gestalts, unusual points of view, strong lighting, close ups and other crops that direct attention to visual patterning in the image.
Given, however, that this still involves recognition of everyday objects, it clearly cannot count as abstract on the forgoing account. It is formalist, rather than abstract proper.

2. Faux Abstraction

It consists chiefly of various strategies of estrangement and defamiliarisation that isolate objects from their everyday environments or frame them in such a way as to delay or frustrate recognition of what one is looking at.
It is hard to be sure what one is looking at—though it is clear that one is looking at something—another.
A common approach in Photography
The act of cutting away the rest of the world with the image edge, fundamental too much (if not all) photography, often works to estrange and abstract simultaneously.
Jaromir Funke’s Abstract Fotos (1927–9) of complicated shadow patterns

3. Constructed faux abstraction

A variant of faux abstraction.
Comprises works in which the photographer constructs a scene that can be photographed so as to give rise to an image that seems (but only seems) to be abstract.

4. Weak Abstraction

Records the world in such a way as to no longer give rise to a clear experience of seeing “figurative content or volumentric form.
In the resulting images one sees planes in shallow space rather than volumetric forms, even if those planes consist of real objects. That one recognizes worldly objects such as walls and other planar surfaces photographed parallel to the picture plane, rather than just planes of colour, shapes or lines is what makes such images weakly abstract.
It also shows that recognizing three-dimensional objects need not involve perception of volumetric form.
Weak abstraction can collapse back into proto abstraction

5. Strong Abstraction

Like weak abstraction, strong abstraction involves straight recording of the world. Unlike weak abstraction, it records the world in such a way as to no longer give rise to an experience, even an ambiguous or liminal one, of seeing everyday objects. It is possible to take a weakly abstract work and render it strongly abstract simply by cropping away those parts of the image, such as wall edges, that enable us to recognize objects in its surface.

6. Constructed Abstraction

Involves the construction of an image from scratch
No straight recording of the world, if that is understood to be of a prior, camera-independent reality, is involved.
Artists include Wolfgang Tillmans, Walead Beshty and James Welling among others.

7. Concrete abstraction

May initially seem close to what the Gottfried Jäger calls ‘Concrete Photography.’ On Jäger’s account, this foregrounds artefacts of photographic processes or events, but has no denotative content. It takes the medium, processes, materials and mechanisms of photography as both the means and end.