There’s something special about being able to see a scene, take the essence of it and turn it into a abstract photograph.
I think every photographer has tried making abstract portrait photography, abstract landscape photographs or abstract architecture photographs at one point or another in their lives. Sometimes it turns out well, sometimes it doesn’t.
But in order to better create abstract photos in the future, I think it helps to get inspiration from the most famous abstract photographers (including contemporary abstract photographers) of the last decade.
I hope you can use ideas from this list of experimental photographers to push your own work forward.
What is Abstract Photography?
Before we get into the list of best abstract photographers, let’s first take a moment to define abstract photography.
It can be difficult to be precise about what makes an abstract photo, but generally it deals with isolating a specific portion of an object or scene to see the details present out of context. This causes the viewer to make associations that they normally wouldn’t, harnessing their imagination to think about the familiar in a new way.
Compared to surreal photography, abstract photography is still concerned with the real world, whereas surreal photos can show something completely new.
This means that there are many categories of abstract photography, some of which are covered in this article, including:
- Abstract nature photography
- Abstract urban photography
- Abstract texture photography
- Abstract portrait photography
The 6 Most Famous Abstract Photographers
Harry Callahan was involved in abstract city photography, taking photos of small details of cities where he lived, as well as regularly photographing his wife and daughter. In later years, he spent time in France where he made images that are more environmental in nature.
He was a lifelong educator, first teaching photography in Chicago, before moving to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he was a strong proponent of his students using their own lives as inspiration for their photography. You can see through his photography that he believed in clean lines, and had an eye for bright, clear objects.
As an abstract architecture photographer, he left behind a strong body of work, but really it is his abstract portrait photography work of his own wife and daughter over many years that has given him a lasting legacy.
A close friend of Callahan’s, who also taught at the same schools, Aaron Siskind nonetheless exhibited his own brand of abstract texture photography, inspired more by the abstract expressionist painters.
He photographed architecture and cities, as well as nature, but focused more on the textures that made up an object rather than the object himself, and this meant that you can really see the expressionist influence in his pictures.
Siskind’s gritty pictures give a real impression of life in New York and beyond in the middle of last century, almost better than direct documentary photography is able to produce, and show the care he put into framing and creating the most expressive photo that he could.
Not only was Edward Weston one of the foremost abstract nature photographers of the 20th Century, he was also an Olympian, competing in archery.
He had wide ranging photographic interests, primarily concerned with portrait photography, but made a number of highly regarded still-life images of vegetables in the 1930s that are clear examples of abstract fine art photography.
Although Weston’s work was well thought of at the time, it’s lack of commercial intent meant that he never made much money from his photography, although his reputation as an excellent photographer has only increased with time, making his prints all the more valuable today.
Ola Kolehmainen is one few big names in abstract urban photography working today. He specializes in the details of cities and buildings, using reflections, light and straight lines to create his own brand of abstract color photography.
Kolehmainen’s work focuses in particular on modern buildings, using architecture as a jumping off point to create deceptively simple images that use color to draw the eye and unlock the imagination.
Unusually for a modern photographer, Kolehmainen claims to not use digital manipulation, printing his work by hand and mounting it on plexiglass to create a strong reflection. This reflection then gives another edge of abstraction to the photo.
If you’re looking for one of the best abstract landscape photographers working today, then the intentional camera movement (ICM) photos of Andrew Gray easily fit the bill.
He stakes out locations along the Northumberland coast of England, and further afield, waiting for the ideal light, then adds to this by blending exposures and editing his photos for color and contrast.
Despite the layer of abstraction introduced by Gray’s process, his landscapes are still recognizable if you know the area where he operates, such as in the photos of Bamburgh Castle and Lindisfarne Castle below.
I personally find Gray’s work to be among the most inspirational abstract photography that I have seen, with his focus on real-world large landscapes, rather than concentrating on the small details as most abstract photographers seem to do.
As well as his website, you can also follow Andrew Gray on Instagram, and should be sure to check out his popular YouTube channel where he covers some of the work that goes into his edits – an excellent resource for budding abstract nature photographers.
One of the pioneers of abstract film photography, Jaroslav Rossler was taking photos at a time when abstraction was just starting to become a part of the general photography lexicon.
His most popular abstract works were taken in the 1920s and early 30s, after which he had a gap of several decades where he didn’t produce any works.
But I think that his early black and white works speak for themselves as to the power of his vision and artistry.