Viewpoints

Organising Abstract Photography

15/10/2019
Borrowing from music’s sonata form to help structure abstract portfolios
Back in 2010 when I was working on my Mulgrave portfolio of images I started to explore the potential impact of the other arts on photography, especially painting and music.

I had already grasped two fundamental points. The first was the importance of making sequences of connected images rather than isolated image masterpieces. The second was that I understood that there is a continuum of photographic intent from the representational (typified by grand place-based landscape vistas) to the abstract (where the subject of the photograph is rarely the object being photographed).

Representational photography, especially landscape documentary, is relatively easy to organise. The subject tends to dictate the structure resulting in organising frameworks such as geographic location, tree species or the ‘four seasons’.

However abstract or semi abstract sequences are more problematical as the subject or intent is rarely transparent. Nor should it be in many cases.

It struck me that this is not a new problem. Whilst listening to a Mozart Symphony I realised early classical composers were faced with the same dilemma. They may compose several musical phrases or themes but then had the challenge of weaving this into a piece of music lasting for a number of minutes to satisfy both an audience and themselves.

Thus was born the sonata form - a fairly consistent framework for organising abstract musical themes into longer pieces of music. The sonata structure has three main parts with an option of a top and/or tail introduction or finale.

1. Introduction (optional) often setting the scene for the piece and signalling its style, feel or tone
2. The exposition: a number of themes or musical phrases are stated
3. The development: the themes are developed and played with for a time
4. The recapitulation: the themes are restated often with a subtle shift (e.g. expressed in the dominant key).
5. The finale (optional) to close the movement.

Sometimes a short ‘bridge’ segment is composed to manage the transition between stages or themes.

The beauty of this organising framework is that it works on multiple levels. To a student of music for whom the structure is transparent, the skill and cleverness of the composer is there to see. And rules that are twisted or broken at the right moment in the right context can be highly impactful to the educated.

For the composer it is a fast way of creating structure for a composition allowing the composer to concentrate on the fluency between musical ideas. And the composer can put in as much sophistication into the composition as he or she wants.

For the lay listener the mixture of repetition (the exposition was traditionally repeated in order to make sure the musical themes were lodged in people’s heads) and the focus on natural connection and flow as the music played out was pleasant. The listener did not need to understand what was going on under the covers. It just sounded good.

So I set out to organise the second chapter of Mulgrave in sonata form. All the images were made in a area that can not be more than 30 square metres. And were shot on a large format camera Linhof Technikardan onto 5x4 transparency film.

Chapter two of Mulgrave has an introduction image which sets the tone for the sequence and introduces an idea (shadow) that will be played with in the development section.

'Mulgrave Introduction - nailed'
'Mulgrave Introduction - nailed'


The two main themes are then stated. Theme A is an abstract ‘straight line’ (with hint of a cross) pattern. The second instance of theme A introduces the rope concept.

'Mulgrave #A1'
'Mulgrave #A1'


'Mulgrave #A2'
'Mulgrave #A2'


Theme B is a ‘circle’ pattern. The second instance of the theme borrows from the nail idea in the introduction image.

'Mulgrave #B1'
'Mulgrave #B1'


'Mulgrave #B2'
'Mulgrave #B2'


The sequence now moves into the development section.

Firstly theme A is blended with the introduction shadow idea to create the following image.

'Mulgrave Dev#1'
'Mulgrave Dev#1'


This is further developed / twisted by the introduction of a corrugated iron surface to bend the ‘shadow straight line’. By the way this was a piece of wire attached to the corrugated iron which I had to hold in place as I operated the Large Format camera. The fisherman who owned the hut was rather perplexed at what I was doing!

'Mulgrave Dev#2'
'Mulgrave Dev#2'


The bendy line concept is then inverted into a curved rope.

'Mulgrave Dev#3 Rope in a Boat'
'Mulgrave Dev#3 Rope in a Boat'


Next the shadow theme is fully inverted into a gleam of light against a cross motif.

''Mulgrave Dev#4 Gleam of Light'
''Mulgrave Dev#4 Gleam of Light'


The development section continues for two more images this time blending two ideas from my first mulgrave chapter.

Firstly I re-introduced the idea of anthropomorphism expressed in several of the images of chapter one. On the face of it, the image looks like another version of the straight line motif. However what I actually saw in the ground glass (the image is upside down on a ground glass) was the face of Woody from Toy Story - another arts crossover idea. Such borrowed ideas would often be deliberately obscured by the composer so in this case I left the anthropomorphic representation upside down. It was enough for me to know it was there. Here it is upside down.

'Mulgrave Dev#5'
'Mulgrave Dev#5'


The last development section idea was to pick up on the religious iconography of my ‘Mulgrave creation image’ and fully convert the straight line/cross idea into a christian representation of the cross.

'Mulgrave Dev#6'
'Mulgrave Dev#6'


With the development section complete the final stage of the sonata structure is to recapitulate the two main themes. This is sometimes done simply by repeating the themes. In some cases it maybe in a different (complimentary) key. The idea that most grabbed me however was the way in which Hayden and Mozart innovated by composing a fugue to recapitulate all the themes simultaneously. Hence I found a composition that blended the circle (B) and straight line theme (A).

'Mulgrave #AB fugue' Mulgrave Boat Study'
'Mulgrave #AB fugue' Mulgrave Boat Study'


Finally I restated theme B. However this time the circle theme projects outwards to the viewer rather than inwards (a hole).

'Mulgrave #B' Door abstract'
'Mulgrave #B' Door abstract'


As you can see, the level of sophistication you can go to is entirely at the composers discretion. I didn’t need to build this level of thinking into the sequence in order to make it work, but it was fun pushing the limits of possibility.

Fluency in the transitions between images is the key to good sequence composing just like it is in music. What that means is there needs to be a natural flow from image to image using potential linkages ranging from colour, tone, subject matter, compositional structure, image orientation etc. What matters is that the transition simply put ‘doesn’t jar’.

I have now used this technique several times and the more I do it the more natural and easy it becomes. (For example see my Graffiti portfolio and my bark portfolio).

The Graffiti portfolio uses a simpler implementation of this framework. Two seed images / theme images involving a circle (A) and then a slot (B). This is followed by an extensive development section that goes through three stages. The first plays with abstracts of graffiti art. The second explores the canvas on which the art is placed. And the third shows full items of art emphasising the different kinds of canvas. It finishes with the two main themes with a stronger colour implmentation. There are bridge images between the development sections that make the transitions smoother. It does not matter that the viewer needs to know this detail, but it unquestionablly adds to the synergy, flow and harmony of the sequence to the unconscious viewer.

This is not the only way to organise a series of abstract photographs (just as some symphony movements were composed using different conventions such as the ‘trio’). However it is a useful tool for the abstract photographer to add to to his or her armoury and in particular it removes the need for an organisation framework based on the subject matter. For example one could produce many ‘bark sequences’ exploring very different themes and ideas and never feel one’s creativity was limited or that ideas were being repeated.

Text and images copyright Jon Brock 2019. All rights reserved.