A refreshing dip into the art of underwater Abstracts.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there”
(The Cheshire Cat – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll)
One of my favourite ways to play with photography is through the art of the abstract. It appeals to me in ways no other type of image-making does. Maybe that’s because it relies heavily on creative, primal interpretation and less on logical thinking. And while that left-side brain of mine remains at times happily subdued, the right seems to relish in taking a regular dive on the wild side; it’s a purely in-the-moment way of expressing emotion and allowing creative instinct to flow. Even so, there are certain maxims that can be applied.
As an art form, Abstract is really all about capturing the essence of something without revealing the whole. It requires a different way to view the world around you. Shape and form, colour, pattern and texture collectively make up the basis of the concept. But there’s so much more to it than that. In the realm of underwater photography, Abstract is still one of the least utilised and represented genres. Yet all around are incredible opportunities to transform something ordinary into the extraordinary ... and that’s what makes it so very exciting.
“Thunderation!”, I hear you say, “I really don’t want to be joining a Mad Hatter’s tea party at the bottom of the ocean!”
Ah, but there are treats for all where you’ll be going.
So, come and join me ... take a refreshing dip into the wonderland of Abstract!
PROXIMITY (closeness and distance to your subject)
In much the same way that monochromatic or Black and White photography benefit from visualising in terms of shadow and light, contrasts and texture - so too does Abstract need that altered perspective. To create a great abstract, it’s all about the art of what you leave out. Any element that doesn’t in some way help to elicit a strong emotional reaction to the final perceptual image should be subtracted. From big picture, wide lenses to tighter, macro crops, there are possibilities across the spectrum. You don’t need specialised equipment like snoots or monster dome ports, just follow your inner White Rabbit and indulge in some imaginative chaos and experimentation.
The key to proximity lies in filling the frame, whether from near or far, with something conceptual. This isn’t about telling a story or capturing a reef scene or trophy hunting for highly-prized ocean rarities. It’s about raw emotion, painting a picture and creating art.
ANGLES, LINES AND GEOMETRY
Of all the elements in design, the line is the most defining. So when shooting Abstract, the same principle applies. Compositionally, lines provide balance, which is an important factor when dealing with something that might otherwise be intangible. Strong lines take the viewer on a journey through your image. They lead from origin, directing the eye to the main point of interest (if there is one) and beyond, all the way out of the frame. But ... there are lines and then there are lines!
In terms of static, geometric lines – the angles, shapes and symmetry formed tend to be rigid and formal, but also familiar; for example, parallel lines, horizontals and verticals. Since they’re easily recognisable, predictable and unchallenging by nature, they create a sense of emotional calm. You’ll understand what I mean if you compare their dynamic to diagonals or zigzags, which are powerfully directional and whimsically abrupt, respectively. You’ll find these on sea urchins and spiky critters. Diagonal lines tend to be the most visually appealing because they slow down the viewers pace of perception, allowing time to take in whatever else might be on offer. If the diagonals also form triangular shapes, then consider that by setting the shape on its tip you can actually create a sense of precariousness.
Radiating, converging and intersecting lines either push or pull the viewer into the image, like those found on feather duster worms. Their effect actively starts to work on a person’s imagination, engaging them in subtle, thought provoking ways; there’s potential chaos when lines coming from different directions intersect and clash. Mystery lies beyond the periphery where radiating lines leave the edge of a frame.
Understanding the expressive qualities of lines is a great start to mastering the visual language of Abstract. Now let’s add a little spice! And there’s no better way than the sensual, mood enhancing allure of free-flowing curves. Sexy and stylish, curves move your viewer’s eye back and forth along their arcs, holding attention with a self-generating energy. Anemones and crinoids have fabulous arching tentacles, and so do octopi and plenty of corals. Since curves have such dominant characteristics, it’s often sufficient for them to become the main point of interest.
FORM AND SHAPE
Joined together, lines and curves form shapes in a two dimensional plane. These outlines are the first aspect of an Abstract that people seek to identify with. Shapes that are in some fashion recognisable by their general framework. A simple, well-defined outline will immediately communicate its message. A quick trip along the path of least resistance! Imagine there’s a scale with familiar simplicity at one end and foxy mysteriousness at the other. ‘Foxy’ being where you completely throw your viewer off the scent so that they have no clue what on earth they’re looking at. Yet it’s magical and captivating all the same. How do you get to foxy? By emphasising shape as extremely as your wits allow. And as a diver, you already have access to incredible subjects that topside photographers can only dream about.
The moment you capture form, you’ve stepped into the realm of three dimensions. Form is created by adding depth and interest from using highlights and shadow. It takes your flattened, 2D image and breathes life into it. In most cases, a 2D image can be captured by shooting straight and true at a subject, eliminating as much as possible any shadow effect. 3D is born of contrasts, using gradations of lightness and darkness to show contour and volume. As you’re able to float around in inner-space, you’re at a distinct advantage when looking for the optimal angle to demonstrate form.
Getting back to our foxy scale, by exaggerating form, detail and contour, your subject is kept from being recognised, which is the crux of the matter. The more left-of-centre you’re able to paint your picture, the more abstract it becomes.
Since we’re all photographers here, you already know about light. But you know, light is nothing without shadow – even underwater. And shadows are an entity in their own right. They dance and morph, changing shape and redefining their essence almost on impulse. Shadows can alter their characteristics based not only on the direction and quality of the light source that creates them, but also their distance from that source and its colour temperature.
Looking into their merits and how to exploit the dark side of light, it sometimes helps to remember that it’s the shadows that give shape to light and it’s the shadows that draw your attention to where light falls. We’re hardwired to hone in on these brighter, more noticeable aspects and in doing so, we filter out the unobvious. But once you tune your eye into this alternative way of perceiving light, you will begin to notice that edges can look hard and defined or soft and feathered. They may have deep tones or be almost translucent and are painted with their own more muted colour palette.
And so you can utilise shadows to enhance form. Better still, you can create interesting effects using clever strobe placement. Deeper, darker shadows created by angled, side lighting for example, can produce better contrast by revealing definition and texture. Using a single strobe rather than two, trying unusual angles or off-setting one from the other can produce dynamic shading. Alternatively, by shooting directly at a subject, you reduce shadow and the resultant effect translates into a clean, structured image; which can be the perfect way to capture and enhance patterns! These two elements, texture and pattern are key pieces of the Abstract puzzle.
SEE ME, FEEL ME
Everything about texture and pattern speaks to our tactile and visual nature. A truly compelling Abstract image almost makes you want to reach out and touch it – that’s how powerful an impact it can have.
Texture and pattern each help to communicate more about the unsolved mystery of an Abstract, and they do that in different ways. Patterns are all about directing your viewer’s eye to a reciprocating, sequence of shapes. It’s less about there being a specific focal point and more about capturing the brilliance of natural design with repeated points of interest. The more of the pattern you’re able to include, the more epic the impact.
Since we’re in Wonderland, mathematical sequences are everywhere to be found. Coral and sponges are rewarding sources as are certain fish, invertebrates, neatly laid rows of eggs, algae patterns ... on and on. Spots, stripes, scales, honeycomb designs, spirals from night-feeding flower corals and Christmas tree worms, starfish and tunicate ovals and sea cucumbers – all have intricate patterns at the ready. It’s incredible what nature has to offer. That’s before you even start looking at the big picture of sand ripples and wave action, dune undulations and pufferfish ‘crop circles’.
If you’re lucky, there’s an occasional blot on the landscape to be had. A glitch in the pattern system. The X-factor I’m alluding to is a disruption in the rhythm from something that doesn’t quite belong. They come in all sorts of guises and are like gold dust focal points; spots on stripes worn by Oriental sweetlips or ovals on curves of mushroom coral. Look out for an unexpected twist in a new direction, something soft such as a feathery worm against the rough of brain coral. The trick is to find a way to aesthetically include these random happenings so that they produce a kookie twist to your work of art.
Adding a sense if realism by showing the feel of surfaces is the penultimate aspect of Abstract fundamentals. In many ways, this is where macro and super-macro come into their own. Not all textures are pleasant but that doesn’t matter. Conveying whether your enigma is rough or smooth, structured or amorphous, soft, silky, sharp or hard, such that it resonates with tactile and visual elements is what it’s about.
Rough, solid surfaces such as hard corals and spiky urchins lend themselves to a touch of shadow drama from stronger lighting. Using softer light and strobe diffusers can bring out the quality of fine textures (like those of fan worms and soft corals) much more sympathetically.
THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF COLOUR
The final component of Abstract basics is colour. Colour acts as the vehicle for the impression. Of all the ingredients in the mix, this is the one that truly carries the weight. Every colour provokes an emotion, a sensation, associations and a reaction.
Colour expresses its value in terms of saturation, tonal contrasts and vibrancy. The impact it has is dictated by depth, brilliance and presence. Together these attributes enrich your image and persuade the viewer to believe in your concept. And that’s really what you’re after.
We frequently tint our language with shades of this and that; feeling blue, green with envy, tickled pink – but these idioms aren’t even close to the authentic vernacular, a hidden code that works on the subconscious. Blue, for instance, isn’t as physical in its effect in the way that red is. Red jumps out and grabs you by the throat! Think about how distinct red starfish always are. Red, synonymous with passion, energy, excitement, is the first of the primary colours to be noticed. So powerful is its effect that it can actually raise your pulse rate. By contrast, the cool of blue produces chemicals that focus and calm the mind. That’s thought to be related to the prevalence of blue in our natural world (water and skies). The two other primary colours, green and yellow also have interesting traits. Green lies midway in the colour spectrum and for that reason, is the most restful on the eye. Opposing ‘dangerous’ red on the colour wheel, green speaks to our psyche in terms of newness, hope and safety. Yellow is the Janus-faced outsider. On the one hand, certain shades inspire a sense of joy. Sunshine in a rainy day! On the other, when overused, acidic or sludgy, it creates a feeling of instability going so far as to unnerve your viewer.
While this has only briefly touched on the power of colour, I hope the intrigue will leave you searching for more. If you were to subtract everything from your image, all tangible references or clues that may indicate a location or a moment in time, and only be left with colour – that would be enough to impose an impression.
Abstract doesn’t play within the usual boundaries of image making and I suppose, it helps if you delight in ambiguity like I do. As far as I’m concerned, I can’t fall far enough down that rabbit hole! Strange as Abstract is, once you start to choreograph the emotional effect you’re after, you’ll find that the rest starts to fall into place quite naturally.
First published in 'IN FOCUS' (The British Society of Underwater Photographers), Issue 105, Summer 2015
Updated here with fresh images.
© Laura Storm