Long time ago I saw an interview with Steely Dan. Donald Fagen was asked how he created his often, abstract song lyrics that offered little for concrete interpretation. He replied that he chose words for the way that they sounded. That may have been flippant, but if we think about it for a minute, it seems entirely plausible. It is no different than scat singing. Maybe “King of the World” from Countdown to Ecstasy doesn’t have anything to do with the last man left on the Rio Grande. Maybe it is just a tone poem with enough of a lyrical structure to allow listeners to draw their own conclusions?
When this type of device finds its way into photography, I find that it is often unappreciated and misunderstood. A photo can work solely because of the way the shapes are arranged in the frame. It really doesn’t matter what the shapes are…they just may happen to be people…or the corner of a building, or shadows creeping down a stairway. Our notion of photography as a literal art capturing a truthful depiction of a scene or event makes us look at photographs subjectively. Even if it is “photoshopped” to represent a fantasy, we still look at it from a factual point of view. Note, there are photographers who shoot abstracts. There always have been. But most photography is viewed trying to understand what the photograph depicts. Looking at a photo of a street full of people merely as shapes is not easy. Yet an art critic reviewing a Delacroix painting will certainly cover the placement of the figures in the composition and the reasons and symbolism behind that composition.
ABOVE: Asian Characters at a Polish Wedding, Chicago 2007