Things That Make You Go Hmmmm ...

Photos © Paul Cotter Photography

The people on the San Francisco sidewalk must've thought I was crazy. There I was, holding my camera just inches away from a glass block wall – crouching down, moving in, moving out, a little to the left, to the right.

This went on for 30 minutes and I’m sure it looked absurd. To the average passerby, it was just an ordinary wall of chunky glass block protecting a business.  But to me, it was this … 

With each tiny shift in position, I saw a completely different view of the city reflected in the thick glass. 

Ooops.  I just spoiled the fun by telling you exactly what's captured in the three photos above. I won’t do that for any of my other photos shown here. You’ll have to supply your own interpretations. And that, my friends, is the essence of abstract photography.

Take the photo below. Was I looking out an airplane window? Was I peering through an electron microscope? Is it a frozen dinner? A wet sweater? You decide.

The photographer Imogen Cunningham was renowned for her glorious abstract images of flowers, shot as extreme close-ups. Why did she shoot this way? She explained that if she went into her yard and shot a wide view, there were only so many ways to show it. But if she went in very tight on her subjects, she discovered an unlimited number of views to photograph – each one unique.

I believe that explains my own passion for abstract photography. It gives us a completely different way of seeing.

So what is an abstract photo? The textbooks are filled with scholarly definitions, mostly centered around the notion of extracting the subject from its context to remove any discernible visual clues as to its substance and meaning.


Although I taught photography for five years, I’m not fond of scholarly definitions. When it comes to abstract art, I prefer the simple wisdom of my high school football coach ...

Before a big game, our football coach would tell us, “Don’t think – hit somebody.” It was his way of reminding us to turn off the rational mind and let our instincts take over.

When you look at an abstract photo, I urge you to follow this same advice. Don’t think. Don’t over-analyze. Don’t even try to compare what you're seeing to some other recognizable object. ("Oh, this looks like a ...")  It’s more about feeling than thinking. Words and thoughts just get in the way.

So let’s close the textbooks and open our minds. A good abstract photo will leave you feeling untethered. It will stir your curiosity and challenge you to look at things on the other side of the looking glass. It's the sound of one hand clapping, it's a flash of lightning on a hot summer night.

If you're still searching for words, I suggest the title of a hit song from the early '90s:

Things That Make You Go Hmmmmm.

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~ Paul