When people ask me if I have a favorite subject to photograph, they are often surprised by my response. See, I really enjoy photographing abstract urban environments, and most of all, I love photographing concrete. Yep, that’s right! Plain old concrete.
As the most common urban material, concrete shapes buildings, lines pathways, forms pipes, columns, bridges, and driveways. Anywhere you look you’ll see concrete, it’s as endless in variety as the reasons I love photographing it. You could say that car parks are a wonderland for me.
However, concrete is often overlooked for more obvious or eye-catching subjects. If you google “urban photography” there are thousands of beautiful photographs of skyscrapers and streets, urban patterns, and underground train lines. But rarely do you see photographs of just concrete itself.
And why would you bother? A photograph of a concrete bollard sounds pretty boring, right? Wrong! Here are a few reasons why concrete can be a photographic wonderland if you simply take the time to look.
1 – Concrete is a time capsule
Concrete is popular in construction because it builds durable, long-lasting structures that will not rust, rot or burn. In short, it stands the test of time. This means that concrete construction will invariably wear the markings of the surrounding environment and the people who consciously or unconsciously interact with it.
It is a time capsule and photographing it means documenting the story of what makes up an urban environment. From the freshly laid feature wall, to the roughly poured foundations of an underground car park, or names etched into pathways and paint scratches from cars, it all tells a story.
2 – Abstract expressionism
If photography is like painting with light, then concrete is a sturdy urban canvas. Another reason I enjoy photographing concrete so much is it has parallels to abstract expressionism. Abstract art, mostly characterized by painting, focuses on the process, the medium, the shape and the color within the frame of the canvas. Through their paintings, abstract expressionists create a visual arena documenting an artist’s movements, thinking and process without relying on the depiction of figurative imagery. Like abstract art, concrete lays bare the visual results of spontaneity, time and the limitations of physics. The lack of figurative references also allows the viewer to explore the image in greater depth, lending their own meaning to the work – which creates a deeper connection with the audience.
Like abstract art, concrete lays bare the visual results of spontaneity, time and the limitations of physics. The lack of figurative references also allows the viewer to explore the image in greater depth, lending their own meaning to the work – which creates a deeper connection with the audience.
3 – Minimalist beauty
Concrete itself is like an abstract expressionist’s canvas, but the act of photographing such a bold subject is actually very minimalist. Photography, when you drill down to the basics, is about light, shade, surface, tone and line. Photographing concrete surfaces doesn’t seek to depart from this, but rather, emphasize it.
Photographing a seemingly menial subject like concrete not only draws attention to its beauty but hearkens back to the simple elegance of photography by documenting the incidental and intentional brushstrokes of the urban environment.
4 – Variety!
No two panels of concrete are the same. Concrete acts as a canvas for a myriad of air bubbles, paint, scratches, graffiti, wear, watermarks, leftover adhesive, etc. Concrete itself forms waves and arches as it is poured. Finishing effects vary too, depending on the type of concrete and the pouring technique. Any portion of concrete maps out the history of that particular time and place with hypnotizing whorls and abrasive texture.
The familiarity of the subject is no deterrent either. Often, as I’m photographing a wall or pathway, passers-by do a double-take, trying to see what it is that I’m photographing. It’s something they may never have considered photograph-worthy before, and it interests them. The beauty is already there, waiting for someone to draw attention to it. Viewers often remark that they never knew concrete could be so beautiful until now!
Concrete is an incredibly variable and dynamic subject, and whats more, it keeps still! As an almost constant presence in history, the use of concrete has evolved with humans to shape our environment. Concrete is a time capsule of intricate details and hidden stories that illustrate the way we interact with the world.
It’s an often overlooked, but delightfully accessible subject, always ready for a photographer to take notice. Next time you are out and about with a camera, take time to look at what concrete has to offer. You may surprise yourself with how fascinating the canvas of the urban landscape can be!