Driven to abstraction

Abstract photography
Something catches my eye, and I turn my camera toward it. I move closer; I look from various angles. I move even closer. I get as close as I can, and through the lens, I see a whole new world: the slightly torn edge of a wine bottle label, or the shapes that happen when paint peels from a window shutter.

Sometimes the first thing I see is the best photograph, but that’s rare. With a little more effort, I can usually tease out a photograph that’s good for telling a story in this blog.

But the very best is when that thing that caught my eye turns out to be a big ol’ rabbit hole, and I let myself fall into a world of color and light and texture and form. This is where my heart sings, where I play to my heart’s content. I turn the camera or I move an object. I look from a lower or higher angle. I lose all track of time.

I know that I’ve finished playing when I begin to be aware of the so-called real world around me, and I gradually come back, blinking as if waking from a dream. There have been times when the fall into the rabbit hole has lasted an hour or more, although more often it’s a matter of minutes. It feels like a dream, but I think of it as photographic meditation.

In various places where I describe my work, I’ve written that creativity is what gets me out of bed in the morning. I’ve been pondering that lately, and one thing I’ve realized is that abstract photography is one of my very favorite places to play.

Abstract and macro are different forms of photography, although by its nature, macro tends to result in relatively abstract images. I love both of them, as they become a sort of active meditation with hyper-focused seeing. As many of you know, I see in unusual detail, and this kind of photography is a way for me to turn that mania for detail into creative joy.

You know that saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees? That’s me: instead of seeing the forest, I see the trees, except what I really see is the leaves, except what I really see is the veins on the leaves. I like to find little details that are hidden in plain sight, and then make mysterious photographs from what I see.

But what is abstract photography?
A great deal of the photography that we all see is realism: a way to show something that is instantly recognizable, such as a place, a person, or an object. It is usually an attempt to record an accurate reproduction of the full subject.

In abstract photography, such concrete representation is actually rejected. Objects become secondary to color, shape, pattern, texture, light, and movement. In an abstract photograph, you might still see something that is recognizable, but that thing is not the subject of the photograph.

It’s not easy to define abstract art or abstract photography, in part because there are so many techniques, styles and points of view. It’s also difficult because it doesn’t tell you what you’re seeing; rather, abstract art issues an invitation to take your time looking, and maybe even make up your own story about what you see.

Some examples
I’ll show you some examples from my own portfolio. Because of this invitation to tell your own story about what you see, I won’t caption the photographs. Instead, I’ll put a list at the end of the post, giving you the option of whether or not to look.

The photographs

I do varying amounts of post-processing of my photographs, but curiously, little or none with my abstract and macro photos. Almost everything shown in this post is how it looked when it came out of the camera; I’ll indicate where I’ve made further changes. Please note that most of these photographs are listed in my Etsy shop; clicking on the photograph will take you to the listing. Some are not listed—hence no link—but drop me a line if you’d like to know more.

  1. Detail of a section of a door on a 1950s-era car seen in an auto junkyard. The title is Frenzy.
  2. These four photos are part of a large body of work I produced over a period of two years. I was standing at the cash register of a gelato shop, and something in the basket of tiny plastic gelato spoons caught my eye. What I noticed was that the edges of the spoons appeared to be more vividly-colored (an optical illusion). The owner let me take a few spoons home to play with; eventually I bought a whole sack of them. Clockwise from upper left: Behind the Waterfall, Ruby, Fuego, Slice. Ruby is part of a series of eight, in which each photograph is primarily one color; the eight together make a rainbow.
  3. The fading petals of a red amaryllis flower provided a delightful array of pattern, texture and color. This is Gypsy Veil.
  4. At the beach one day, I spotted this colorful boat, perhaps owned by Mondrian or Albers? The title is Primary Geometry.
  5. These two images of water at Yellowstone National Park are relics of the past, because both of these hot springs have changed since I photographed them. The top one is Aqua Hot Pool and the lower one is Sparkling Emeralds.
  6. Left, the splendid repeating pattern of a palm leaf, titled Palm Array. On the right, a wedge of lemon in a glass of sparkling water, titled Citron Perrier.
  7. There have been several works of art titled The Kiss, but I couldn’t resist adding one more. This was part of my portfolio for a photo club assignment to make photographs of certain objects, but to show them in an unusual way. The day had been snowy, and then the sun peeked out just before sunset, generating rich hues of purple and orange. There is no editing here; this is exactly how the eggs looked in my house that afternoon.
  8. Two photographs of flowers in my garden. For the top one, Pink Fireworks, I lay on my back on the ground and focused the camera straight up toward the giant allium flower. This photograph has some added texture, but the shallow depth of field (very soft focus in the background) was made in the camera. The lower photograph, Frosted Lip Gloss, is a macro view of the tiniest bit of white showing on the edge of a raspberry-hued tulip.
  9. The next two photographs are from one day’s outing to a local auto junkyard. It’s fun to photograph in these locales because the forms, textures and colors can be dynamic and playful. On top is Cabana, and Swerve is below.
  10. Walking in a village in Provence, what snagged my eye was that one tiny, brighter yellow triangle. I love the dance of color and form in this photograph, titled Yellow Angles.
  11. I admit to being captivated by the pattern of bump dots—the raised dots that help people with certain disabilities understand that they’re near an intersection. This photograph, Dot Array, was made near a train station in Paris.
  12. While much of what catches my eye is color, there is certainly a place in abstract photography for black and white images. These three photographs all use line and repetition to create energy. From the left, Corn Lily Curves, Dune 3, and School Stairs.
  13. Suds is another photograph that works well in black and white. I was washing dishes one night, and noticed the wonderful textures of soap bubbles caught in the cooling rack.
  14. When you live in the mountains, you experience the fuzzy transition between winter snow and spring rain. A heavy rain one day had left my studio window running with water, distorting the shapes of the trees in their snowy landscape. This is another photograph where I added texture to give a more painterly look to the original scene. The title is Not Yet Spring.
  15. The last three photographs are about playing with light. The first of these, Christmas Confetti, was made by moving the zoom lens on my camera while it was focused on a brightly-lit Christmas tree.
  16. The second photo, Sweeps of Gold, was made by rapidly moving my camera while it was pointed at Christmas lights on a building.
  17. The last photograph doesn’t use motion, just a remarkably dramatic play of form and light. The early-morning sun lights up my newly-bottled batch of vin d’orange in Vin d’Orange 21.