ABSTRACTION

“Abstract” is a familiar word that is worth prying open and thinking about. It’s from the Latin abstractus, which means drawn away. Abstrahere (the verb) is defined as “to drag away, detach, pull away, divert.” The abstracted idea or object is dragged away from its physicality, diverted from its origin. In art, the word abstract has come to describe work that does not intentionally reproduce reality. Likewise, in photography, an abstract image does not depend on a real-world referent but relies on shape, light, form, and/or color to convey visual information and impressions.

Over a hundred years ago a man named Alvin Langdon Coburn had an idea for a photography show in which “no work will be admitted in which the interest of the subject matter is greater than the appreciation of the extraordinary.” (Rexer, Lyle. The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography. NY: Aperture, 2013.) That thought exposes the aesthetic crux that many photographers who work with “reality” (whether that means portraits or landscapes or street photography) are dealing with: is the photograph just a snapshot, or does it say something more?

I think for most people reading this post, reproducing reality is (still) a compelling exercise but “the appreciation of the extraordinary” is probably what keeps that finger clicking the shutter. It’s certainly true for me.

To convey the “extra” that I find in the ordinary, I like to explore different approaches; abstraction is one that can freshen the mind’s eye. The images here come at abstraction from a variety of angles and some are more recognizable as real-world objects than others. But in my opinion, there’s no need to name what you see.

1.

2.
3.

The urge to name what we see is hard to resist though. As soon as we see something, especially a two-dimensional image, labels pop into our minds. When we studied Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in school, we learned to ask, “What’s in a name?” It was a good lesson, but it barely loosened the knot of naming things. We are compelled to tie an identity around everything and everyone, and usually, we tie the knot pretty tightly. That identity, that name, inevitably drags waves of associations along with it – liking, disliking, evaluating, remembering, etc.

Of course, the propensity for identifying what we see is necessary and helpful, but it’s not a bad idea to question it once in a while. Names and identities may be more arbitrary than we realize. Questioning the connection of a name to its referent can open up space in our minds. Even just loosening the bonds of language to simply absorb images without labeling them can be rewarding.

4.

I’m not advocating slipping down into a world where meaning is entirely arbitrary and unique to each person. We need to agree on something, even if it’s only the names of things – times are tough enough! But I think it’s beneficial to step out of the familiarity of our language-based environment now and then. A little muddling and messing about with what we’ve come to rely on as firm and clear can be refreshing.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

11.

12. If you identify this as “leaf,” “veins”, and maybe “fuzzy,” do those words change the experience of viewing the image? If I call it “dashu and crannen” do you look harder? (Or maybe you move along quickly!)

Lacking a brain, the black box doesn’t know that the flower in front of it isn’t just a flower, but is an infinite web of relationships. The awareness that a subject isn’t separate from its surroundings is something we are able to perceive, along with the awareness that we can choose to focus on any part of the whole, using our camera. Constantly becoming, the flower may be positioned at the center of the field that the camera encompasses, but in fact, the center extends infinitely through space and time, inviting a myriad of abstractions.

13.

14.

15.

16.

17.
18.

19.

These images have been altered by severe cropping, color changes, and tonal manipulations. I followed my nose towards different “meanings” of the scenes above than what the camera saw, subverting the black box’s stubborn insistence on one-to-one reproduction. No matter where I point it, the camera “wants” to make a faithful copy. This is the blessing/curse of photography. Of course, the camera does have a person operating it – a person with ideas, history, and intentions. A moment to record was chosen. And later, when we sit down with the camera’s rendition of reality before us, we’re free to play with it as much or as little as we want.

By the way, I’m happy to divulge the names of these things and whatever I can remember about the process of metamorphosing them into abstractions. Just ask.


78 comments

    • “Uber cool, eh?” I like it! Thanks, Hedy. I do like to change it up once in a while.
      We’re usually not too windy here, but
      I feel a breeze coming through the window…must be…
      🙂 🙂

      Like

  1. Despite the curiosity that always feeds us – and that leads me to question what will be photo 5 (radiography? ..) or 6 (maybe a leaf? ..) – most of these images are better alone, not needing explanations or justifications.
    Its value is in beauty, color, texture, etc. And the cut, important and perhaps even more difficult in the abstract.
    I love these images and I really liked this curious post and the ideas presented.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The original for #5 was a field of tall grasses blowing in the wind – but I ran away with it. 😉 And you’re right, #6 is a close-up of a leaf, a big one. I’m pleased that you enjoyed this, Dulce, it was fun to put together. Have a wonderful week!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You did yourself proud with all these abstractions. Nice going! Your choice for #1 was a good way to grab people’s attention. #13 and 18 also attracted me.

    Your mention of barely loosening the knot of naming things reminded me of a stanza in a poem from a century ago by the French poet Francis Jammes:

    On a baptisé les étoiles sans penser
    qu’elles n’avaient pas besoin de nom, et les nombres,
    qui prouvent que les belles comètes dans l’ombre
    passeront, ne les forceront pas à passer.

    We’ve baptized the stars without thinking
    That they didn’t need a name, and numbers,
    Which prove that lovely comets will pass on
    Into the shadows, won’t make them pass on.

    You spoke of the “need to agree on something, even if it’s only the names of things.” I’ve been alarmed in recent years, and especially in 2020, by some people pushing very aggressively to redefine things in ways that suit their dogmas rather than commonly agreed-on reality. George Orwell proved his prescience by calling that out way back in the middle of the last century.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought maybe #1 would be good for the beginning – thanks for confirming that. 🙂 # 13 is a close-up of a tansy, which is normally bright yellow – you’re probably familiar with them. #18 is a plastic tarp thrown over a pile of stuff at an arboretum, after a wet spell. What fun I had photographing that tarp!
      I’ve never heard of Francis Jammes, thank you – and I took 4 years of French in high school so I do enjoy seeing it in both languages. A lovely poem! Your comment about people redefining things to suit their dogma is well taken…there is so little openness these days.
      Thank you, Steve, and have a great week, OK? 🙂

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  3. I read this while still struggling with the thoughts I was about to try to express in my own post today (Animal Flow), so your comments on words & identity, on loosening the tight knot of association and opening up space, without labels … all so immediately relevant. And your abstract image #4 echoes for me my image of Ai Weiwei’s Snake Ceiling. What a treat, to to feel we were exploring overlapping territories. (Oh good grief, how solipsistic can I be? Your post stands sturdily on its own merits!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m about to go out but took a quick look at your post so I’d know what you meant, and I can see that…and please, it’s good for me to hear your friendly remark about exploring similar territory. I don’t take that as you being full of yourself at all. Art is such a wonderful vehicle for loosening knots, isn’t it? Happy wanderings this week, Penny, and thank you for your comment.

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  4. I suspect that you’ve been planning this post for some time, Lynn, and that planning shows. I agree with Steve that your choice for your first was right on the mark. It speaks to me of a stained-glass window rendered in watercolor.
    Though my analytical eye sees your third as a solarization treatment of an upwards-looking study of a treescape, my medical background whispers to me of microscopic images of delicate pond algae.
    My other favorite is your fourth. My penchant for pareidolia immediately called my attention to the whimsical face in the top half. The eye is most striking, with the ear just below and to the left of it. And the nose stretches off to the right. The general impression is definitely goat-ish, and more than a trifle diabolical. An unforgettable image.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for spending time with this, and with the comment…actually, the post wasn’t planned so much as marinating. Abstract art has always been my favorite and I was steeped in it back in art school, in the 1970’s. I’m accustomed to seeing that way but my deep engagement with nature leads me to photograph what I see outdoors with more realism than abstraction. Another thread that’s been twining around for years is philosophy, specifically Buddhist philosophy. So this just came together last week when I felt the urge to show something more abstract, and then the words came. You may be right about #3 – I can’t remember and have to run out now so no time to look at the original…and for me, pareidolia has never been a big thing but I really like what you found in #4 – makes me smile. Thanks so much!

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  5. Fine post, Lynn. I have struggled with the question: is it possible to shoot ‘Abstracts’ with a photocamera?, for a while… Whether I shoot old paint peeling off a surface; or rusty junk; or reflections on a water surface, it’s nothing different from shooting a landscape or a person: Aim, focus, frame and push the shutter.. My final answer was: In an abstract photo the beauty/content has to come from me; I’m the one who projects it on the world.. In a non-abstract photo the beauty/content is coming to me; I identify myself with that beauty/content from the outside world. I like your nr2; nr5; nr6; and nr12. They are the most abstract ones for me. Keep going; it will grow on you! 🙂

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    • It’s so interesting to read your thoughts about abstract photography, Harrie. It makes sense, what you say about the differences in your experience behind the camera. Abstract art has always been what excites me the most but when I have a camera, I’m mostly happy to be more representative and less abstract. But I often wish that the scenes around me weren’t so chaotic, so working more abstractly would be easier. When I lived closer to big cities I could work with the simple shapes of buildings and walls. Cropping and playing with processing is another way to make more abstract images. I appreciate your encouragement, and I will keep playing! Have a good week! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link – nothing like a good enigma to keep one alive. As for captions, unless you’re going to say “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” under your pipe picture, what’s the point? And that’s already been done, so no reason to try anything else, at least not in the context of art. Thank you for spreading the love out, Michael! 😉

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      • Thank you for accepting it. I do usually title my pictures but I try to do it in such a way as to engage further interest rather than simply answer the question so succinctly that the person just goes away. And, as I’m sure you have observed, the descriptions on my blog often tend to be a bit enigmatic as well. Ultimately I’m trying to get the person to engage with my picture, not with my description.

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  6. Excellent insights into the abstract world, Lynn. I like what you said about “naming”. When you remove the name, the interpretation is whatever you want it to be. I like what Harrie says and I agree with you, the camera urges us to photograph the reality in front of us, but the artist behind the camera decides what the viewer will see, which may be unidentifiable or abstract.
    All wonderful images- numbers 3, 4, 15, 17, 18 ring my bell especially. I recognize the building in #8 – from the High Line? If not, there’s one that I’ve shot there that’s very similar.
    A well thought out and enjoyable post. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, it was really interesting to hear Harrie’s thoughts about this subject. You may (or may not) remember that Joe & I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with him in Leiden last year – it was really great. You liked #3 & 4 – I’m glad – the processing was fun on those.
      Jane, I’m so impressed that you recognize that building! I had to look up the photo to check the location. 😦 You’re right, it was taken from the High Line back in January 2012. It was a farewell-to-Manhattan day of lunch with relatives and a West Side stroll, just 3 days before we moved out here. In fact, my last photo from NY before moving was of Gehry’s IAC Building, which I think we’ve talked about before.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Hopefully, I’ll do some more abstracts soon.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I don’t want the names of anything! I think we see/feel more clearly when we stop naming, but understand the need to for ordinary life. I *love* these – creative, inspired, interesting. Especially 1, 2, 5, 9, 10, 18. I could live with any of these framed on my walls. I used to paint abstract watercolours. I was not talented at capturing reality in painting and drawing so abstraction, the play of form and colour, came naturally for me.
    I’ve done the same kind of thing with my photographs in the past (with astonishingly different results) though I’m still attached to finding new ways to capture reality with the camera. Scroll through to the bottom of this very old post if you want to see some: https://alisonanddon.com/2012/09/20/vancouver-part-5/
    Alison

    Liked by 2 people

    • Exactly – we can see more if we refrain from naming things but boy, would life be complicated without those names! What a treat to hear you say you could live with some of these on your walls. Actually, that’s what I should do. 😉 Watercolor is so hard to control, it’s perfect for abstracts. I looked at your post – thanks for the link. You had fun! Here’s to many more years of experimentation. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think of you as being challenged with appreciating the ordinary – it seems to me you do that all the time, and you do it beautifully. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Jean, thanks. Have a good week!

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  8. Wonderful, very imaginative stuff, Lynn! Yes, most photographers want to reflect reality – and most (incl me) want to know what the abstract actually is – these are probably parts of human nature, of disliking or fearing being confronted with the unknown or unsettling. My favourites are 11, 14 and 18, but I think its 9 that really grabs me here. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • You may have guessed that #9 was one of those oops moments – UNintentional camera movement! 😉 I was photographing the sunset over red rocks at Joshua Tree National Park in California. It turned out to be a happy accident. May you have many happy accidents and may your realities, whatever you neam them, continue to delight you. 😉

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  9. I thoroughly enjoyed this post – you’ll not be surprised to hear! I particularly like your description of an abstract image: “an abstract image does not depend on a real-world referent but relies on shape, light, form, and/or color to convey visual information and impressions.” One consequence is that abstract art frequently makes grater demands on the viewer than representational art. Much depends on the range of experiences the viewer brings to the task. ‘Meanings’ and ‘interpretations’ will often vary widely.

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    • You’re right, I thought you might like this – and I thought of you while I was putting it together. Your points about what the viewer brings to the table are well taken – thank you! I hope your garden is full of delights these days, whether abstract or not. 🙂

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  10. Fantastic. What a refreshing and stimulating draft of..what…fresh air, imagination, energy, skill. Very very successful, Lynn, congratulations, 19 pictures with 1,001 stories (that last one, from the Arabic script in #4!) Minds happily sparking away, half-remembered bits of science, artwork, folktales, airplanes rides, microscope slides, and a damn fine cup of coffee (#15). And some, like #1, are both interesting and so darned lovely! Pictures at an exhibition, it would be a kick to put music to these.
    All these visual treats, and an excellent essay, too.
    When you write of people submitting to the tyranny of slavishly trying to reproduce reality, that really strikes a chord, too, for those of us with a pretty tenuous grasp of reality in the first place. Glad you left the labels off, although of course, curiosity kicks in and wants the backstory, but these happily generate tons of imaginary stories anyway.
    When you write of the rewards of avoiding labels, it reminded me of something – – I’m sure you’ve read many times of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony – -and these seemingly eye-witless problems, often begin when we’re simply asked to describe something. People do so much better, in recognizing someone, if they aren’t first required to put the description into words. Something about that process (“short,” “dark hair,” “big nose”) seems to limit, short-circuit, damage our recall. Our brains hurriedly sort, sift, and stuff things into pigeonholes, round pegs into square holes, dropping all kinds of lovely nuances and details on the floor in the process.
    Well, and finally, (apparently the person ringing my phone is just going to keep trying!) you’ve also stimulated the most interesting comments I’ve read on WP for quite a while. Cheers!

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    • There’s nothing better than making minds happily spark away, is there? Putting music with these would be interesting, but the idea instantly overwhelms me.
      I have read about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony but never connected that to the effect of trying to put words to memory has – that’s interesting. Memory is a gestalt, isn’t it, a whole feelingsense full of, as you say, all kinds of lovely nuance that describing with language can lose.
      All the comments are appreciated, as you know, and I was trying not to sound didactic. I have no place telling anyone what or how to think but opening up a discussion is a very good thing. I think that’s the effect this had, for the most part. Thanks for your shiny two cents, Robert! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I enjoyed drifting along with them all, until #18 delivered a punch to wake me from the trance that #16 & #17 sent me into. If that makes any sense? Still hot here, so perhaps the heat hasn’t kicked the brain into gear? #1 thru #4 took me to a dreamy sort of place. Nice! Worth coming back for. 🙂

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    • It sounds like you had fun with this Gunta, and that’s a good thing, right? Whatever we can get these days. It makes perfect sense to me that #18 delivered a bit of a punch line after the ones before it. Often, I do that on purpose – follow a series of images that flow together with one that breaks the flow. I don’t want anyone to fall asleep here! 😉
      We’re going to have warm weather this weekend and early next week, supposedly. It’s always significantly hotter just a few miles away in town, and hotter still if you go off the island. So I guess we’re protected. Sending you cooling breezes…

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      • Your posts are always fun no matter where they take us! We actually hit 98º here yesterday. Utterly unusual for the coast. Needless to say I didn’t do well with the heat, but stuck with the a/c.

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        • Today was the hottest day here and I think it’s only in the low 80’s. They still have a severe weather alert out! It just never gets very hot here – too much water around. I took a walk and I WAS pretty uncomfortable by the end though. How did I ever handle triple-digit days with high humidity in NY? Well, I’m glad you have the a/c. Take care!

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  12. Very interesting post Lynn! You make us think and tickle our brain 🙂 Fantastic photos. Each one is exciting and makes curious. I love this variety of colors and structures. 16 is fun and I really ask myself, what you pictured there 🙂 With #6 I can’t resist of thinking of King Kong – it looks like a giants world, haha. I like your language example. When we look at articles in an unknown language, we try to work things out, not understanding anything. We start creating our own world. You are right, it opens up our minds. Funny, these days I talked to some people about not naming things. One said, we miss the spirit of the bird, when we think of “bird”. I enjoy your photos, but I think my brain keeps searching for answers 😉 But these answers can be imaginative and fanciful. I am glad you made this journey to new worlds. It is so much richer than reality.

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    • Once again we are thinking and talking about the same things – I agree with your friends and I’m glad your brain was tickled. 🙂 #16 is just a crop of buildings in Los Angeles, photographed with a filter that’s built into the camera. It’s hard to describe. It removes smooth transitions between tones, increases contrast, and adds outlines to things, resulting in a simplified picture. And it’s funny that you thought of King Kong when you saw #6 – crazy. It’s a close-up of a leaf, which you probably know, but I also thought it looked like a very big space outdoors, a landscape. I love it when the scale of something becomes ambiguous. Has the heat gotten any better? I hope so!

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      • No, I didn’t recognize a leaf in #6! To me it really looked like stones of a ruin or big big building. There are ancient buildings (can’t remember where now) people made out of giant stones. They fit perfectly together and nobody really knows how they made it without modern tools. I had to think of something like that. That is the outcome if you don’t have a name 😉 Great!
        Today we had a cooler day with some rain, yeah. The heat is coming back, but a bit less than before and nature got a bit of water, at least.

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        • Maybe you’re thinking of Machu Pichu and places like that. I would love to see those places and the way the stones were fitted together. I’m glad the photo reminded you of that. Rain! Yes! We have heat here, too, all up and down the West coast. It’s not as bad here because we are further north and surrounded by water, but I read today that Death Valley recorded what they think is the highest temperature ever recorded on earth – 130F or 54C. There was a higher temperature recorded in 1913 but they think it was not precise. Kuwait comes very close, too. Death Valley is an amazing place but I could NOT be there now! I’m glad you got a little relief. 🙂

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        • You are right, it was Machu Pichu I was thinking of. Incredible, isn’t it? How did they do it??? And your photo looked like these stones to me! – Wow, 54 degrees?!! That is unbearable. I can’t imagine, that someone can stay there a minute or so. Crazy. So the West Coast has its heatwave too. Others drown in rain….. You are so lucky up there in the north 🙂 Stay cool!

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  13. These are all wonderful and so creative, Lynn. Some are recognizable and some not so much. But recognition doesn’t tell us much about the image and your intent. Your imagination made some interesting choices and it is up to ours to sit and enjoy and let our minds wander. This is a gallery in a blog.

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  14. I think I have a new favorite blog. Your images and words are both so compelling I thoroughly enjoyed it to the last image. I loved your description of abstraction. I think it allows a relationship to form between the image and observer with minimum interference from the ego -kinda like a dream. I look forward to rooting through your previous posts.

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    • It’s great to hear that this post held your interest. I like to work with both words and images, but of course, it’s more work. I think it’s worthwhile to consider what you post carefully and make it as good as can make it. Your thought that abstraction is like a direct conduit between the image and observer is very interesting! Something to think about.
      And that’s the other reason to put some effort into blogging – the back-and-forth it generates is so satisfying.
      Thank you!
      (I hope you do get a chance to wander through some posts here…you can always use the categories filter – way at the bottom of the screen. Or even search something you’re interested in along with “bluebrightly” and maybe you’ll find something. Thanks again!

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  15. Your clever thoughts about abstraction in photography meet all my question marks on this subject.
    The need for words, names, comparisons is so overwhelmingly strong, often it is so hopeless to free oneself from it, that I am often very grateful for the opportunity to simply focus on blurred. In really bad moments I even thank chance – even if it has not so much to do with a conscious and intentional image creation.
    Your small series (no. 5 to 8) in the series that plays with squares shows quite well that abstraction can also lie in the exact opposite direction: in the exaggeration of the concrete. But you do something different in 5 to 8, which I find exciting: you relate details in different pictures to each other and create abstraction in them. And that’s exactly what I find great in your pictures here.
    With tools like GIMP, Lightroom, Photoshop etc. it is of course no big problem to make something strange, abstract out of a realistic image. The bigger challenge for me is to achieve this alienation right in the moment of taking the picture, possibly even without defocusing. Who mastered this art very impressively was Minor White, one of the great old men of the Fine Art world. Maybe you can find one of his photo volumes in a library – they are rare to buy and even as used books very expensive. In any case, it’s worth taking a few long glances inside if you have the opportunity. But you probably know him anyway.

    Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

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    • I don’t think it has to be a bad moment at all to be thanking chance for what it has given us. Something may arrive by chance but you’re still using the power of discernment to decide whether or not it’s worth keeping and/or working on.
      I wholly agree that our editing tools make it very easy to turn almost any photo into an abstraction. Step #1: Crop it! Step #2: Change the colors. etc. etc. When I put this post together, sometimes I thought I should be taking on the bigger challenge you talk about, of finding abstract consciously, when you’re behind the camera. Discovering abstractions wherever you look is something to aim for. Minor White did it, as you mentioned. I don’t have any of his books but I look at his work online sometimes. Even a google search brings up a lot of images. (But it would be great to see original prints, wouldn’t it?)
      I want to train myself to find abstracts and frame them well when I’m behind the lens more. The intention, a word you mentioned, is important. At the same time, I don’t want the desire to make abstract images in the camera to take away from the sheer pleasure and joy in creating abstracts from existing photos – all those goodies in Lightroom, just waiting to be manipulated. 😉 Realistically though, I noticed that many photos do NOT lend themselves to that.
      I used to spend more energy on the order of photos in a post, but then for some reason, I wasn’t paying as much attention to that. I’m trying to remember it again, so what you said about #5-8 relating to one another tells me I’m on the right track.
      I have another group of abstracts waiting in the wings…first I’m going to post another local walk. I hope you have a pleasant weekend!

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    • I have to say, I was really excited about #4 – it made me think of a vintage Japanese kimono. 🙂 The other photo you mentioned is a group of limpets on a rock. They have a nice way of huddling together. I have more abstracts huddled together in a LR quick collection, getting ready to be in a post soon. 😉 Thanks!!

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    • Thanks so much – you should try playing around with cropping and extremes in processing (if you haven’t already) and see what happens, It’s a good exercise. I’ll have another post about abstracts soon.

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  16. Pingback: RETURNING TO ABSTRACTION « bluebrightly


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