RETURNING TO ABSTRACTION

1.

The title of this post has two meanings: first, it’s a return to abstraction because I published a post featuring abstract images earlier this year. Second, like many people these days, I find myself drifting back to the past. Aesthetically, the past for me means abstraction. As a child I was shown the standard representational fare, some of it very beautiful, no doubt. But change and rebellion were in the air by the time I went to college. I refused to attend a typical college and enrolled in a New York City art school instead. There, minimalism, conceptual art, installations, land art and performance art ruled. Fully immersed in that culture, I was very happy.

A thread had been dropped though, and it wouldn’t be picked up until much later. I never forgot that nature was vital to my being, even in a decade of full-throttle, staccato, subway-riding, sensory-overloaded life in the city. Nature just rode along quietly for a while, breathing gently like a hushed tide. When I moved out of the city the tide came in. I gardened, watched birds, learned botanical illustration, and eventually began wielding a camera to record the beauty I saw everywhere.

That brings me to the present, a present in which I joyfully hone my skills making photographs of lichens, landscapes, and everything in between. But abstraction lives. The habits of seeing that were refined in galleries, in classrooms and on the streets of New York may not be obvious in my work, but they underlie many decisions made behind the camera and at the computer.

In the spirit of creating something new while working with the past, I’ve been making drastic changes to photographs in my archives. I’ve been abstracting them and therein, I’m finding new delights. As Wikipedia notes, abstraction “strictly speaking…refers to art unconcerned with the literal depiction of things from the visible worldโ€”it can, however, refer to an object or image which has been distilled from the real world…” And that’s the space these images inhabit – the distillation and reshaping of the original image toward a new vision.

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I’ve been following a deviant route when I work with the photos on my screen. Before jumping into processing I get a feeling for the whole image. Then, instead of proceeding to refine what is there, I wonder what else is in the image. What can be extracted from it? What does it say? What permutations are waiting to be uncovered? Where can I take it?

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6.

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A paper appeared in my inbox one day that discusses a different, more philosophical approach to the photographic experience. Reading the paper, which was written by an art education professor, I stepped outside the world of photographers talking about photography for a moment. I realized that viewing photography through a different lens (sorry, I can’t help it!) could facilitate breaking habits. I thought about taking my typically representational images and mutating them.

“The encounter then operates as a rupture in our habitual modes of being and thus in our habitual subjectivities. It produces a cut, a crack. However this is not the end of the story, for the rupturing encounter also contains a moment of affirmation, the affirmation of a new world, in fact a way of seeing and thinking this world differently.” Thinking Through the Photographic Encounter: Engaging with the Camera as Nomadic Weapon by Cala Coats. Nomadic in this sense refers to boundary-blurring, creative, alternative ways of being in the world. As a nomadic weapon the camera assists the photographer in engaging with the world directly, resulting in new insights.

In this excerpt from her paper Coats is quoting Simon O’Sullivan, an artist and professor at Goldsmith’s University, London. A brief scan of some of O’Sullivan’s work turns up references to disrupting habits of living in linear time and building platforms to access “somewhere else.” There are statements like this: “The infinite is not a transcendent horizon but the very ground of existence.” He discusses “minor arts” (e.g. performance art as opposed to painting) as art forms that are always in process, always becoming: “…a minor art pushes up against the edges of representation; it bends it, forcing it to the limits and often to a certain kind of absurdity.” Whether he considers photography a minor art or not is immaterial; his ideas sparked a fresh perspective in my mind.

Is the camera only a representational tool? Certainly not. It can be a launch pad for a trip to an unknown place. If seeing the world with fresh eyes is desirable, then how can wielding a camera disrupt habitual ways of seeing? What can the person behind the lens do to break the spell of look-click-look-click-look-click? And later, what can the person tapping the keyboard do to break the spell of contrast-up-highlights-down-sharpness-up, etc.?

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Instructions to Self:

Pare the RAW file

down to a sketchy suggestion of what

might have been, what

could be.

Rupture the railroad-straight line between

clicking the shutter and

the final file.

Find a crooked way, a way that

hesitates, races forward, wanders back,

uncovers new shapes, unfolds fresh colors,

unmasks smudgy tones, reveals deeper feelings

and ideas. And do it all

with joy.

***


69 comments

  1. Physical, tangible expression of mental/emotional processes many of us may be exploring, in these times that by disrupting our usual context demand we see from different angles, from different layers, in different dimensions…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m back! ๐Ÿ™‚ Great series! I like them all. Nr1 is subtle, but with a lot going on; you managed to process it to look like an engraving by Albrecht Dรผrer.. I like it a lot! Nr3 Great colors; the bottom part, where the grasses become an abstract mess of scratches is great and those bloodred scars are strong lines. Nrs 4 and 5 remind me of some of the works of Cy Twombly, which I like a lot; minimal drawings; taken in the snow I guess. Nr6 I like that it is still close to a photo; the shadow parts loose detail and become a little flat; they could do with more sharpness and contrast and even a little more dark.. Nr7 Lunar blue landscape.. Nr8 Great minimal line on a fine grainy background. Nr9 Love the colors and those pale ghost-plants in the background! Nr13 Strong black background. Nr14 Subtle pattern; a lot going on but everything stays calm; good soft colors. Bit familiar to Nr16. Fruitful series; I like to see you experimenting and ‘grow’.. See you!

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      • Thanks for coming back, Harrie. Of course, I love the Durer comment – I’ve always admired him very much…I think his “Great Piece of Turf” is one of my favorite pieces of art – along with many more contemporary works. What you said about #3 is interesting becasue I struggled with that one and was not happy until I had those “blood-red” lines. It needed oomph. I like “abstract mess of scratches.” Then you mention Cy Twombly, whose work I also admire. I used to manage the estate grounds for a couple who had a huge Twombly in their living room – that was a treat to look at. ๐Ÿ™‚ Yes, in the snow. In #6 I wanted the shadows to be very blurry but I can see where darkening them could be nice, thanks for the honest opinion. The pale plants in the background of #9 are under the water. I tried different effects in Color Efex until I found one that enhanced that effect the best (and then tweaked it some more, of course). I think the reason #14 stays calm is the colors. I think what you’re saying about #16 is that it’s too obvious what the photo is for it to be called abstract, right? I cannot argue. I’ll be doing more abstracts – thanks so much for all your thoughts, Harrie, it makes it worthwhile when you know people are engaged. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. I do so enjoy seeing through your lens, both the literal lens, and the exploratory lens! Not all of these work for me but I entirely get the fun, the pure joy, of the exploration. My favourites, the ones I love and would hang on my walls: 1, 2, 9, 16, 18.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that paper is full of academic jargon but it did get me thinking in a different direction. You can probably tell what most of these began as but the last one is a Frank Gehry building in Seattle. Thanks, and have a good weekend, what’s left of it!

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  3. An excellent post in every way/ The images are superb and explore a wide range of processing techniques now so readily available through modern technology. I too am enjoying revisiting archive images and seeking new ways of expressing the subject,
    Your text was helpful, interesting and informative.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “And do it all with joy” is a good iambic endingโ€”so I’ve mentioned it first.

    Like you, I’ve often written RAW with capital letters. That appears to be a mistake, given that the term is just the normal English word raw. What seems to have happened is that someone (who?) started imitating the style of image file format names that were acronyms, like TIFF (tagged image file format) and JPEG (joint photographic experts group). However, whereas each of those is technically specified in a unique way, there isn’t a single RAW file format, but rather many raw formats, with each defined by its creator (Canon, Nikon, etc.). I’d say we’ve gotten a raw deal with RAW.

    #4, 5, and 8 recall some of Harry Callahan’s minimalist views of bare branches or stalks in snow. Regarding #14, those of us who did chemical photography remember how sometimes the image of a film negative that we saw projected by an enlarger struck us as more appealing than the positive version we were in the process of printing. I did a screen capture of #14 and inverted the tonalities in Photoshop to see what the original positive version looked like. I also inverted #13 just to take a look; the overall darker version you presented is the one I originally liked and still prefer.

    I don’t know what the original elements are that make up #18, but the overall effect reminds me of ripple patterns I’ve seen in creeks, for example https://tinyurl.com/y6xksacs. #11 reminded me of the Synchromism movement in American art a century ago. #7 is mysterious: the blob from outer space, or perhaps another creek.

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    • Ha ha, that makes total sense, what you explained about raw. I will try to remember. ๐Ÿ™‚
      Harry Callahan?? I love his work! I haven’t looked t it in a while. I was probably influenced by his work when I did those, without realizing it consciously. Thank you for that observation.
      Though I never worked in a darkroom, I understand what you’re saying about #14. It’s fun to hear you checked out a few of these in a reverse mode, though of course there were other tweaks too. Sometimes one wonders when to stop.
      #18 is a Frank Gehry building in Seattle – the skin of the building is great for reflections. It used to be called the EMP Building.
      I had to reacquaint myself with Synchromism. I could have been listening to music when I did these but in fact, I wasn’t.
      I had fun with #7. It’s just a piece of Bullwhip kelp washed up on a beach, with sand blowing over it but after I was done with it, it had entered another dimension.
      Thanks, Steve, it’s a pleasure reading your comment. Have a good weekend!.

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  5. Wow these are so cool Lynn ๐Ÿ˜Ž I love them 9 and 10 but all…I wish I was sitting next to you making and seeing how you make them too…Iโ€™ve joined an abstract group to learn more…keep making more art! Sending you joy and creative vibes ~ hugs hedy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Hedy, I thought you might like these. Fairly often, I use Silver Efex Pro & Color Efex Pro to get started. And I’ve had to kind of de-train myself to go ahead and push the LR sliders all the way at first then work back. It’s so different from the way I work on photos that I want to be more “realistic.”
      #10 is a photo of a clear plastic tarp on the ground, left there by agricultural workers, and coated with frost after a cold snap. On of those side-of-the-road gifts. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Thanks for the good words, Hedy!

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  6. Great work Lynn, I love it! My favorites are from #2 to #9 and #13. I can’t help it but in some of the processed pictures I see textile patterns, ready to weave or print ๐Ÿ™‚ The one with the water lily for example or #14, they could be beautiful cloth. Your approach to the processing, how you play with it, is challenging, like in #6. I especially like the more abstract pictures here, because they invite me, like you mentioned, to new worlds. They are freeing the mind, can I say so? I can feel your joy and I know how you feel about nature. I enjoy both of your ways of seeing. I am glad about what you learned in art school and how it influenced you. You have this special notion to show us the outstanding, to see art in so many things. I did not read the other articles yet. I will do it later. Great post ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • Pat, it’s funny you should say that – a very close, old friend of mine lives in Maine and has been a fabric maven for decades. She doesn’t quilt but over the years would often buy fabric and have clothes made. What’s funny is that when I finished #2 I emailed it to her, with a note saying wouldn’t it make a nice print? Good prints are hard to find – she taught me that. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I know it’s possible to get fabric printed but not the most inexpensive way to go.

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        • Maybe send some examples to some fabric producers (fabric.com has a list of designers/fabric producers) to see if they would like to purchase your images?

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    • Thank you, Almuth. Yes, fabric made from some of these would be fun. I was saying to Hedy (sloppybuddhist) above that I had to force myself to push the sliders in Lightroom all the way, then work back toward the middle. Freeing the mind, yes, you can say that! It’s nice to know that you enjoy both ways of seeing (and it’s not surprising). I have to warn you about reading any articles I mentioned. They are written in a difficult, academic style that is full of strange words or strange ways of using common words. But the website of Simon O’Sullivan might be fun to look at, as long as you don’t get lost in his writing. ๐Ÿ˜‰ It’s good that you and I can visit these new worlds together…. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  7. Pure joy! I love the adventures you’ve taken here. An assist in leaving beyond the outside world.

    “Nature just rode along quietly for a while, breathing gently like a hushed tide.” Without knowing it, Nature was for me a hidden longing, but we seemed to have arrived at similar places. Right?

    And thank you for the ‘Instructions to Self’. I should print that and hang it on the wall for inspiration. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cool! I wasn’t sure you would go for this. You’re right, we’ve arrived in similar places and are the better for it. In working on these I had to make myself go to extremes that aren’t the norm for me. FOr example, in Lightroom, just push a slider all the way over, then work back until it looks right. It can be a liberating way to process photos, opening up new doors. Thank you, Gunta, have a good week, OK?

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  8. I presence of this wonderful set of images, what can we say?
    That there are no concepts, principles, styles, norms, schools or anything else that prevents the will and imagination from entering the field of possibility, visual exploration, adventure or something new.
    This desire to go on new paths and experiences is vital, as vital is this energy that animates us. Everything revolves around possibility. Art too.
    Thank you for sharing and I wish you an excellent and creative week!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. “Seeing” really is a two (or more) part process: first, “see” and capture, and second, “see again, perhaps differently” and tweak in post. You’ve taken both strongly in the fine art direction. While I’m not normally a big fan of abstract art (ignore the fact I occasionally dabble), I like nearly all of these shots.

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    • Now that you mention it I remember that you’re not an abstract art fan. I can only imagine that you just haven’t seen the good stuff. ๐Ÿ˜‰ In any case, it’s good to hear that you enjoyed these, Dave, thank you very much. It’s great exercise, if that makes sense.

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  10. Lynn, speaking in very concrete terms, looking at these images in the aggregate, youโ€™ve really cemented your reputation for wonderful abstractions. (There, Iโ€™ve gotten all the stupid puns out of my system now.) Your essay, instructive poem, and images are just great – this post is a standout for the year. Iโ€™ve really enjoyed roaming through the gallery several times, and the sense of freedom it conveys — seeing one thing in a shot, then another โ€“ cells and nerve clusters in the first shot, a sgraffito ceramic in the 3rd, reverse glass painting in 9, a dazzling 3-D puzzle in 14. And just such a kick how you transmute windblown trash, the plastic sheeting, into a ghostly, wintry veil or opulent silvery fabric in 5 and 10. What is the background in 13, under the fallen (yew? hemlock?) needles? And all the curving brush-strokes and irresistible tactility in 6. OK Iโ€™m running on a bit, arenโ€™t I, so just congratulations on these very successful experiments.

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    • Oh, that was a big groaner, Robert, and I liked it. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s great to hear that you respond strongly to this post. I do plan to do more abstracts. I love that you feel a sense of freedom from wandering through these images. That’s what making them feels like. The first one does look like neurons. And you know, some of me all-time favorite photographic experiences – I’m talking about feeling elated while behind the camera – were when I found the plastic in #5 and #10 and worked with it. They’re almost ten years apart. Your takes on these show the cosmopolitan, well-informed nature of your own aesthetic: sgraffito! Reverse glass painting! . I’m not sure what the background was in that photo of fallen Douglas fir needles – having a hard time locating it, sorry. Please always feel free to run on, and on, and on. Thanks very much, Robert!

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    • Ah, that is very good to hear, Denise, thank you! It’s a different mindset and sometimes it’s just so enjoyable to do. ๐Ÿ™‚ I hope the fires aren’t in your area – I don’t think so – and hope you’re not dealing with smoke.

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  11. I can’t tell you how happy I am about your decision to search for more realities behind the obvious. My socialization in terms of art was also dominated by Modern Art and the rebellious sixties and seventies. That is never lost and continues to move us today, of course.

    I will only pursue your theoretical links in the next few days, I need more time for that than I have at the moment. It is always fascinating what we see when we manage to get out of our habits for a short moment.

    First, you reduce the number of colors in the area and then move on to a white or very light area that is covered with a scribble similar to writing. I really like grass fonts like that.

    Black and white is in itself an abstraction, as it replaces the color in the picture with pure brightness values. And that is precisely why some of these images seem more concentrated, almost even more concrete than the colored ones. When looking at a large number of good black and white pictures, I sometimes forget the missing color and see it. Strange somehow. Your opening picture actually looks very abstract due to the lack of color, almost like a pattern, probably because it contains so many visually similar elements. I feel similarly to some other pictures, like numbers 14 to 16, which I find extremely beautiful.

    Taking the proportions away from their frame of reference is sometimes enough to bring about abstraction, you do that convincingly in the pictures with numbers 7, 8 and 18.
    And then of course the blurring! I often find it even more challenging to use it while taking pictures than when I do it with PS, although it can develop its special charms there.

    I love your Self Instruction very much, and I agree: let’s do it with joy!

    All in all, I very much hope that the abstraction virus has firmly gripped you and that these are not the last such pictures that you have shown here. Great experimental work, dear Lynn

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for taking the time to write such a generous comment, Ule. Don’t worry about the links – I don’t necessarily recommend them but they’re there in case someone wants to know more about those individuals. The papers are full of academic jargon and I can’t imagine what it would be like to read them in a second language.
      Grass and scribbling and writing – you know, there’s a Japanese calligraphy style (It has a very flowing look) that is sometimes called grass calligraphy. I’ve always loved that style – and the calligraphy that I see outside. The “grass fonts.” ๐Ÿ˜‰
      That’s interesting about the way your mind puts color into black and white photos sometimes.
      The fact that you mentioned 14 – 16 helped me realize that one photo is missing. I’ll include it in the next abstract post. It has a similar look. Those were some of the images that I was most excited about.
      What you called taking proportions away I also call playing with scale and it’s something that has fascinated me since I was a child.
      The “abstraction virus” – you’re funny. I’ll take that one. No worries, as people say in the Pacific Northwest, I will do more. Thank you for encouraging me. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • As you mention “playing with the scale” and your childhood, you arise a memory in me: I remember occasional photos (makros I would call them today)in the newspapers that were published as riddles. I loved those, and often failed with finding the solution ๐Ÿ˜Š
        So I can look forward to more abstracts to come. Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

  12. These are some really wonderful thoughts Lynn. I love hearing about new ways of thinking. And seeing. These are really beautiful images and it sounds like a breakthrough type of moment. I would personally be interested in seeing what some of the images looked like in RAW before reprocessing for selfish reasons. To see what can be done to make something that is into something that isnโ€™t for inspiration. To learn to see more.

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    • Given what I’ve been hearing on your youtube presentations, what you’re saying about enjoying new ways of thinking isn’t surprising. The images don’t exactly represent a breakthrough moment – I’ve been interested in abstraction for 50 years and have done abstract and conceptual work before. On the other hand, it isn’t something I’ve worked with that often and I really enjoyed processing photos this way – or should I say, these ways. I’ll contact you off the blog about looking at some of the RAW files. Thanks very much, Howard, I’m really happy to know this interests you.

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  13. It will take me awhile to adjust to this abstraction. I am learning to see the natural shapes among the colors and lines and enjoying guessing what forms the geometry came from before reading your descriptions. Your process for this type of creation reflects very much what I have heard sculptors say. Hoping this finds you safe.

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    • Don’t worry – the next post returns to “normal operations.” ๐Ÿ™‚ But I’m glad you’re enjoying guessing what the images were originally. It can be really interesting to explore what processing can do, too.
      It’s good to hear from you – I’m safe and well, and I trust you are, too. Have a good week!

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  14. Wow! Wow! Wow! I could do that 18 times. โค

    These are fantastic, Lynn. That string laid down when you were in college has been woven into some special creations. As I've said before, I can't pick a favorite…not that it is necessary. Each is its own visual treasure.

    In addition to all the images that are so enjoyable is your writing. I am always impressed with your introspection and ability to put it into words. If I say anything about my images it is "Look…pretty flower, grunt". ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aw, Steve, this is so nice to see. I wouldn’t necessarily have known you would like these that much. And writing? Well, it seems that if you keep doing it and work at it, it does improve. There are so many people whose writing I can’t hold a candle to but maybe they can inspire me to keep working at it. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Thanks again! I hope you’re enjoying your time off.

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  15. This has got to be the best post ever. Thank you for all the insights and references. Thank you for the Wikipedia definition of abstraction. Thank you for your question โ€œWhere can I take [an image]?โ€ And thank you for the link to the Coats article. Iโ€™ll see how far I can get reading it. I was so taken by your narrative this time, that I only looked at the photographs as illustrations. Now I will go back and look at the photographs as photographs, works of a โ€œminor artโ€ or not.

    The first photograph appeals for the tension between dominant larger shapes and almost-overwhelming minuscule ones. In #3, I respond to the sheer excited joy of the image. I love how the shadows reinforce the graceful sweeps of the grass in #6. Mystery is what pulls me into #7. Is it the surface of the moon or a depression in beach sand or something totally made up? You are so brave with #s 11 and 12. Hello, Emil Nolde. The creamy quality of the bamboo leaves in #15 is fascinating. The texture in #17 is what takes it to that something more you aim for. And oh how lovely is #18. I donโ€™t know what to say about it, just that I love love love it.

    I will take your โ€œInstructions to Selfโ€ as instructions to me. Thank you for all of this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shucks, your comment is wonderful. ๐Ÿ™‚ That article is really packed with academic jargon but sometimes, even skimming things like that gets me going – you know what I mean? And I think that “sheer excited joy” is a good thing to express now and then. ๐Ÿ™‚ (What you saw in #6 was what I tried to emphasize.)
      #7 IS on the beach, and not made up at all. It was darkened heavily. It was a beautiful gestural curve to begin with – a long strand of Bullwhip kelp washed up into a circle and washed over with blowing sand. Sometimes when you experiment with different “looks” in ColorEfex or AnalogEfex, interesting things pop out at you.
      The overall blur photos have appealing color but I think it’s clear that they don’t stand up as well as the other images in this format. If they were huge prints they might work better. I may not have expected you to be drawn to the last one. That’s a closeup from Seattle’s Frank Gehry building; the skin of it makes fabulous reflections. Thank YOU for your enthusiasm, which keeps me going.

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  16. Oh yes, Lynn. What a beautiful post with your telling of your early roots in art. I love what you’ve discovered with these images. Some made more graphic with manipulation and some holding onto realism. The plastic bags in 5/10 made me look further, the leaf patterns as if on a light box in 14 are appealingly delicate. The leaves and pipe (?) is striking with its HDR look. And the images with bold color variations are beautiful. Is #7 a caldera? Fantastic collection. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jane, it sounds like you had fun with this – I did too. ๐Ÿ˜‰ The leaves in #15 are pictures with a bamboo plant – and those are bamboo leaves. That was at a garden in Seattle. I love that #7 made you think of a caldera – you know what? It’s a big piece of Bullwhip kelp on the beach! Lots of sand had blown across it and there weren’t any footprints, happily. It really began to look like something else when it was darkened. I’ll post more abstracts at some point. Thanks for looking – I hope you’re relaxing now after a busy week, but it looks like another busy week is ahead, right?

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