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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Framing Earth and Sky

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planes of existence

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the sky falls into place

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the grasses swim; the clouds fall to earth

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pressed to reveal a secret

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it could be about the daisies

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at the edge of the known world

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we find light, hold it, and let it go

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this is not the place

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portal

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re-contextualizing again

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This project has its roots in another project I worked on in 1972-73. I took a square pane of glass to a vacant field an hour west of New York City and placed it on the ground. It was a sunny day and soon condensation began to form on the plants under the glass. Everything under the glass took on a slightly blue cast. I photographed that and moved on to other manipulations, wrapping a plastic bag over a small bush and bending a square of aluminum foil around a barbed wire fence so the foil hung like flag. I was interested in reflections and other subtle changes in the light that I could make with gentle interventions in the environment.

The following winter I returned to the field after a heavy snowfall with the pane of glass under my arm. Dropping it onto the snow, I photographed the resulting square made by shadows cast along the edges of the glass. I stuck the pane into the snow on its edge and photographed it head-on, with its bright reflection on one side and its shadow on the other side. I kept going, playing with a ball of string and four utility candles – more white on white. The pieces (photographs of them) were submitted for a sculpture class at the School of Visual Arts, which I was attending.

Then the ideas went dormant for a long time. One of the pieces was titled “Disappearance” but the ideas never disappeared from my mind. The play of light on objects always drew my attention, whether I was working, walking across the city, taking care of my son or gazing out a window. Four slides of the work from the early 1970s survive. Those images and my memory were enough to nudge me toward the hardware store this month to purchase two squares of glass, cut to my specifications. I drove to a field again, this time in Washington State. It was another sunny day, but of course, conditions were different than they were in 1972. I’m different. So I worked with the glass square, took photos, thought about what I saw on the screen and went out a second time. The photos above are from these two recent forays. I expect there will be more.

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INWORLD

When the grayness of winter leaves me uninspired or there’s not enough time to get outside, there’s always the “backyard” – a patch of woods thick with native plants just outside the windows.

And if that’s not enough on its own, then it’s time to play with the camera and see what happens.

Dwelling in.

(the world)

Indwelling.

 

 

 

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Photos taken with a 20mm prime lens, wide aperture, and hand-held movement.

SHATTER

 

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SHATTER the light, the expectations.

BREAK up the view, the stillness.

ERODE the object, the function.

And never stop playing.

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Photographs:

Reflection and light broken up on a phone

Painted tarp on a chain link fence at a construction site

An “oops” taken out the window of a moving car

Reflections on a glass table

Rust on an abandoned car

Chair on a sidewalk

SIGHT SPECIFIC

 

My mind-eye swirls and swivels, twists,

zeroes in,

rests

for a heartbeat or two, maybe a breath…

then it’s off again, connecting dots that

you may not have seen.

So here, just take a look,

(I would not ask you to follow).

Let your mouth corners turn up

or down,

brows arch or furrow,

in front of the

bright screen, in that far away place

where you are.

We’ve connected.

 

HOH RAINFOREST REFLECTIONS

The Hoh Rainforest, in Olympic National Park in Washington State, is a sprawling patch of temperate rainforest between the mountains and the sea, where the Hoh tribe was created by a shape-shifting transformer, K’wati, according to tribal oral tradition.   The meandering Hoh River runs here, gradually transporting clean glacial water from Mount Olympus out to the Pacific Ocean.  It rains and rains and rains in this forest; the constant moisture and mild winters make for a complex green-machine landscape of huge trees luxuriously clad in epiphytes, with ferns and mosses growing everywhere.  A trail can be followed up the Hoh all the way to alpine meadows in the mountains, from about 600′ elev. to 4300′, with a length of 17.5 miles. Sorry to say I walked only a scant mile of it; having already explored another trail earlier, I wanted to save time for nearby Rialto Beach.

This reflection shot was taken straight down into a creek that feeds the Hoh. It wasn’t raining, thankfully, in fact, the sun – if you could find a slice of sky between the trees overhead – was shining.  The little creek moved fast and was full of plants – I counted five different underwater plants at this spot.

After I got home I processed the photo in Lightroom to enhance the painterly quality of the reflections. Here’s a straight photo of the creek from the trail above it; running wide and shallow, with thick growth under the surface, it is a bright spot in the forest:

One of these days – soon – I’ll post more photos from the Hoh Rainforest, and from Rialto Beach. Oh, and Second Beach, just up the coast, and Hurricane Ridge in the mountains – we covered them all in two days’ time. I don’t recommend that pace; we both collapsed when we got home…but it was worth it!

On and Off the Grid

Recently seen

in and around Seattle –

the hard and the soft,

rigid and supple,

all a part

of

some mysterious whole,

I suppose.

 

Photos taken with an Android phone (2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th) and a DSLR (!st, 3rd).  Processed in Lightroom and/or Perfect Effects.

The white flower is a magnolia, the orange & pink ones are coneflowers (Echinacea). The building at the bottom is a new University of Washington Medicine Research Center in Seattle.

A VALENTINE

An abstract evocation of warmth, from my hand/heart to yours:

This curled leaf from a Magnolia tree was a meal for a happy beetle or caterpillar, leaving its structure – the veins – for us to admire and ponder. Curled up inside a red lacquered cabinet, it caught stray glimmers of morning sunlight in January.

I found the leaf on the ground at the University of Washington Arboretum in Seattle. Their website says, “Magnolias have a long history. Fossil remains indicate that magnolias are among the most ancient angiosperms (flowering plants) and have changed very little in 100 million years.”

“Magnolias are named in honor of botanist Pierre Magnol, director of the Montpellier Botanic Gardens, the oldest university garden in France. Magnol’s major contribution to horticulture was developing the concept of plant families.”

Strangely enough, I found this leaf (and hundreds more like it) under a Magnolia tree in full bloom in mid April. Lush, graceful flowers adorned the tree above my head but the ground below was blanketed with last year’s leaves, slowly returning to the earth while mingling with freshly fallen petals.

Here are photographs of several magnolias in the UW collection, and fallen petals underneath last year’s skeletonized leaf.

I’ve strayed from the original idea of a simple abstract image for Valentine’s Day, but isn’t Valentine’s Day a bit of a conundrum? A day to celebrate warm feelings of love occurs in a season of cold. So here I’ve set out a few images to reinforce the warmth without forgetting the rest of the story.

From The Daily Post today comes a wonderful potpourri of hearts and the like:

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/love/#more-14479