Non-Abstract Abstracts

Reflections No.1 — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Not too long ago, a short discussion in the blog was devoted to the idea of a Non-Abstract Abstract as a simple way to describe a particular type of image that has managed to find its way in front of the camera quite often over the years. In the past, I generally referred to them as “Natural Abstractions”, but have also seen them referred to as “Natural Extractions” or simply abstracts, and I’m sure there are many other monikers for this type image taken directly from a landscape. It’s difficult to provide a specific definition since a descriptor is better suited to convey an understanding of just what is meant by this term.

Probably the best description I’ve ever seen in print was by one of the more philosophical photographic scholars from the previous century:

Natural Abstractions are simply those things that lie before our eyes in nature, but when seen without their surrounding context, become abstract images, yet oddly can still retain their identity…

Clem Kadiddlehopper – photographer, philosopher, sage
Reflections No.4 — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

However, even though he was well regarded in the photographic community during the analog (film) era, photography has moved on to digital, and this description is much too narrow in scope, being limited to only those subjects found in the natural world. Yet, since this type of image can easily be found in almost any type of photography, its overarching theme might be better described combining the two conflicting terms Abstract Art and Realistic Art, and arriving at Abstract Realism, or Realistic Abstractions. In either case, explorations of this concept with the camera can be creatively challenging and rewarding.

Reflection Abstract No.2 — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

To add a bit of historical perspective on all this, old world painters of the Renaissance strove to produce renditions of people, places and things as realistically as possible, almost like photographs (think Leonardo da Vinci or Rembrandt). But this type of artist and artistry moved on when a seismic shift occurred with the advent of photography, and those same subjects could now be recorded much more easily with a camera. It could be said that the move away from realism, and the infancy of the Expressionism and Impressionism movements in painting, and therefore other movements that followed, were nudged along by the invention and improvements to the camera, film and photographic processing. Painters were now free to express their emotions and thoughts, incorporating their personal impression of the subject into their paintings, leaving the realistic interpretations to the emerging industry of photography.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — Thomas Moran

The history of photography has followed a similar path. In its beginning, it was used to record, instead by mechanical means and in a journalistic way, the same subjects painters had “recorded” for centuries using brushes and oils. There is no better example of the evolving shift from the realism of painters to photographers than the federally funded, 83 member Hayden expedition of 1871, exploring the vast wilderness that would become Yellowstone National Park, our nation’s first. Included on that grueling trip, 500 miles from the nearest train station, was painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson. Although it was Moran’s watercolor sketches of the area that convinced congress to pass the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act of 1872, many of Jackson’s photos from that expedition were more widely circulated commercially. But it was still Moran’s magnificent color and grandeur of the 7 by 12 foot canvas “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” that was inspirational enough for congress to pass the law and purchase the painting for $10,000!!

William Henry Jackson

It’s obvious which of the two images of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone might have had a greater impact on viewers at the time. Chances are the black and white prints were rather small compared to the majesty of the 12-foot wide color canvas by Thomas Moran.

Photography, just like painting, has also had spinoffs from it’s original purpose of accurate recording, to the more personal expressions of the world around us, free to explore a more deeply rooted interpretation or impression of whatever subjects spark creativity within our own world. Digital photography has allowed for an even wider range of possibility, and therefore creativity, than film alone could ever have, and yet the simple act of framing a photo in and of itself, can also be a creative tool in the creation of expressive photography. No specialty gear or software is needed, just the minimal act of aiming the camera in a purposeful direction, deciding what to include and exclude (zoom?), can make a world of difference in what is communicated to the viewer and their response.

Reflections No.3 — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

In these studies from around Jordan Lake over the course of several weeks, as important as what is included and/or excluded in the frame, when to trip the shutter is just as important, and may be necessary to rattle off a burst of continuous frames in order to capture that specific moment of greatest interest and balance you’re after. The fluidity of water in motion, whether it is the surf at the ocean, a cascading creek, or the gentle undulations in a marina, there will always be that elusive image with just the right combination of color, balance, line and texture you seek; but capturing it can prove frustrating.

For these specific photographs, patience was also an ingredient. Even though there were good reflections in the still water, it was the passing boats off in the distance from these occluded coves, and their resulting wakes, that created the gentle movements in the water that slowly made their way to the area of reflections. For the image above these three (No.3), as one set of ripples died down, another larger set came through, and when they were both working their magic, several frames were taken to capture the two sets within a single frame. So this particular type of image is directly dependent on the outside influences of the boats; just another thing in photography over which we have no control, but can anticipate if we know what’s possible from their passing through nearby.

For the three directly above, made at a different area of the lake, all were taken using various reflected areas of a single cove’s opposite shoreline when the sunlight illuminated the brilliant yellow/green of new spring growth on the trees. Generally, if the water is in shade while the subjects casting the reflections are being lit by the sunlight, you have the best ingredients for success, but still dependent on a random boat passing nearby. Wind can also influence the surface of the water, but it produces smaller ripples, while the boat’s wake produces supple swells that travel in a distinct direction. Shutter speeds are usually best at 1/15th second or above to “freeze” the motion of the water, but this, as well as mandating every part of the frame be in perfect focus, is not a necessity since it is an abstract, and not a literal recording. So those features of the image are up to your own discretion. In fact, even the idea of a focal point, something to which the eye is initially drawn, is not a necessity either. In Reflections No.1 and No.2, the cooler blue areas surrounded by warmer tones, serve as focal points, yet in No.3 and No.4, there is arguably no focal point, yet they seem to work as an abstract. In general, abstracts almost by definition, do not need to adhere to any rules or preconceived notions of the “proper” composition of an image. The freedom that abstracts allow for is what draws some artists to gravitate toward them, whether they are painters, sculptors or photographers!!

Reflected Light — Calf Creek Canyon, UT © jj raia

Of course, these abstract, or semi-abstract portrayals of the natural world are not restricted to images of reflections. The abstract quality of them can simply be how the elements appear within the frame as with the example above. The elements that give immediate recognition of what we are viewing are the obvious bare limbs and trunks in the center of the frame. But when this image is viewed from a distance, or small enough that the trunks are not recognized, it transforms into an impressionistic painting; each tiny area of color representing brush strokes. Even when viewed at normal sizes, many of the areas of color are small enough that they still could be brush strokes.

The photographs above illustrate how simply aiming the camera toward a specific area can immediately transform the image into an abstract in the same way a jigsaw puzzle piece is an abstract, but when connected with the surrounding pieces, becomes an easily identifiable subject or scene. (To better view any of these or the group of three above, just click on an image and it will render as full size). Nothing needs to be done in post processing to transform the original file into an abstract, no intentional camera movements to obscure the subject, what actually exists in the real world is the abstract. It is up to the photographer to isolate those areas that can be recorded as abstracts without the added visual context of its surroundings. Of course the same rules apply to these images as any other for balance, color harmony and interest to the viewer for them to be successful. At times, it can be challenging to find these when it’s possible that none exist where you are, but if your are always on the lookout for these possibilities, more often than not you will discover them when looking for, or at, something completely different.

Oculus Abstract — World Trade Center, NYC © jj raia

These extractions can also be found in the dramatic architecture of some buildings as well. Their lines and shapes interacting with light, either sunlight or nighttime illumination, can be a treasure trove of abstractions just waiting to be discovered. These can be pure expressions of line, form and color such as the image above, or with just a little bit of context added, such as the tangle of limbs and branches within the one below, to give the viewer a better sense of what is being seen. The tree is fairly obvious, but what lies behind it may remain a mystery for some folks, thereby layering the abstract against the reality. (Note: the title has been removed from the image below to protect the innocent).

© jj raia

Street photography has possibilities for abstract realism as well, and can help disguise the subtle story within the abstract. In this photo below, the geometrics almost overwhelm the image compared with the two legs just left of center. It is the various shapes, colors, textures and lines that all come together as a geometric design brought to reality by a person mostly hidden from view. I’m sure there are much better examples in street photography of how reality can also be an abstract design, but since that is something I rarely pursue, this is the best (only) I have to illustrate the point. But the idea of a tiny element or focal point within the abstraction, as the trunks and limbs provide in the Calf Creek Canyon image above, is what can snap it back to being a realistic view. If initially seen from far away, it would be the shapes and color that might attract someone to get closer. Engaging the viewer in this way, can change their perception of the photo the longer and closer it is viewed with additional discoveries to be made, or challenging them to find that singular element that brings the entire frame into realistic focus. And sometimes, as in the photo above, the realistic element is a major component of the image and easily identifiable, yet the abstract portion remains a mystery. Titles may help the viewer determine what they are looking at if they cannot do so on their own. But that’s a discussion for another post.

Hidden from View — New York City © jj raia

As mentioned earlier, pursuing this type of image can be challenging, and narrowing a search solely for them can prove disappointing. Generally, I find that they are more “discovered”, stumbled upon, or simply slapped in the face when out for a shoot with other intentions. The thermophiles from Yellowstone National Park (the orange frame in the group of four), were a specific subject I sought out when visiting there four years ago, but more often than not, we come across realistic abstractions unintentionally. Keeping them in the back of your mind as a possibility can make a seemingly unproductive shoot, into one of unexpected success.


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