For me, one of the wonderful gifts of photography is the sheer delight of playing with lines, shapes and colours.
An image doesn’t have to have an identifiable subject to fascinate or move me. It doesn’t even have to have a relatable subject. It doesn’t even have to capture my imagination, although I love photographs that do that as well.
It just has to speak to me on some unconscious level through lines and shapes and colours. It can be distilled down to pure perception.
For me, the same has always been true of painting, so I guess this makes some sense. I’ve always loved the non-representational. I’m a huge fan of abstract artists like Lawren Harris, Wassily Kandinky and Mark Rothko, to name only a few.
I was thrilled to discover that I could make my own abstracts with photography, and I always wonder why I don’t do it more. I guess I get caught up in using photography to record and represent my observable reality in a way that is more or less recognizable. And let’s face it, that is what photography is most associated with.
But then from time to time, I get startled out of this mode and I’m able to see things in a more abstract way. The other night we were driving in the rain. It was very dark and the world outside looked mysterious. The colourful lights of the other cars and of the passing city made striking patterns on the windshield. The wipers left tracks on the windshield on top of the blurry lights. I woke up and grabbed my camera.
I recently stumbled upon a young photographer whose work also has the effect of waking me up. Her name is Felicia Simion and she actually started taking pictures at 13. Now only 20, she has developed an utterly incredible body of work and received many awards and accolades.
I love that Felicia has not become super-specialized in only one genre of photography — she does portraits as well as landscapes as well as surreal dreamscapes as well as street photography and on and on. She says: “I was never able to stick to one genre of photography. I had to know about and experience them all. The world is too vast to fit into a landscape or a portrait. It needs to be painted with so much light that it would lead the sun towards eternal blindness.”
You can find her work on her website and on Facebook. She is one to watch.
I devoted the month of February to experimenting with abstract photography. Guided and inspired by the generous and talented Kim Manley Ort and accompanied by an enthusiastic group of kindred souls on Flickr, I challenged myself to see reality around me in a very different way.
Here are some of my key discoveries:
- Abstract photography is a vehicle to get more in touch with your own instincts, emotions and passions. It removes the literal from your images. You don’t need to know what the subject is to like it. For example, I connect with the image above not because of what it is — dish towels, actually — but because of how it makes me feel: energized, empowered and part of the earth. The green, deep blue and orange are to me the elemental colours of fire, water, sky and earth.
- Abstract photography is just plain fun. It is a doorway to joy. It gives you permission to play, to bend and break the rules, to follow your bliss and not worry about the result. Like a child with finger paints, sometimes you make a big mess — and other times you are unexpectedly delighted by a beautiful and meaningful image. It doesn’t really matter; it’s all good.
- In the future, I think I’ll come back to abstract photography any time I’m in the creative doldrums, when I want to shake myself out of habitual and stale patterns. This secret antidote might just work for you too. Part of what freezes us up when we pick up the camera is a desire to make “good” or “popular” images, and we often judge ourselves against similar types of images made by others. But when we free ourselves to create something that is not at all recognizable, then we are liberated from judging it against criteria that are not our own. And since we’re also not so bound up by needing to achieve the perfect exposure, composition and framing, we are released to take more risks and experience the possibility of creating something new and different. Just that excitement alone can reinvigorate our photography.
- Abstract photography can also help you improve your “regular” photography. How is that? Making abstracts trains you to see more directly what lies at the base of any image — lines, shape, patterns, light, colour. When the image is something you are familiar with, you can become distracted by your ideas and preconceived notions of the thing, and your perceptions are not as pure as they might be. But when you remove the label from what is happening in the frame, you see only how light, line, shape and colour are dancing together. That is all. This heightened awareness can make for fresher and more exciting images, abstract or not.
- I commented in an earlier post that “one of the things I love the most about this form of photography is that it keeps revealing just how varied and mysterious the world really is when looked at through different eyes — there is so much more to see and enjoy than we usually let ourselves. And you don’t have to go far. It is astounding how many surprises you can find even in your own home — in the few feet around you.” (I doubt I would have seen the creative possibilities of light on dish towels before this course!)
Now, you definitely don’t need a course to play around with abstracts. You just need an open mind and a desire to try different things. Going really close up on familiar objects is one technique that can yield interesting abstracts. So are deliberately blurring your images and even adding camera movement (ICM) while you are blurring them. And if you are near water, even puddles, do try out abstract reflections. These were some of my favorite images this month.
But I would highly recommend taking Kim’s online course if abstract photography appeals to you at all. You will find her a wonderful catalyst to creativity. The course was a perfect balance of reading about abstract artists, techniques and ideas and real practice. The feedback from Kim and the other participants is always supportive and encouraging. And I found seeing such a wide diversity of abstract work emerging from the group to be exciting and inspiring. The course has started me — and many others — on a continuing journey that I know will deepen and change and keep me engaged for a long time to come.
Kim Manley Ort offers a wide range of equally exciting online courses as well. Why not sign up for her newsletter so you will be the first to know what she has coming up next?
If what I say resonates with you, it is merely because we are both branches on the same tree.
It’s been a while since I tried “intentional camera movement,” or ICM as it’s known. (You can see a previous experiment here plus find out about the technique.)
But since we’re coming to the end of the abstract photography course I’ve been taking, I thought I would give it another go. It’s a technique that takes a great deal of patience since the ratio of failures to successes is quite high. But it’s definitely worth the effort.
Even though I’m a big fan of non-recognizable abstracts when it comes to water reflections for example, I tend to prefer a slightly recognizable subject when using ICM.
You have to use a slow shutter speed so it’s important to control the light that comes into the camera otherwise the overall effect will be far too washed out. I tried several different combinations before I was happy.
For this image, I used a very low ISO and a small aperture combined with a quarter second exposure. I thought about using a neutral density filter but found that I didn’t really need to. I was pleased that the trees were still outlined and the colours were deep and rich in the example above.
Tell me, do you enjoy making ICM images, and if so, do you have any tips to share?
The abstract nature of reality is the source of beauty.
The sun was going down and the light was beautiful in the marina. I had just finished shooting some pics of Charles and Chica (a dog on a neighbouring boat) and as I was walking down the dock, I caught sight of the most amazing reflections in the water.
I doubt I would have noticed them before starting to take the wonderful online course, Going Abstract, with Kim Manley Ort. My eyes are now so much more attuned to light and colour and pattern that I would have just walked past before. And that means so much more beauty is mine to delight in.
A wonderful gift…
It’s astounding just how much the eye/brain wants to find something recognizable in an abstract. I created quite a number of these water abstracts and I keep seeing animal/fish/bird shapes in them. And with their rounded shapes, they also remind me of abstract Inuit art.
Then I remember they are fundamentally water, light, reflection, pattern and colour. But when you think about the complex processes involved in getting that moment in the marina into our eyes and then into our brain to make meaning — through the medium of the camera — it all becomes rather miraculous.
“I understand abstract art as an attempt to feed imagination with a world built through the basic sensations of the eyes.”
If you look at a photo and there’s a voice inside you that says “What is it?”…. Well, there you go. It’s an abstract photograph.
Taken in a parking lot
I’ve always wanted to spend more time trying out abstract photography. Some of my favorite paintings are abstracts and I have long admired the work of Kandinksy and Lawren Harris, among others. I am also excited by the abstract work of the photographer Freeman Patterson.
I started to play around with abstracts in December when I became fascinated with the patterns and colours of paint I found on boat bottoms.
So when I saw that Kim Manley Ort was offering an online course in February, I signed up for it.
Kim points us to resources about abstract photography and stimulates discussion and exchange in our Flickr group about our experiences with it.
But most of all she encourages us to approach abstract image-making with an open and exploratory mindset, one that is not limited by thoughts and labels and judgements about what things are and how they should look. It’s like returning to the sensibility of very early childhood, which most of us have long left behind.
It is so freeing to venture forth with my camera, without expectation, allowing myself to be halted by pure perception that delights me, wherever I see it. It might be colour, pattern, light or form, or a combination of all four. You don’t try to explain it, you just respond.
Abstract photography is the same as abstract painting; appreciating a piece means feeling something, rather than struggling to understand it intellectually.
Taken in a state park
I think one of the things I love the most about this form of photography is that it keeps revealing just how varied and mysterious the world really is when looked at through different eyes — there is so much more to see and enjoy than we usually let ourselves. And you don’t have to go far. It is astounding how many surprises you can find even in your own home — in the few feet around you. Sometimes going abstract is just the antidote to being stuck in a photography rut; it can help to shake us loose from habitual ways of seeing that cease to excite and inspire us.
I’ll share more of my discoveries as the month goes on…I’d love to know if you have ever tried it? What have you found?
This week I was inspired to try some abstracts by my brother-in-law and by Kim Manley Ort, who is offering an online course in abstract photography that looks fabulous. (I have taken courses with her in the past and she is one of the best and most generous of photography instructors.)
I was visiting a cemetery recently and Leo pointed out the intriguing patterns of lichen growth on the marble and granite headstones. I was immediately drawn to the tones and designs in the lichen against the white, gray and black of the stones.
One of the sources I consulted about lichens on headstones said that they do not harm the stone and it is best not to try to remove them. They actually protect the stones from damage due to weather and radiation.
Now that the fiery colours on the trees are receding, we are moving into months redolent of brown tones. At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss these tones as drab and dull and boring — but take a closer look! There are nuances to these colour schemes that can only be appreciated when you move in closer to the earth.