Sunday, February 15, 2015

Geology in the Abstract

How a camera helps us see.

Often when I look at the geological world through the viewfinder of my camera, I see things I don’t see with my eyes alone – light and shadow, curves and lines, shape and form, contrasting colors, patterns.  I zoom in and out, move a little to the side, lie on the ground, look straight up, or maybe just wait until the clouds shift or the sun moves.  I want to capture these things … to make them the subject and message of a photo.  From what I’ve read, this is abstract photography.

But defining abstract photography is difficult.  It’s one of those terms we “know” but can’t fully explain.  The boundary between literal and abstract is ambiguous and personal.  It depends on the viewer as well as the photographer, and maybe doesn’t exist … a chimeric point on a continuum.
Literal view of the sandstone beds in the first photo.
Though fuzzy in definition, abstract photography has generally-agreed-upon principles.  Traditional subjects – landscape, sky, water, animal, plant, rock – are moved into the perceptual “background”.  They may be present only in part, or minimized to the point of mystery.  Textures, tones, angles, layers, symmetry and other features that usually go unnoticed are emphasized.
The subject may be altered to such an extent that it’s unrecognizable.
Or the subject may be obvious but the photo emphasizes other features — light and shadow, texture, curves.
Dried mud in sandy wash.  Footprints upper right for scale.
Forms, curves, lines ... and pebbles.
Obviously rocks, but this is a photo about color and arrangement.
Traditional shot of rocks' habitat - edge of dry wash with junipers.
The message of an abstract photo is perhaps more emotional … less intellectual.  “We try to feel its impact on ourselves and to find a way to translate that into a picture” (from three abstract insights).
The barren desolate weird-colored repetitiveness of badlands.  This is how I felt when I stood at the brink of the bizarre world of Hell’s Half-acre.
More of the subject is visible, but the chainlink fence maintains the creepy feelings.
These two photos effectively captured my feelings, but they don’t effectively illustrate the drainage density and sparse vegetation of these badlands – even though these things are clearly visible.  This traditional photo would be better:
Geology can supply a playground for the abstract photographer, especially where there’s minimal vegetation.  Curves, lines, forms, shapes, patterns and texture abound.  Cliffs, spires, rocks, fractures, water, ice, and landforms at all scales are material for the creative eye … opportunities for new ways of looking.
Subtract! Crop, remove color.  Volcanics above detached limestone; Absaroka Mountains, Wyoming.
A more extreme example of subtraction – to show just how striking the Earth's features can be.
Devils Tower in northeast Wyoming.
Light, shadow, texture and pattern ... in the remains of an ancient lake bed.
Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada.
Repetition of lines, forms, colors, light and shade make patterns ... and beauty.
Incredibly beautiful purple and white curves in Precambrian sandstone.
No one knows why there's purple and white sandstone (lower left) in the Uinta Mountain Group.
Cross-bedding in old sand dunes, now rock, are great for studies of lines, angles.
Feel free to crop, rotate and otherwise post-process ... this is art!
Mud on walls of a sandstone "cirque" at Goblin Valley State Park, Utah.
I’ve long been drawn to abstract photography, even before digital cameras and cheap photos allowed the experimentation needed to really enjoy it.  Why am I now analyzing it in such detail?  My hope is to become more mindful of abstract compositions around me … to open my eyes to new possibilities.

“it’s noticing the patterns and shapes in the world around you”  James Beltz

Sandstone above the Missouri River, ca 1980.

This is the first post in a two-part series.  The next will look at botany in the abstract.


  1. Beautiful and inspiring photography! And a great subject - geology and rocks ;-)

    1. Thanks, SF! Geology and rocks are indeed awesome ... plants are pretty cool too ;-)

  2. You take such beautiful and well composed photos, Hollis. I'm very much looking forward to your piece on botany in the abstract.

  3. What a wonderful land you live in!
    A beautiful collection of images :)

    1. Thanks, squirrelbasket. We have some amazing landscapes here, I feel very lucky to have these places to "escape" to.