Saturday, February 28, 2015

Plants in the Abstract

There’s a photographic world somewhere between realism and pure abstraction where I love to be.  Traditional subjects are secondary, upstaged by things usually overlooked: light, form, pattern, arrangement.  These become the subject, the message.
“abstract photography concentrates on shape, form, colour, pattern and texture. ... The subject of the photo is often only a small part of the idea of the image.” Photokonnexion, Abstract Photography
“It strives to deviate from realistic reproductions and focuses on creative expression instead.  Familiar subjects are shown in a new and unique light, and although we may not immediately identify them, we are entranced by the beauty of their shapes, colors”  Kristine Hojilla, The Art of Abstract Photography
“Realism and abstraction can be seen as the two ends of a continuum. On one end, photographic realism mimics the appearance of a recognizable subject.  On the other is non-objective abstraction that resembles nothing but itself.”  Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Realism + Abstraction
Non-objective abstract aspen.
I think there's an inherent realism in photography.  After all, one of the earliest uses was documentation – reproducing scenes for those who couldn’t be there to see for themselves.  How wonderful those first photos must have seemed … so much more powerful than written words!
Amputation being performed in a hospital tent, Gettysburg, 1863. National Archives, Civil War Photos.
Devils Gate on the Sweetwater [Wyoming].  WH Jackson, 1870.  USGS, Photographic Collection.
As technology and skills improved, photos became art as well as documentation.  Photographers thought more carefully about light, arrangement, framing.  And they experimented.  It wasn’t long before they were shooting abstract compositions.

Yet some would argue that all photographs are abstract because we make choices:  the subject itself, how much to include, point of view, exposure, depth of field.  Interesting debate … fortunately we don’t have resolve it to enjoy abstract photography.
Realistic banana leaves in an abstract photo.
How do we reach the wonderful other-world of the abstract?  There are many paths ... let's explore a few.
“The power of observation is important … look more closely at everyday objects we would otherwise ignore, and find the beauty and the ‘interestingness’ in them”  Kristine Hojilla
This is the greatest pleasure for me – looking more closely, finding ‘interestingness’.  View the subject from all angles.  Frame with the viewfinder.  Zoom in.  Spend hours in one place and leave with a far greater appreciation and understanding than eyes alone would provide.
“By disciplining your eyes to see things, not as whole units, but as colors, patterns, textures and lines, you can experiment with limitless possibilities.”  Clive Branson, Abstract Photography Up Close
Sometimes it’s helpful to consciously ignore the subject.  Look instead for lines, shapes, colors, patterns and other details.
“Often the image will not be a literal view of the subject itself ... The impact of aspects of the subject become a form of expressing the point.  The abstract tends to bring out some or all of these aspects”  Photokonnexion, Abstract Photography (they list 21 aspects to look for – treasure hunts!)
Light, color and detail in heartleaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia).
Plants make great abstract subjects.  They’re full of of lines, shapes, contrasting colors and intriguing details.  Some of the earliest abstract photos were of plants.  Karl Blossfeldt (German, 1865-1932) was fascinated with their “totally artistic and architectural structure”. He collected specimens, brought them home, and shot macro photos with his homemade camera.  The level of detail he achieved is astounding, and his images are exquisite.
Karl Blossfeldt, Adiantum pedatum 1928.  Public domain photo.
Historians disagree on Blossfeldt.  Lyle Rexer considers him an early abstract photographer; others assign him to the New Objectivity movement.  If we could somehow ask Blossfeldt himself, he might shake his head in puzzlement.  He used the photos as visual aids in his Live Plant Modeling class at the Royal Museum of Arts and Crafts (his specialty was decorative architecture).  Only later did they become art.
From Impatiens, Vaccinium, and Convolvulus by Karl Blossfeldt.  Original images here.
In a sense, Blossfeldt’s photos are hyper-realistic.  Yet they feel abstract because the subjects are out of context, and enlarged to show details not normally noticed.  Zooming in or cropping can have the same effect, minimizing the context and directing the viewer to features chosen by the photographer.
“crop tightly using the whole frame, emphasizing color, texture or pattern … remove everything that does not, in some way, strengthen the viewer’s emotional reaction.”  Clive Branson
Ficus sp.”  Do you know what kind of fig this is? a banyan? (leaves are similar).
Even if it isn't tightly cropped, a photo can feel abstract if the arrangement is unusual.
Edible fig (Ficus carica).
Wild sunflower (Helianthus annuus).
Abstract photography is sometimes described as the “art of subtraction” – minimizing content, simplifying.
Remove distracting color (cactus glochids).
Emphasize color (arnica flowers).
Abstract photography lets us post-process guilt-free ... so experiment!
Cropped, saturation (color) reduced, definition increased – all in iPhoto.
One of the more interesting techniques I came across was blown highlights – over-exposing to the point where all detail is lost in light areas.  Ben Brain demonstrates how, shooting a vase of delphinium flowers in front of a brightly-lit window, using slow shutter speeds to “let the light flood in.”
From delphiniums by Ben Brain.
I used a similar approach in photographing bamboo against a pale wall.  I adjusted exposure compensation up three stops – enough to erase all details in light areas – and ended up with a painting-like image of stems and leaves.
Highlights also can be blown quite effectively in iPhoto.  I created my own delphinium abstract from a photo taken in the wild, by adjusting the black and white sliders below the histogram, thereby darkening the dark tones and lightening the light ones.  (Here's a clear and useful article about improving images with the iPhoto histogram, from MacWorld.)
Delphiniums (larkspurs) in the abstract ...
... and in the wild.
Even after all this analysis, I still struggle to explain why abstract photography is so appealing.  Perhaps it’s the perfect mix of familiar and new, expected and unexpected.  I certainly enjoy the opportunities to experiment and learn.  The new worlds revealed by details are enchanting, and beauty in relatively simple images fascinates me.  Discovery, beauty, creativity, fun … all are irresistible.

This is the second post in a series on abstract nature photography.  The first was about Geology in the Abstract.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Laramie Street Plants (in February???)

These don’t count.
On a cold dreary Sunday with snow and rain falling, I walked the sidewalks and alleys of downtown Laramie looking for street plants – feral waifs of the urban landscape.  They grow where cracks in concrete provide access to the earth below, or in crevices and crannies where dirt and debris accumulate, overlooked.

I’m not alone.  Others do this too, and every few months we report our findings.
Dreary day, dreary town.
Another Laramie alley.
Street plants thrive in downtown Laramie – we have a rich urban flora in summer.  Most are ruderals, the first plants to grow on disturbed or otherwise bare soil.  They’re tough survivors, and often surprisingly fecund for their size and situation.
Common Wyoming ruderals – cheatgrass, dandelions and kochia (left to right).
Our street plants are tough, but I didn’t expect to find any live ones in February.  How can small herbaceous plants grow when temperatures stay below freezing for days at a time? Even though I was skeptical, the botanical detective in me rose to the challenge.  Maybe the urban environment includes warmer microsites where plants can grow – steam pipes, kitchen vents, south-facing protected walls.  I went searching.

I found remains of the dead.  Some made interesting compositions ... or so it seemed at the time.  I guess was desperate for photos:
Then a flash of green stopped me in my tracks:
See it? … it's in the small white patch where the building meets the sidewalk.
Amazing!  A plant was growing in debris and snow at the base of a north-facing wall.  And of course it was … (can you guess?)
... a dandelion.  A block away I found another:
... and then another:
Dandelion habitat is where the low wall and sidewalk meet.

Dandelions are consummate ruderals, able productive pioneers.  A single head may bear 150 seeds, a single plant more than 5000, all without sex.  Offspring are cast to the wind, travel far, and germinate and grow in almost any kind of soil (or lie dormant for years in the seed bank).  If there’s enough habitat, dandelions soon become abundant (source, including photo).

Photo courtesy Dan Poelma.

Lots of people consider dandelions loathsome pests, but I love them.  They’re among the first flowers to bloom in spring and among the last in fall.  Their sunny heads seem so cheery on those dull gray and brown days.  Indeed, I smiled when I saw scrappy little dandelions growing amid debris, concrete and snow.

Is that a young flower head in the center?  Wow!
On the way home, my theory about warm microsites was finally validated, in the alley behind the brewery.
Grass thrives thanks to periodic warm showers.
Another favorable urban microsite.
It's true – the scenery was dull and the vegetation meager.  Yet it was a fascinating outing, and in fact hunting for street plants is always interesting.  Would you like to give it a try? Our adventures are kindly organized by Lucy of Loose and Leafy.  There's more information here and here.
“recognise in it a spirit of adventure usually lacking in a road of unexceptional suburban housing, along with a spirit of genuine scientific enquiry.”  — Lucy

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.