August 26, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

KIND OF BLUE                            KIND OF BLUE : FINAL VERSION

This week I would like to discuss a topic that is a big part of my work, which is abstraction in photography. To some observers, this topic is pretty senseless, since photography is in many ways the most concrete of the arts. Photographers don't start out with a blank page, but with the real world, which they then endeavor to organize, frame, and simplify in order to present their view to the rest of the world. So we seem to some extent to be stuck with the real world, although Photoshop has changed that to a certain degree.


But of course a photograph is a two-dimensional abstraction of the real three-dimensional world in front of the camera. Photographers inately understand this, even if the viewing public often searches for the "truth" which is not really there. Some photographers compose their images to try to use every strategy they can to make their images more three-dimensional, through contrast, layering, or emphasis on foreground, middle ground and background in a single epic view. Others embrace the differences between a photograph and real life; Gary Winogrand famously declared that he took photographs to see what he pointed his camera at would look like in a photograph. And the extra level of abstraction that is a large part of the charm of black and white photography is often lost on the public, even those who admire that abstract art.

TURQUOISE, SAN FRANCISCO                                                    TURQUOISE : FINAL VERSION

So there is no doubt in my mind that while photographs are abstract art, there are various levels of abstraction, ranging from the seemingly documentary image to the images that are so divorced from a subject that they are mostly about themselves. I find playing with these levels of abstraction a lot of fun, even though I know that the more abstract an image, the less chance I have of actually making a sale. People generally do not like to be challenged or confused by an image, and their desire to find out "what is that" directly undercuts the artist's belief that it really  shouldn't matter. Most of the time viewers who have been drawn to an abstract image are very disappointed when they find out what it really "is" - almost as if the magician has been conning them rather than delighting them. So it is okay if many of these images leave you a little cold - I will understand, even if I never stop trying to provoke a positive reaction.

I think that there are probably about five "levels of abstraction" available to the photographer; some overlap, and you could argue that I am often confusing the issue. I present these three views of one subject to try to illustrate these levels before I explore my five levels one by one.

                            GREEN SCREEN : FINAL VERSION

                                             LAYERS : FINAL VERSION

                            THE GATES OF MORDOR : FINAL VERSION

These three images are all renditions of an heroic sun screen on the western facade of a federal government office building in downtown Portland. Like a lot of my images, they don't really appeal to tourists, but are more oriented to Portlanders who will recognize the subject even if they would never look at it that way. The first image is actually the most realistic in terms of color, even though it is inherently abstract since this is only a small portion of a 15-story facade. While the second image appears to reveal more of the structure, I still don't know where those green and blue background colors came from, since I do not think they really "are there." The third image is so abstract that it appears to be a black and white rendition until you notice the dark blue in the windows. I've exposed so much for the bright aluminum fins that everything else has faded to black, and I think my title conveys mysterious power that the image conveys, at least to its creator. I hope you can see the different levels of abstraction, even if all of the images are certainly abstract.

The first level of abstraction might not be abstraction at all, but I think it is the introduction of the subject at hand. "Minimalism" is a type of photographic image that deliberately simplifies to the point of abstraction. There is a lot of "negative space", which is a fancy way of saying emptiness, and while the viewer might know what they are looking at, they often might not know why in the hell they should care. There is a lot of overlap between minimal and downright boredom, often hidden behind the emperor's new clothes. Here are a few examples of minimalism you might either hate or love; try to remember that there are entire photography magazines devoted to this genre. Most minimalists might argue that these images are far too complicated!

                                             DAMN NEAR CLOSE TO PERFECT : FINAL VERSION

                                             BAMBURGH BEACH : FINAL VERSION

                           BIKE RACK : FINAL VERSION

LIGHT SHAFT (BRITISH MUSEUM)                                              BRITISH MUSEUM : FINAL VERSION

                            LIGHT, SHADOW, AND STUCCO : FINAL VERSION


                                            THREE LINES AND A CROW : FINAL VERSION

If you can control your laughter, realize that the "single cloud" image is sometimes a photographer's best seller, even though mine leaves me cold. Some portfolios are stuffed with obscure scenes that are mostly collections of lines, shadows, or colors without a clear subject to even caption. And of course the last shot is my response to Portlandia's "put a bird on it."

An interesting inversion of minimalism are images devoted to deliberate obfuscation, either through photographic technique or just a weird subject. This is difficult to pull off, since we are supposed to be engaging in visual communication.



                                                        ARCH ABSTRACT : FINAL VERSION

The first image is actually a pretty "straight" rendition of a facade on the Portland State campus. The only weirdness that I added was my white balance shift which rendered everything blue. The strangely drunk architecture is due to placing two glass facades opposite each other, and then allowing the glass windows to be just a hair too large. The strange reflections are available to anyone who walks by. The second image is a trip to a perfectly ordinary coffee shop in St. Louis, where I happened to be beguiled by multiple reflections of reflections that transformed the scene into a multiple exposure without making a multiple exposure. The last image is of a reflection that I spied at the Gateway Arch, and I can honestly say that I have no memory of actually capturing it, or how I managed to create it in camera, or what it is in the hard reality of the architectural context.

A wild sub-category of the abstract pursuit is what happen when you take photographs of abstract art itself. The art is already abstract, but now the photographer is tasked with making their own interpretation, which will inevitably lead to another additional level of abstraction.

                            VETERANS' MEMORIAL : FINAL VERSION

                                                       WILMINGTON COUP MEMORIAL : FINAL B&W VERSION

                            TANNERS CREEK #2 : FINAL VERSION


                                                                   GATEWAY ARCH : FINAL VERSION

I feel that my abstract images of abstract art contribute an additional level of abstraction, my own, to what is already an artistic intent to render an idea in an abstract manner. The first image is of a sculpture of hundreds of dog tags that memorialize service and sacrifice at a memorial to North Carolina's veterans. The second image is of an abstract sculpture that serves as a memorial to the only documented coup d'etat that ever occurred in the United States, when the white citizens of Wilmington, N.C. overthrew the legally elected mixed race municipal government. Next comes a portion of an abstract sculpture of railroad rails that reminds visitors that Portland's Pearl District was a giant rail yard before it became a sexy place to live and eat and shop. The picket fence is an abstract sculptural comment on the American ideal of the picket fence. My choice of exposure makes the mirrored sculpture even more abstract by removing the context beyond the fence to black - now the only reality is the field in front of the fence. And finally I have attempted to make an abstract image of the Gateway Arch, an abstract symbol of Western expansion that is a very real sixty-stories tall.

Photographers can also render very real subjects into abstracts by emphasizing patterns that "could" go on forever, even though we know they do not.

                            THE RED CHAIRS : FINAL VERSION

                            COILS OF STEEL FINAL VERSION

                            GERONIMO! : FINAL VERSION

                            FRACTAL POND : FINAL VERSION

Images like these are almost an attempt to create an abstract image out of the real world without distorting reality but by framing it in an abstract manner. They are all about patterns, rather than the actual subjects, without obscuring their ordinary subjects. These four abstract images started out as a portion of a beach condo facade, a stack of rattan cafe chairs, the underside of a parachute display at an Airborne Museum, and an ordinary collection of leaves in a pond. If you don't recognize the patterns, you might wonder why I created the images at all.

Now we can explore subjects that are more or less divorced from their contexts, so that while the viewer knows what they are looking at, it is an unusually detailed portion of the subject at hand. We are on they way to the point where the subject of the photograph is the photograph.

                                             GARDEN POND : FINAL VERSION

This color study is all about the ripples and the mysterious colors, which are actually reflections of the fall foliage overlooking the pond.


A detail of the facade at the New Museum in NYC that is such a close-up view that only adds mystery to an already opaque facade.

                            GLASS CEILING : FINAL VERSION

Incredible detailing of the glass roof of the shelter at Director Park in Downtown Portland, taken from above instead of below. My exposure also eliminated the busy context of the mediocre architectural surroundings of the park.

                            AFTER THE RAIN : FINAL VERSION

One of my most popular images; people love the rain drops, love the tree shadows, but are usually somehow disappointed when they find out that I found this image on a TriMet bus shelter.

KOIN CORNER                             M.C. ESCHER MEETS THE KOIN TOWER

SPACE NEEDLE 2 B&W                                                         A SLIVER OF THE SPACE NEEDLE, WHICH SOWS CONFUSION IN MOST PEOPLE

                            DRAGONFLY TENT : IT'S JUST MY IMAGINATION

                            DROVE MY CHEVY TO THE LEVEE... : FINAL VERSION

And finally we arrive at images that are so abstract as to leave the actual subjects way behind. These are the ones that can provoke reactions way out of what this photographer might expect in my booth. I usually just ask why my customers like the image, having learned through experience that they don't really want to know what it is, even though they demand that I reveal the subject. I will follow my usual practice and will not reveal what the hell it is. I hope you have enjoyed this trip down the rabbit hole.

                            DOODLE #1 : FINAL VERSION

KIND OF BLUE                             KIND OF BLUE : FINAL VERSION