Visual Abstraction from Nature

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I took this image earlier this year. It was sort of an offhand shot, I didn’t know why I took it other than I was in the moment, working on something else, and this image I knew would be somewhat in a similar vein but I didn’t anticipate it turning out like this. I didn’t even think about it until I was flipping through the photos and saw it, and decided to work with it a little bit because I found it to be a beautiful image.

Currently, this is the enticing pursuit for me in landscape photography. To make images which stand only as images, lacking any experiential nostalgia.

Over thinking, and making images

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Many who know me well and some who don’t know that I’m prone to over thinking and over analyzation. I’ve suffered from a bout of that recently and especially with landscape photography. I’ve buried my head in stacks of books for hours at the library in hopes of gaining insight on my chosen subject matter. I wanted to find answers to a variety of questions I had already, and I was fortunate to find questions that I hadn’t thought to ask. But after several occasions of finding so many questions and interesting lines of inquiry in these books, I was ready to get back out and shoot some more, hoping to find more of something that felt like an answer and maybe stumble over a picture or an idea like I had earlier with the above shot.

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I appreciate these dual enthusiasms, and I think that the drive to sort of sit down and generate questions and study as well as simply getting out and doing “photographic doodling” are both important. My surface professor described the need to study contemporary artists who are working with similar ideas, materials, and mediums that you’re interested in as “finding out what’s already been done so you don’t feel like you need to reinvent the wheel”. I understand this need completely, yet when I bury myself too deeply in books I lose some intuitive joy of discovery and what personally excites me and end up in this strange, cynical, over thought conceptual realm which I don’t really enjoy.

I do enjoy mountains, though, so I spent some time there making pictures.

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I’ve known for a long time that my work was moving in a more abstract direction, but for the longest time I couldn’t pin down exactly why. That’s one of the most frustrating, yet helpful, things a professor can ask you in critique. You say you like or you don’t like something. “Why?” again and again and again and deeper until you’re essentially dwelling some territory of sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, or theology. So, why was my work getting more abstract?

I think the simplest answer and the only answer I could give for the longest time was because I liked the way it looked. That’s basically the most expected and therefore useless answer you can give to the question “Why are you doing this?” So it wasn’t entirely helpful. However, as I got to think and study more about landscape photography and our relationship withe the landscape, I felt like it made a little bit more sense to me what I was driving at.

Imagery and Experience

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In order to answer the question of “why do I like taking abstract pictures in the landscape?” I figured, for very non-sequitur reasons, I would have to answer the (probably slightly easier) question of “why do people like looking at non abstract pictures of the landscape?” The answer that topped the list I came up with (besides “they like the way it looks”) is “because it serves as a partial substitute for actually going or being there.”

I say this largely because that’s been my experience with the many beautiful pictures of beautiful places I’ve seen. I think “Wouldn’t it be nice to be there” or “I bet it would be wonderful to be seeing that in person.” To me, the aim of depicting a beautiful place or event is a very basic aim for landscape photography. Not that this is bad, just that it’s not artistically challenging. It’s the same locus of reasons why pictures only of a sunset are almost unilaterally boring. Beautiful things are best experienced as, well, experiences, and their mere depiction pales in comparison to the memory of its experience for the photographer or the longing for that experience for the viewer.

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That is why recently my landscape photography has been moving towards abstraction: I feel that by trying to distill visual elements of the landscape and create work which does not refer some scenic vista, some longing for a past event or a distant place, photographs can stand on their own. I want my photographs to be abstract to semi-abstract compositions comprised of forms found in nature because I don’t want my photographs to be some connection to what the viewer doesn’t have or isn’t experiencing, I want my images to refer only to themselves as beautiful things.

Why nature?

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That’s the next logical question and one that I don’t have as solid of an answer for. The easiest and simplest answer is that that’s the place from which I glean the most beauty from. It’s where I feel the smallest. I particularly like this quote, which is my own paraphrasing of Alfred Stieglitz biographer Richard Whelan’s summary of the beliefs of John Ruskin, a thinker within the arts and crafts movement:

God is revealed in nature. Plants, rocks, mountains, water, and clouds. The reverent observation of nature by an artist who shares this belief constitutes a supreme form of worship, and every work so produced is an epiphany, a new gospel to edify the world.

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I love the details of nature. I love the colors and the forms and the scale, and I love the timelessness of it. I love that it is slow and sure and fluid yet somehow unchanging. I love the phrase in the above quote, “reverent observation”, as I think there is a sort of attention to detail in a quiet and respectful manner necessary to this kind of work. When I make a photograph, I want it to become its own thing; I don’t want it to serve as a substitution for nature but rather a celebration of the details and complexity and barest visual beauty of it.

What next?

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This post was as much about me trying to sort out my own thoughts as it was about sharing them or sharing my images or anything else. Writing this post has helped give me clarity as far as why I prefer visual abstraction, but I still feel like these ideas aren’t quite fully formed.

Perhaps it’s just a side effect of everything I’ve been learning about what makes art good, but this work definitively lacks a broad concept or an idea or a commentary on some aspect of human nature or society or what have you. I didn’t used to think that good art had to have this, there’s certainly a lot that doesn’t historically. I don’t know how much good art is currently made in that manner, but it’s another big question that’s arisen that I couldn’t possibly answer tonight.

Tonight, I accomplished my goal of sharing images and clarifying my thoughts. It was a successful evening.

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