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John Suler
1,240 followers -
Clinical psychology professor at Rider University specializing in cyberpsychology & photography
Clinical psychology professor at Rider University specializing in cyberpsychology & photography

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NOTICING "NOTAN" FOR CREATING ABSTRACTS

In my last post for this series on abstract photos I mentioned how you can find them almost anywhere, even seemingly mundane places like hotel rooms. As with the photo for that last post, this one too was taken in a hotel room when I had nothing else interesting to do – only this time I’m inside the room and photographing the bottom of the window curtains.

This image reminds me of “notan,” which is a Japanese word referring to the interplay between dark and light. The artist-teacher Arthur Wesley Dow and the painter-photographer Barbara Morgan preferred that term over the western word “chiaroscuro.” In notan areas of dark and light define each other, balance each other, and reverse roles in that our mind perceives one, and then the other, as figure versus background.

For this image, our eye first goes to the light area of the curtain as the figure, but then the dark areas, especially that upward loop on the left, try to take center stage as the main attraction. The photo needs a bit more areas of shadow to get that perfect notan balance between light and dark, but it comes close.

Whenever we focus on scenes where shadows play with their companion of light, we’re probably going to get notan, as well as an abstract image.

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THE GOLDEN ABSTRACT

The nice thing about abstracts is that you can do them almost anywhere, even with the seemingly most mundane things. Allow your eyes to see patterns, textures, shapes, light, and shadows on the things around you. How would you like to express those things in a photograph?

For this photo I stepped out onto the balcony of our hotel room in LA. Of course the first inclination is to photograph scenes that lie below, but in this case I looked up. The geometric shapes created by the edges of the buildings above me were interesting. Even slight shifts in camera angle significantly changed the relationship of those shapes to each other.

For this photo I attempted to create the feeling of the classic "golden spiral" that has inspired so many compositions. Scientists and mathematicians even think it expresses the abstract law determining what we humans perceive as beautiful. In Photoshop I superimposed that spiral onto the image.
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ABSTRACT STREAMING

As I progress through this series on abstracts, I seem to be relying a lot on water images. Of course water isn’t necessary for creating abstract photos, but it does offer wonderful opportunities for ripply, glittering, and fluid effects that make scenes seem vaguely familiar (we all recognize water) without an obvious connection to the real world.

This photo is of rocks above and below a shallow stream. If I had posted it as it appeared right out of the camera, you probably would have found it easier to identify exactly what the scene was. But by saturating the colors and rotating as well as inverting the image, it takes on a much more ambiguously abstract quality.

So here are two more techniques we can add to our toolbox for creating abstract photos: alter colors and/or the orientation of the image. Both techniques can draw the scene away from the familiar and into the realm of the abstract.

In keeping with how some people think about abstracts, we might even say that these techniques show us the essence of a scene by revealing the colors of nature that the human eye cannot see, and by allowing us to see the scene from an orientation other than our own.


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THE TECHNOLOGY OF SO-SO

Is technology – including artificial intelligence, algorithms, and all things mechanical – catapulting us to mediocrity?
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ZOOM + TWIRL = ABSTRACT

In this series on abstracts I've often gone back to the dictionary definition which tells us that "abstract" means to pull or draw away from. A photograph pulls or draws something away from its familiar appearance and context so that it "does not have an immediate association with the object world" (quoting Wikipedia).

This photo illustrates two ways you can do that. First, by drawing a small part of something away from its bigger context, which is why macro photography often results in an abstract. And secondly, by using intentional camera movement (ICM) to pull something away from its usual shape.

Zoom in on it, twirl it around, and you've got an abstract.

Oh, in case you're wondering, which is something we often do when looking at an abstract, this photo is of the leaves of a plant.
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THE ABSTRACT ESSENCE OF IT ALL

When we look carefully at things in nature, be it a grain of sand or a vast landscape, we see intricate patterns where otherwise we might expect randomness. Contemporary scientists explain it with the mathematics of “fractals.” In ancient Taoism it was called “li.” Whether relying on modern or old systems of thought, whether from the west or the east, we reach the same conclusion: these subtle organic patterns reveal the mysterious underlying order of nature.

Some abstract photographs capture these patterns, as in this photo of suds floating on the surface of water in a reservoir. If abstracts reveal the essence of things, as some people say, then these particular types of photos just might reveal the abstract essence of it all.

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THE ABSTRACT WINDMILLS OF YOUR MIND

I’m trying not to dwell too long on that idea of creating abstracts by photographing reflective surfaces, with water being one of my favorites – but I do find them a fascinating way to bend reality as well as the mind.

This photo is a good example of how these types of abstracts can draw an object away from its original shape to suggest a metaphor about things always changing, fluctuating, and flowing. In this photo, the breeze over a pond creates a reflection in the waters that turns a windmill into wind. It reminded me of the Dusty Springfield song about the windmills of your mind, and of an old Zen story:

Two men were arguing about a flag flapping in the wind. "It's the wind that is really moving," stated the first one. "No, it is the flag that is moving," contended the second. A Zen master, who happened to be walking by, overheard the debate and interrupted them. "Neither the flag nor the wind is moving," he said, "It is MIND that moves."

http://truecenterpublishing.com/zenstory/movingmind.html
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REFLECTING ON “ABSTRACT”

As with other photos in this series, this one shows how reflections can provide wonderfully abstract images. Taking a photograph of reflections in water is a particularly popular genre, and for a good reason. The result is often a lovely fluid experience that inspires the imagination to wander into dreamy territories. Water reflections remind us how reality is always in flux, always shifting, changing, and elusive.

This image also encourages us to reflect on the issue as to whether patterns that don’t reveal any particular composition or identifiable forms are really “abstracts.” Perhaps they do, some people might say, as long as the image expresses the essence of something.

I like to think of this image as an abstract reflection on the essence of water and autumn leaves.

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DUCKING AN ABSTRACT

In this series on abstracts we talked about how people often react to them by thinking, "What IS that?" The image looks like it might be something in particular, but often it is too ambiguous (abstract) for the viewer to be sure.

When the photographer includes elements in the photo revealing what the scene actually is, some people would no longer consider it an abstract. In the case of this photo, if I had cropped it to only the reflections in the water, the image would surely appear as an abstract composition of colors and shapes. But by including that bird, some people might say that I ducked the creation of an abstract (forgive the bad pun!).

Water reflection photos are similar to photos taken of many reflective surfaces, as with the photograph of the skyscraper windows in this series. Abstract means "to draw away from" – and many reflective surfaces draw objects away from their original, recognizable shape into something more ambiguously "anamorphic."

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BUILDING an ABTRACT

We’ve all seen those fascinating photos of a building with glass windows reflecting the environment around it, often other buildings, in a very warped, wavy, and surreal way. When taking or cropping these kinds of photos, if we include just the window reflections and not the entire building, we almost always end up with a very abstract photo that barely resembles a cityscape.

“Abstract” means “to draw away." In these images the reflections draw the elements of the scene away from their original shape and orientation. Changing your camera angle just a little bit can result in a very different image, so I often stand in front of windows taking photo after photo, enjoying all the different results… even though people nearby look at me and wonder, “What is that guy doing?”

In the case of this photo, the geometric rectangles of the window frames stand in contrast to the bendy lines of the reflections, while also reminding us of the familiar concept of “windows.” But the boosted color saturation doesn’t feel at all familiar for even modern buildings, unless they were made out of some type of glowing, rubbery plastic.

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