Welcome friends - I'm posting published articles and sundry items as time allows. Most subjects pertain to conservation, photo trekking and tourism in borderlands Arizona, USA. More of my articles can be seen on my publisher's website

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Article: "Urban Abstracts"

(Published March 2009 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

“Truth and beauty leap from both the abstract and the concrete.”

This tidbit of wisdom has emerged from countless philosophical photographers, clad in multi-pocketed gadget vests, stalking nature and city streets for prey both wild and tame.

As far as concrete is concerned, my camera has bagged many a beast leaping from cement, mainly kids on their skateboards or bikes. Concrete can be a thing of beauty to more than just a construction guy.

City streets yield a lot of opportunities for capturing abstract images, and even you, the intrepid and resourceful borderlands photographer, who devotes most of his or her time trekking our abundant natural areas, can discover enough urban landscapes nearby to supplement your wilderness portfolio.

The main differences are straight lines (seldom found in nature), people and, yes, concrete. Any village, town, or city has these and one of the best is The Old Pueblo.

Downtown Tucson has wonderful shapes and colors and action which cry out “abstract.” Geographically, I’m referring broadly to the area around Congress Street, the historic districts just north and south of it, (especially Barrio Viejo) and the famously funky 4th Avenue farther to the north.

Any borderlands photographer who’s worth his salt-cedar will spend plenty of time at these spots, as they are the low-hanging fruit of local urban image-making. Especially in the afternoon.

But first, a few words about abstract images. As you may know, most of the photography I sell is pure borderlands nature photography; that is, depictions of recognizable area features unaltered by trickery. This is rather conservative. With abstract photography, the world is your plaything. All constraints are stripped away.

The recognizabilty of local landmarks or organic subjects is often the first thing to be removed from an abstract image. To me, an abstract photo is almost always a close-up or medium-range picture. Close-ups, as I’ve discussed in earlier articles, offer an infinite opportunity for image-making that many photographers ignore. New worlds suddenly appear before your nose.

Removing a subject from its context is one of the hallmarks of the abstract image. The things that surround a subject often define it, so these things must be removed, to some degree. Deciding what to keep and what to remove defines the art of composition and can result in a striking abstract photograph. Keep the audience guessing.

To create an abstract image you will experiment with colors, contrasts, and shapes. Lose the constraint of “naturalness” when creating such images. Try black-and-white; try odd camera angles; experiment with camera movement and slow shutter speeds and shadows and extremes of contrast. 

Use these techniques to accentuate into hyper-reality the patterns and textures you discover in the urban setting. Focus on a subject indirectly by taking a picture of it via a second source, such as a reflection in a window, mirror or shiny metal object.

Do some night-tripping of the fantastic lights of neon; turn off the flash and maybe use a tripod or monopod or a high ISO setting. As in all photography, light is your entire universe and using it an urban setting has, in my opinion, many more opportunities for creative artwork. Artificial lights, heavy shadows, and bright reflections can form the basis of a striking image.

Abstracts in nature are boundless as well, but patterns, angles, and those man-made lights of the city do multiply the options. 

And then there are people. While most shots in nature often try to avoid the human image or the very hint of humanity’s influence, abstract photography of people, whether on the streets of Tucson or elsewhere, is a subject that could fill volumes. With people, ask permission and try to be candid (not an easy combination).

For now, suffice it to say that you, the borderlands photographer, while spending much time recording your vision of our natural heritage, should consider hitting the city streets.

Equipment for abstract image-making matters less than for other photography. Knowing how to use what you have is what matters, and of course, developing “the eye”. Technology has (unfortunately for some) become the great democratic equalizer in photography, as in many other pursuits. The point about making abstract images is that sometimes cheap cameras produce a more appealing result than expensive ones.

And go ahead and make mistakes – it’s a snap for most photographers to make a mistake. Learn from them. A shutter speed or a camera position that you would normally consider to be wrong, can produce a great abstract result. In this situation, skill is needed when trying to replicate your mistake.

When in Tucson exploring Barrio Viejo, your photos might exploit color and a late afternoon sun, as many older structures are painted with splendid hues which can be combined with deep shadows to make a striking image.

While stalking the streets of Tucson’s 4th Avenue, great colors often are seen in wall murals, but black-and-white photography is often best in this place. Try to be cool when taking pictures in the city: keep in mind that not all images need to be taken with arms up and squinting through the viewfinder.

Step away from reality a bit and you can have an abstract photo; or, you can abstractly interpret a subject as hyper-reality. In any case, those subjects often can be discovered by the adventurous borderlands photographer while trekking the urban outback.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. Photography - what a fantastic challenge!