Stymied, Phoenix, Arizona, 2006
It is a simple image of a man walking down a flight of stairs. Yet the interplay of light and shadow, and the reflections in a nearby series of windows, extend those stairs and window frames into a complex arrangement of rectangles. They create a symbolic cage that appears to cause the man to pause for an instant to get his bearings and search for a way out. He is deeply shadowed, and becomes a universal symbol of someone caught in a maze. My camera freezes him there, leaving him in frustration. By showing less of both him and his surroundings, I am able to say more about him as a symbol of confusion and bewilderment. Such is the power of photographic abstraction.
Waiting for customers, Namdaemun Market, Seoul, Korea, 2006
I saw this man almost hidden in the shadows, waiting for customers to come to his stall in this busy marketplace. I exposed for the brightest reflections with my spot meter, which made the image get very dark. Outside of the product rack, the only things visible in this image are the highlights on his face and hand. I have used shadows here to abstract the subject, allowing room for the viewer’s imagination to enter the image and go to work.
Is he sad? Lonely? Anxious? Fearful? My image leaves the answers to such questions up to the viewer. Such is the power of abstraction.
Wedding portrait, Banyan Lake, Guilin, China, 2006
Guilin’s wedding photographers often bring their customers to the shores of this beautiful lake for bridal portraits. The lake is lined with willows, and an assortment of beautiful bridges connects it to other nearby lakes. I saw this couple patiently waiting on the approaches to one of those bridges for the photographer to stop fiddling with his assortment of cameras. I chose a vantage point that placed willows between them and my camera. I shot through this willow screen, creating an abstract and incongruous symbolic image. The bride is also abstracted by selective focusing, making her seem to be more an implied presence than a reality. The groom is in focus, and positioned within a break in the leaves. He seems to be pondering his future, while his happy bride appears to be a happy captive of her own dreams. I don’t think this couple would choose this image as a wedding picture – it probably does not conform to their expectations. However I did not make it for them. I made it for you, to demonstrate how abstraction can turn an image primarily intended as a commercial product into an expressively interpretive photograph.
Rust, Route 66 Motel, Barstow, California, 2006
This rusting car is parked forever amidst the colorful chaos that characterizes the setting of the historic Route 66 Motel in the California Mohave Desert town of Barstow.
It is difficult to know where the paint leaves off and the rust begins on this ancient automobile. I intensify that question by showing you just enough of the car to identify its function, and little else. I abstract the image into a geometrical grid – including only part of its radiator, hood, engine vents and fender, and combining them into a gilded box rusting in the warm glow of the morning sun. I let the rest of the car drive through your imagination. You can get a glimpse of its interior by clicking on the thumbnail below:
St. Anthony’s, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
A woman pauses at the top of the steps before entering St. Anthony’s church for morning services in one of San Miguel's outlying neighborhoods. We don’t see her face – there is just dark shadow where her face may be. In fact, we don’t see much of her form, either – the highlights graze off her shoulder and back, while her entire front is shielded in darkness. Because so much is abstracted in this image, we are left with much to imagine. We see that she carries a cane and a wears a shawl to keep off the morning chill. She moves slowly, almost at a crawl. I photographed her from the bottom of the steps, so that the ground seems to be enveloping her feet, making her appear to walk even more slowly than she actually is. The rest of the story must come from within, not from without.
Shoeshine, El Jardin, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
By using strong backlighting to silhouette this man shining his own shoes on one corner of San Miguel’s principal plaza, I’ve placed the emphasis on shape, rather than form or detail. The richly colored wall with an embedded plaque, and the ornately silhouetted posts offer context by telling us that we are in an old and historic place. Not only is the man completely in silhouette – he is also a bit softer than the crisp background, making him seem an even more ephemeral and symbolic figure. There is an incongruous twist here as well. He earns his living shining the shoes of others. Yet here, at day’s end, he takes care to shine his own as well. We are left to imagine what he may look like, and how he may feel about what he is doing.
Café Discussion, Zagreb, Croatia, 2005
I used my spot meter to base my exposure on the brightest part of this image, the colorful umbrella. The men at the table were in deep shadow, and because of my exposure, they become completely abstracted. The pointing finger of the man at right becomes the most important thing in this picture. If I had exposed on the man, or used the standard “averaging” meter choice, I would have shown more detail on that man’s face, and the power of his emphatic gesture would be diluted. By abstracting him, I am able to go beyond description to intensify the symbolic meaning of this picture. It becomes more universal in nature, and less specific.
Bell Tower, St. Francis Cathedral, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2005
I distill this image of a bell tower down to the interplay of early morning light and shadow, creating a series of geometric shapes in the process. This image does not attempt to describe the appearance of the bell tower itself. Rather it gives us a sense of its age, its strength, and the glowing arrow pointing upwards symbolizes the upward thrust of the tower itself, without actually showing it. Whenever I abstract a subject to this degree, I am asked how viewers will “know” what the subject is. Since description is not my purpose here, but rather expression, it is not important to me to help viewers see the appearance of the subject. The caption that comes along with this image (and most images intended for public display do carry captions) can provide such context, while the image itself is free to enter the imagination of the viewer, where it can do its work well.
Bronze sculpture, Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2005
An enormous bronze sculpture of a horse’s head sits astride a sidewalk in the heart of Santa Fe, promoting an exhibition of bronze sculpture that was on display in an adjacent museum. I attempted first to work with its staggering scale incongruity, but the head was so large that my frame could only embrace it from a distance. And when I moved back far enough to make it fit my frame, I was forced to include much irrelevant distracting clutter – a mailbox, a street sign, and busy backgrounds. I decided to take a different approach –forgetting about dealing with its great size, and instead expressing its beauty and power as a work of art. The key to such a task is abstraction. I had to include less in order to say more. My initial attempts at abstraction failed because the light was flat, giving the bronze a uniform, boring coloration. I returned to this subject again the next day in the very early morning, when the interplay of light and shadow and the golden color of the light combined to help me interpret the bronze head as glittering precious metal. Using a long telephoto to narrow the zone of focus, and spot metering the subject to expose for the highlights along the side of the horses face, I bring out the line of the facial muscles and arteries, as well as the detail on the bridle. The bared teeth, a huge nostril, and a glaring eye are all in deep shadow. They are there but not there, a tease for the viewers imagination. I also framed the horizontal shape of the head as a vertical, going against the grain to create energy and tension in the process. Eventually, this head will be placed on a body as part of one of the largest equine sculptures ever made. But for now it remains a simple abstraction, an attempt to define the essence of the sculptor’s art and allow it to work on the imagination of the viewer.
At the windmill, Bruges, Belgium, 2005
By backlighting this windmill and the two people visiting it, I abstract this image, removing all detail, and leaving only silhouetted shapes, the color of the evening sky, and the glowing translucent leaves overhead. Yet I still am able to define the body language of the people – their spacing, posture, and attitudes are clearly evident. I also use my frame to abstract the windmill, showing only part of one sail peeking out from behind a tree, and only part of the lower half of the mill itself. The rest of the scene is left to the imagination of the viewer.
Water screw pumping station, Kinderdijk, The Netherlands, 2005
One of the largest water screw pumping stations in Europe was built at Kinderdijk in the 1970s. It does with diesel power what Kinderdijk's 19 windmills once did with the wind. Spinning at full capacity, this "corkscrew" can pump 360,000 gallons of water per minute off the land and into the river. If I had tried to express its huge size, I would have had to include a reference point, which would have made the image descriptive, but not particularly expressive. Instead, I chose to abstract the giant water screw by using a telephoto lens zoomed out to 268mm. It changes what is essentially a huge machine to a precious object by stressing the beauty of its reflectivity, shape, line, and color, at the expense of its extent. Instead of pumping water, the huge abstract screw now pumps the human imagination. (It would have been wonderful if I could have photographed this pumping machine in actual operation, but it was not running while we there. It would have been a delightful challenge to create an abstraction laced with spinning water and great movement, but it was not to be.)
In Buddha’s Image, The Essence of Burma, Yangon, 2005
Eighty percent of the Burmese people are Buddhists. If there were to be a universal symbol for this country, it would be the mystical Buddha image. This one is at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. I do not photograph it to describe its appearance. Rather, I have made this abstract photograph to involve the imagination the viewer and at the same time convey a sublime feeling. It is an image of silence, thought, and reverence. And all of this comes because I choose to show less and say more by using underexposure, a very close vantage point, and selective framing.