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Happy Earth Day / Inner Landscape

April 22nd, 2013


The mind is an amazing thing.  One of the great unknowns when making a photograph is how the viewer will respond.  Once the artist has made an exposure and then edited it for presentation, a new life begins for any image shared with others.  Each person who looks upon the image brings his or her own mind full of personal and photographic history to the process.  When a scenic landscape photograph is shown, we know where the sky is, and where to “stand” in the image.  But on the other end of the spectrum, when we make abstract photographs of nature, questions about orientation or scale or subject come immediately to mind. I don’t have a degree in psychology, but the subject of perception and the human mind is fascinating.

I have an ongoing series of nature abstractions, starting when I received my first camera in 1974.  When I have shown these images over the years, I have enjoyed people’s reactions.  The first instinct is to define the content.  “What is that?”  It is as if understanding the content is required to appreciate the artist’s effort.  “Ah, so it’s mud.  Well then, it is beautiful, isn’t it?  I had no idea what it was at first.”  If I don’t tell the viewer what the subject is right away, then the imagination is activated.  The mind works to solve the riddle and in the process, gets more involved in the composition.

The fascinating part is how differently people see an abstract photograph.  “I see a face.”  “I see silk fabric.”  “I see an elephant!”  If the questions are answered quickly, then the viewer disengages sooner.  I have often watched people flip through photography books.  “Ah, lovely view of the Grand Canyon…”  Flip the page. “Wow, what great light on Half Dome that day…”  Flip the page. “Now what is this?  Is it a rock or a tree?”  If the caption is readily visible, the reader looks urgently for the answer.  “Oh of course, it is rock detail!”  Flip the page.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the word abstract, related to art, as “having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content.”  Photographic abstractions of nature are based in reality but composed to give no clear reference to it.  Abstract painting suffers no such confusion since the abstraction comes from the artist’s mind, and is not photographic or representational.  Seeing an abstract painting does not make the viewer want to define the subject in terms of reality.  The mind simply imagines.  With an abstract photograph, we know the subject is real.   The mind wants answers!

Hopefully, you haven’t looked ahead in my ramblings to find the “answer” to my image here!  The object is rounded, yet appears flat.  Its depth is not clear as the lighting was even with little shading at the top and bottom of the frame where the shape recedes from the camera.  My use of a small aperture keeps the entire subject sharp, maintaining the effect of flatness.  I used the panoramic format to imply the shape of the subject without having to show the entire object.  The texture and cracks provide clues, but the horizontal orientation aids the ambiguity.  The color is monochromatic, so no real clues there.  I made the exposure with my tripod and 4×5 camera, minus its center post, low to the ground.  The scale is about 10 x 24 inches, so my bellows was extended to focus closely.

The photograph here is of a fallen tree decaying on the forest floor one fine autumn day in Ohio in 1993.  Does knowing the entire context help with your appreciation of the image?  I wonder…

Fallen tree trunk, Tinkers Creek State Nature Preserve, Ohio 1993

I find the process of making abstract imagery an exciting challenge, and the results are an important addition to the overall portrait my photographs make of the landscape.  I want my portrait to be like an orchestra sounding the many notes of the land’s diversity, and that it reflects as many ways as I perceive it, which includes my abstracts.  As you develop your own perspective and body of work, think carefully about what you want to say, how you want to develop your own artistic portrait of the earth.

The above essay, written in 2001, came to mind recently when I posted some abstract photographs made recently in my home that I posted on Facebook.  In response to the comments, I added these words, which serve as an addendum to my 2001 essay.

Thanks to all of you for your comments on my last post! I love the way abstract photographs engage the viewer. I have always been inspired to photograph by a strong sense of wonder about the world around me. I look for and find beauty around me everyday, often making photographs like this one. I especially love patterns, often abstract, since I got my first camera in 1974. Whether it is fine art or not is for others to decide. I made this image in my living room a couple of days ago. We use a wood-burning stove to heat our home, and at night I turne down the vents so that the coals last until the morning. Sometimes, depending on the wood burning, some creosote builds up on the front glass of the stove door. So the subject is a pattern of creosote on glass while a fire burned inside the stove. I added an extension tube to my 70-200mm so that I could focus closely enough to show the pattern without burning up the lens and camera! Loved the imaginative guesses. I didn’t mean to frustrate anyone, but just wanted to share my sense of wonder.

The following images were the ones posted recently.

Creosote #2, Ahwahnee, California 2013
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, TS-E90mm f/2.8,
20.00 second at f/11, ISO 100
Copyright © 2013 William Neill


Creosote #1, Ahwahnee, California 2013
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM,
15 second at f/16, ISO 100
Copyright © 2013 William Neill

Please give me your feedback, and enjoy!


Cheers,  Bill

Here are two more of my favorite nature “abstracts.”  Care to guess the subject matter?



12 Responses to “Happy Earth Day / Inner Landscape”

  1. Rachel says:

    Hi William…I love the picture of the fallen tree on its side. When I first saw it I thought it was an abstract painting … the markings on the trunk look like mouths! Perhaps nature is trying to tell us something?!

  2. Josh says:

    Love this photo, would make a great canvas image for my house! would love it if you had time to check out our photos at 🙂

  3. Jean Marani says:

    Rays, yes, perhaps swimming up a sand bank. I can look at a long time and not worry what it might be. Just enjoy the shapes. The second is a tree trunk with perhaps dripping bands of sap–may the sap is composed of different layers of sap to give the variations in color.
    Whatever, either images truly is, the eye doesn’t want to leave them. Thanks. Jean

  4. Bob Fletcher says:

    Love your abstracts! I live among and have photographed eucalyptus in the SF Bay Area, and so recognized the bark pattern, but the Seussian colors threw me into a state of wonderful cognitive dissonance!

    The image above it is one of my all-time favorites: perfectly complementary colors & forms, soothing yet dynamic….and a lovely, complete, utter mystery!

    What I take to be sand gives the image just enough grounding to make comfortable the incomprehensibility of the blue forms. My eye first saw them as shadows of sting rays in shallows, then as rays themselves in holes they’d burrowed into the bottom, but closer inspection nixed that. I then saw the blue as shadows in the desert, but shadows simply can’t radiate to all points of the compass! Well, except from a light source directly overhead – so now I’ve come full circle to the ray hypothesis! Scale is also deliciously maddening – I could be looking at a scene a few feet -or miles- wide! Thanks so much for developing and sharing your incredible gifts with the world…

  5. Hannes Uys says:

    William this post on abstracts are insane. Wish I had more time to photograph such beautiful imagery. Thanks for sharing ~H.

  6. Thanks Patrick. The last image is a Painted Bark eucalyptus, photographed in Hawaii.

  7. patrick says:

    About the last one, it makes me think to the bark of an eucalyptus tree but they don’t have such colors here in France.

  8. Thanks for adding your comments Greg. My first book was an illustrated The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson, a must read for parents with young kids.

  9. Greg Russell says:

    Wonderful images, Bill, and a wonderful reminder that beauty and a sense of wonder can be found just about anywhere. As adults, we seem to forget this, but as I watch my 5-year-old son, I am reminded on a daily basis. Through training, we can remember how to look at the world in this way, and I think you’ve paid a lovely ode to that notion on Earth Day.

    Abstract, intimate landscapes are some of my favorites to photograph.

    Love the aerial (?) view of the dunes, as well as all the others!


  10. Thanks guys! David, I think I need to take my own class so I can get more portfolios and ebooks organized and published!

  11. David Dawson says:

    These are absolutely beautiful images. I’m thinking that they might be a nice subject for a portfolio in one of your upcoming classes. No Christmas lights required! I’ll have to think on it.

    Meanwhile, congrats on these abstracts. Seeing them made for a very nice Earth day indeed….

    Dave in Memphis

  12. Hi,
    I remember that tree trunk image well, from your book. When I first saw it I thought it was rock face… Knowing the details, at least for me, does not change the appreciation of the image, but it does help with understanding or learning how beatituful the world around us is. Be it tree trunk, dune or bark 🙂

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