Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In the Abstract

The closest I come to taking an abstract photograph

I have a FlickrPro account, and I love looking at the many photographs in the many groups on Flickr. I especially love looking at abstract photographs, and have frequently tried to take abstract photographs, but mine are a dismal failure. They usually wind up looking as if I dropped the camera just as it was clicking.

One of the people whose abstracts I particularly admired I encountered on a Flickr group called "Visual Echo". The members of the group comment on photos by posting photos of their own that echo the first photo in some way: subject, color, shape, lighting. One of the most prolific commenters, whom I will call by her initials, km, takes beautiful abstract photos. I remember thinking, when I was in Antarctica, that if km had only been there she would have taken some of the most beautiful abstracts in the history of photography, and that when she was done, you would have had no idea where she had just been.

Somebody could have taken a nice abstract picture of this.

I finally had to admit to myself that I am just not cut out to take abstract photographs, because I am drawn to pictures that tell a story. This picture is an example. The man in it is a bow maker, plying his craft at the Rural Life Museum on one of their special event days. He looks like he's taking a break, or trying to decide what to do next, or wishing that the woman with the camera would get out of his face. Part of what draws me to a story is not knowing all of the story. You know there is a story there, and that you won't ever know the ending.

The cooler in the picture also tells a story - the photographer's story. The cooler was there, and it spoiled the shot, but there was no way around it. If I'd  kicked it out of the way, I'd no doubt have another story to tell. If I asked the man if I could move his cooler, the moment I wanted to capture would have been over. So there is the cooler, telling its story of  imperfection and striving.

Behind all abstractions is a story. The jobless rate of as February was 8.9%. That one figure reflects stories of people in trouble, stories of people who have given up looking, stories of manager who have been emboldened to start hiring again,  stories of people looking at their first paycheck in who knows how long. 

Fifty-two percent of parents are concerned about the safety of vaccines for children, although seventy-six percent (76%) are concerned that unvaccinated children will cause health problems for other children. Now there's a story. Worried parent concerned about hurting a child by having her vaccinated or hurting her by not having her vaccinated. There's a story of how our mind's tendency to think in stories makes it hard for us to evaluate hard data. There's a story you could read etched in a worried face.

Even my abstract picture above has a story. It's not really a picture of abstract art, it's a picture of an artifact. I took the picture at one of our summer art camps. In one of our classes, children were doing multi-media, and that particular day, they were choosing colors for wood blocks. The artist's assistants were wiping off rollers on the piece of glass shown above.  The artist teaching the class was a professor of art from a nearby university. Earlier in the week, the children were painting with oils, and the artist went to each one, looked at the art, and told each child, "You are painting in the style of so-and-so." Then he would show them a painting in an art book done by the artist and make a suggestion based on that artist's style. 

At first, I thought the artist was so used to teaching college students that he had no clue what would work with our younger and atypically-developing population. But as I watched him go around the room, I realized that the children were looking and listening, and if they never remembered a thing about Jackson Pollock and Mary Cassatt, they were seeing and hearing respect for them and their work and its place in the world of artists. That kind of respect cannot be faked, and isn't usually present in the kinds of bright, cheery voices of adults (mine among them) saying, "Did you do that yourself? It's so pretty!" to children. I'm sure it has its own story. I'll probably never know the ending.

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