“I have long been fascinated by how our geographical location can affect our mood, thoughts, behaviour, and even the culture at large. Although I have visited and lived in several different countries and have been attracted by their particular beauty — both conventional and unconventional — it was only the unique urban geography of Tokyo that inspired me to start taking abstract pictures. So, for this vox pop, I wanted to ask abstract photographers from as many different countries as possible for their thoughts on how their location and environment has affected their photography.” — Paul Rowland
TABLE OF CONTENT
[ 1 ] Irina Litinsky / @irinalitinsky
[ 2 ] Muriel Gani / @murielgani
[ 3 ] Wendy Kappy / @wendykappyphoto
[ 4 ] Astrid Krehan / @krehanastrid
[ 5 ] Amy Ronis / @amyronis
[ 6 ] Matthew Fertel / @digprod4
[ 7 ] Gerard Hermand / @gerardhermand
[ 8 ] Josh Feldman / @cooperedtot
[ 9 ] M. Solav / @m.solav
[ 1 ] Irina Litinsky — @irinalitinsky
The beauty of abstract photography is that it’s independent of location. Relationships between forms, textures and colours can be revealed everywhere. You can find them on your way to work or on a special trip with spectacular vistas; the former may surprise you with better pictures than the latter. And this is how it started for me, just on-the-go picture-taking, an auxiliary practice for other creative projects. I’d use subject-less photos as backgrounds for graphic design projects or starting points for abstract paintings.
With time (and the space on iCloud for all those pictures) this type of photography became a significant part of my artistic journey. Photographed objects that were supposed to be mere parts of a composition stood out on their own and elicited an emotional reaction. Scratches on a dumpster bin, stains on concrete, cracks and peels on a mural all alluded to impermanence, to the passage of time.
So I started to favour locations that allowed me to combine my love for the abstract and for metaphor, story, and beauty in unlikely places.
[ 2 ] Muriel Gani — @murielgani
Since my work is closely related to walking, it is affected by the climate. Although I still go out and find something to photograph quite every day, I’m less inclined to take long walks when the weather is cloudy and humid: then I dream of the warm bright light of southern countries or the translucent atmosphere of the arid highlands! But the low grey sky of the Parisian winters fades the colors and it forces me to explore some delicate shades that don’t appeal to me naturally: quite an interesting journey! I’ve also learned to appreciate the magic of reflection after the rain. The actual dark side — both literally and figuratively — of the winter weather in the north of France, is that low light reduces sharpness.
Like many photographers, I find the things I capture; I do not invent them. The environment is my raw material. Although I love to walk and contemplate — usually without shooting — wild landscapes, my photographic eye is definitely more inspired by cities, especially old, messy urban chaos. I suppose I would be unhappy in a tidy Swiss village! I love the tangle, the layering, the unintentional accumulation of human traces that can only be found in heavily populated areas. I also love the effects of rain, wind, or sun have on them over time.
As I walk, I scan the walls, doors or floors, highly receptive to this environment. If some lines, shapes, textures, or colors catch my eye, I feel like I am in the right place, grateful for what this environment is putting on my way. Then I start pointing, taking multiple shots, trying different framings, and what is around disappears! I focus on the rust stain, the paint drips, the old pieces of tape or peeling paper with such attention that I see nothing else. Seen in macro, the micro “thing” absorbs me and catapults me into another universe: no need to fly to the other side of the world, I can travel far away just by walking down the street next door!
My images are generally close-ups of details, extracting these inconspicuous little things from their surroundings through framing, cropping and editing with my phone. Hiding the tracks is part of the game, although some images also show the context. I don’t mention the place or the actual object (e.g. car, construction machine, traffic sign…). Sometimes you can see it or guess it, sometimes you can’t. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, and I often end up forgetting about it, perhaps because I have the feeling that the images were mine before I found them. They were waiting buried deep in my subconscious, and the encounter with a certain environment at a certain time — a strange date that wasn’t planned — reveals them. It’s a little bit as if they were being reflected or projected from my inside world to the outer surface.
Obviously, from one part of the world to another, even between two European countries or two French regions, the floors are different, the walls are different, the doors are different and they are great to discover. But wherever I am, my imagination, my sensibility, or my aesthetic feeling remains the same, so I guess my work remains the same too. “Art has no borders,” said Victor Hugo; abstract art probably even less so. Abstraction is like a universal language: everywhere and nowhere at once, free from the environment. Maybe that’s why I feel so close to abstract photographers abroad though I can’t yet meet some of them in France.
Of course, what we see is influenced by what we have seen before. If I had grown up in the African desert or in a Chinese megalopolis, my eye would be different. But it would also be different if I had different parents and a different personal history.
This alchemy between our deep singularity and all the outside influences is an endlessly fascinating mystery!
[ 3 ] Wendy Kappy — @wendykappyphoto
Abstract photography is less dependent on location and environment than many photographic genres. While there is variation in what is available to photograph from place to place, abstract photography can be practiced anytime and wherever. One need not fly off anywhere. Abstract imagery is all around us. Even a photo trip to the kitchen can be fruitful and rewarding. Interestingly, a fundamental and important aspect of abstraction is taking imagery out of its context, its environment.
That being said, I owe a great deal of my photographic eye and passion for abstraction to Winter 2006–2007, in New Mexico’s high desert. It was then that I bought my first digital camera. Up to that point, I had been shooting with 35mm color slide film. Using film was expensive: with rolls of 24–36 exposures, every click of the shutter was dear. I had started to see in an abstract way prior to using a digital camera, but experimentation was too costly and limited. Digital changed that. Now I had all the freedom in the world to play — to see and frame my images in the viewfinder in new ways for me.
It was mid-December when my camera arrived. At elevations ranging from 4,900–6,700 feet in Albuquerque where I live, we have real winters here. There were no flowers blooming, and by then the leaves had lost their color, withered away, and scurried off. The land had turned brown and white, with unusually heavy snowfalls and cold temperatures. The only green I could find was in evergreens, cactuses, and house trims. The obviously beautiful was in sparse supply. Fortunately, the light was lovely.
As I ventured out in these conditions, I looked for things to photograph, primarily in the streets. It caused me to be more observant, to look more closely, and to find beauty in unexpected places. I stumbled upon a visual treasure chest, seeing art all around me in truck tire tracks, ice forming in the streets, snow settling on barbed wire, cracks in sidewalks and streets, asphalt tar flow, splashed paint, and manhole covers. While some of my images were purely abstract, focusing on form and the elements of design, I also started seeing surreal figures and scenes in the random eroding features of the street — a maypole dance in the gutter and aliens in the school crossing come to mind. My imagination was ignited. While I would later go on and continue photographing botanicals, by the time spring rolled around, I was completely enamored with photographing the street, which I still photograph to this day.
Starting with the streets, over the past 15 years, I have focused on the art of entropy — revealing beauty, recognizable imagery and stories in decay. It has helped shaped my beliefs about the world, life, and our humanity. I have a special affinity for dumpsters. They comprise a large part of my photographic practice. For me, the beauty, meaning, and dreamlike imagery in dumpsters is redemptive. The dumpster is elevated from its lowly utilitarian state to an object of interest and beauty.
Dumpsters are the products of their environment. Over time, the energetic and chaotic forces of nature and authentic human action leave their marks on dumpster surfaces. The sun beats down drying and flaking surfaces, howling winds carrying debris smack surfaces and carve out scratches and scuffs, and the rain pounds and erodes what it strikes. In harmony with nature in this chaotic action, workers scratch, mar, and splash surfaces as they scrape dumpsters disposing debris and toss in cans of paint and other liquids. Taggers come through alleys scrawling graffiti. Some folks come through setting fire to dumpsters, which pearlizes surfaces, making them iridescent and otherworldly. The chaotic forces of nature and human action work their magic.
Is there anything particular in photographing Albuquerque dumpsters that sets them apart? Perhaps. Albuquerque is a great dumpster town. While I ignore neat and tidy ones, there are plenty of distressed dumpsters to be found. Other abstract photographers I have met through social media, some who even photograph dumpsters themselves, tell me that Albuquerque dumpsters are special.
With an annual rainfall averaging nine inches a year, Albuquerque is parched. With the help of intense sunlight, dumpster surfaces dry out and lose their shiny finish. They are easily scuffed, flake, and peel — all contributing to interesting imagery. Given the lack of moisture, mold does not form on dumpsters as it does in wetter climates. Surfaces are not obscured by mold and excessive crusty buildup.
An important factor photographing dumpsters here, which may distinguish them from those photographed elsewhere, is the quality of light, for which New Mexico is renowned throughout the world. The light has drawn artists here for over 100 years. At high altitudes, the atmosphere is thinner and less efficient at filtering out UV wavelengths, and the light is unusually strong. It can be challenging controlling the light, but well worth the effort. The light gives luminosity, a special mysterious quality of brightness, to a wide range of colors. I am especially fond of how the light handles pastels — rendering subtle natural colors that glow. While I am not well-versed in the physics of light, I’ve learned that clean dry air scatters short blue light wavelengths more efficiently than in humid or dirty air. This gives our skies a deep blue color. With blue light largely dispersed, longer red wavelengths have a greater impact on surface color cast.
While it is true that abstract photography can be practiced anywhere, location and environmental conditions have an impact on what we have available to photograph and the conditions in which we do so. If I lived in New-York City, I would probably be photographing skyscrapers and torn posters, both of which are not available to me here in Albuquerque. If I lived on the Mendocino Coast in California, where I recently visited and found only plastic dumpsters, I would probably take up photographing waves, driftwood, water rivulets in sand, and seaweed, as well as rust in the working harbor and vehicles in town suffering from the salt air. I would be able to continue as an abstract photographer in either place and find some satisfaction, but I am grateful to be where I am, the place that taught me to see abstractly, the place I call home. It is here that I discovered the beauty and dreamlike imagery in dumpsters, which has brought meaning to my work.
I am grateful to live in a great dumpster town.
[ 4 ] Astrid Krehan — @krehanastrid
Location and environment have a huge impact in my work to the point that it transformed me from a traditional photographer to an abstract photo artist. Shanghai, the city I lived in for almost 8 years, changed my life as a photographer. When I first walked the streets to learn about the city and its culture, my eyes were continuously drawn to the unique structures, patterns and formations on the facades of buildings. I discovered myself working with these patterns instead of capturing the busy street life. I was so drawn into it that I explored additional techniques that helped me play with colours, create new patterns and express my feelings and emotions for this city.
Being a person of few words, I found a way to not only express my emotions, but to address topics that are of interest and mean a lot to me. In my series “TRANSITION” that was created in 2021 just before I left China, the beautiful rusty doors that you can find in the old parts of Shanghai were a fantastic base to create the series. Not only rust itself is a chemical transition, but it enabled me to express my personal feelings about the upcoming cultural transition and, even more important to me, raising the awareness that we as humans have to make a transition in our lifestyle and mindset to preserve the environment and world peace.
When I arrived in Zurich, my work became more and more influenced by the desire to bridge the two worlds, the East and the West, my home and home to be.
A common theme in both worlds is Light. Many things are celebrated and expressed through light. My 2022 projects were mainly based on light and will continue likewise in 2023, with a few variations. The serie “FANTASY” that I started to create at the beginning of 2022 was based on a New Year’s light show in Zürich. They replaced traditional fireworks, which were cancelled due to COVID. The show transferred us into a fantasy world where we all wanted to be, away from the reality that we were tired of dealing with.
No matter what culture you’re in, light is a fabulous medium that transfers us into a dream world, where we can relax our brain from the daily stress and challenges.
I call myself an urban explorer. I associate photography with joy, wonder, surprise, and moments of unexpected and often unconventional beauty. I’ve always been a visual learner and am drawn to color, movement and composition. I consider a good photograph to be a visual feast.
Armed with my cellphone, I’ve combined several of my lifelong passions — exploring the New York City environs on foot and capturing visually interesting moments of personal delight. I think about my photography style as “slow photography”, because instead of frantically rushing around the city in an anxious state, I’ve learned to purposely slow down, both mentally and physically so that I can be truly mindful of my surroundings as I walk. This way I can take in the big picture — the wide shot, so to speak; and then focus in my with eyes on the smaller, often less noticeable image.
My photography has been fluid, evolving and expanding over the years. Prior to the pandemic, I loved to chronicle street art and graffiti in lower Manhattan. I then found myself creating new abstract worlds from small portions of some of the street art, ripped posters or decaying paint on walls, and so on. The pandemic put my expansive city wanderings on hold for a while, so I began to explore my mostly graffiti-less neighborhood. I thought I might get bored — but spending time walking and exploring local city streets as well as Central Park has opened up a whole new arena of urban art and a deep appreciation for nature’s seasonal treats. Sometimes it’s just a wonderful meditative walk — and other times it’s also a bounty of abstract and natural treasures, some of which I attempt to capture in photos.
Either way, I’ve found that I’m so much more focused and that my powers of observation have grown exponentially. The city is in a constant state of renovation and I adore searching for artistically unusual images from old rusty dumpsters, battered traffic cones, the occasional ripped posters and layers of old peeling paint on walls. My urban environment has totally changed my ideas of what defines beauty. I’m always up for the challenge of finding street gems. My photography credo is “expect the unexpected”.
My favorite and still the most thrilling part of my photographic treasure hunt is to find the “sweet spot” in a potential photo and zoom in on it in that instant in such a way that it creates a brand new vision of abstract beauty — worlds within worlds of possibilities.
When that happens, it’s magical.
“The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep.” — Paul Strand
I’m the type of photographer who likes to just walk around and see what catches my eye. Wherever I am, I always have a means of capturing images. I consider it a challenge to find something that excites me visually in every location I find myself in.
I tend to work locally and combine my photography with my daily routine, which usually includes a long walk. Most of the locations I frequent are areas that straddle urban and rural environments with creeks, streams or rivers all within walking distance. This gives me a multitude of options. Which option I choose to take on any given day is determined by the current conditions.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus
If it’s rainy season, I’m keenly aware of the environment as I take advantage of the puddles, drainage ditches, storm runoff, seasonal streams and vernal pools that are created by the rains. I race to capture the seasonal streams on every sunny winter day after a heavy rain. I know the year-round creeks are too muddy to photograph at that time, but that they will overflow and leave interesting flotsam and jetsam behind. When the seasonal streams run dry, the creeks will again offer new opportunities. Water is in constant flux.
In my urban work, I focus on capturing the unseen beauty in the details when my subjects are exposed to the elements. Going to the same locations over days, months and years allows me to capture images under different lighting and weather conditions, and to see objects change over long or short periods of time. External surfaces are impacted by the elements and slowly erode. Desks, chairs, walls and floors all slowly change under the impact of use. Parking lots are a great example of a location that remains the same yet transforms on an hourly basis. Using my daily routine as the source of my photography keeps me grounded in the present and has given me a keener awareness of my surroundings and the forces that influence them.
[ 7 ] Gerard Hermand — @gerardhermand
Before reading the following text, I suggest thatyou look at the picture above. Now here are three statements:
1. “The photo was taken in a field.” This sentence is surprising because the photo does not seem to represent a natural element.
2. “The photo was taken in Saint-Tropez.” This second sentence evokes luxury, carelessness and holidays. It doesn’t match what you see.
3. “The photo was taken at the scene of a fire.” This third sentence is dramatic. It can provoke questions: is it arson? Were there any casualties? Etc.
If you had to choose one of these three sentences, which one would you take and why? In reality, the three sentences are true: my photo was taken in the middle of a field, in the town of Saint-Tropez. It depicts a detail of an excavator that had burned down the previous night! (I don’t know if the fire was deliberate, but there were no casualties.)
How do all these details help in the appreciation of the image? In my opinion, when looking at an abstract photo, it is not necessary to know its location. I even think that this information can interfere with our observation.
As a photographer, I am sensitive to the environment. Some places inspire me, even if they are ugly and dirty, and others leave me indifferent. I accompany my photos with tags that locate the place and give various details to allow those who wish to know a little more or to facilitate research. I think few visitors check my photo tags, but that’s fine with me.
[ 8 ] Josh Feldman — @cooperedtot
I am moved when I see mathematics in nature. It feels like spying Plato’s forms in the messy chaos of the cave. I collect crystals. I am fascinated that the geometry of molecular and atomic bonds can be seen in the regular forms of rock crystals you can pick up and observe with your hands. Later on, when I fell under the sway of fractal geometry and the Mandelbrot set with its dizzying infinities and plethora of biological shapes, I felt the pull of the ways reentrant algorithms show up in the way growth hormones drive the development of multicellular structures in living things.
Simple equations create ferns unfurling and seahorse tails. Similar algorithms express deep unities between erosion patterns and veins in flesh and ribs in leaves and the patterns of rivers. Chaos theory both dooms, with the intractable unpredictability of non-linear problems, while at the same time providing glimpses into the way chaos is composed of pieces of order roiled in comprehensible ways. Maybe it’s human to think that the devastation of chaos might contain the seeds of a mathematical order which can be understood and thus redeemed. That’s why I’m drawn to the mathematics of chaotic mixing in river scum.
Meanwhile, these mesmerizing patterns are the product of a particular environment: a mighty river in post-industrial New Jersey — the Passaic. Polluted with runoff and full of soapy phosphate scum. And the Passaic river goes over the Great Falls at Paterson, where the river’s power drove the mills of the first wave of American industrialization and now churn past the ruins of the mills. And in the deceptively still pool above the falls, the creeping tendrils of the rush of gravity pull at the waters from below, driving writhing coils of mixing like an anti-convection. Such a particular environment indeed and a potent metaphor for the struggles in my own life, amid the toxic decay and swirl of wealth and poverty and pollution and disaster that is New Jersey, and my efforts to find that blasted reality somehow poetic, beautiful, and universal.
I am fascinated when abstraction emerges from the interplay between the work of human intent and the random, fractal and chaotic often found in rust, decay and entropy. Walking across a pedestrian overpass over industrial train tracks in Bushwick, Brooklyn, I ignored a magnificent view of a sunset over a vast industrial wasteland of warehouses in favor of this — looking away from the setting sun, down on the ground by a dirty puddle reflecting the rusty fence. It’s a picture where almost nothing is in focus.
But it has that property where regular patterns of human industrial production, as seen in the fencing and the straight lines of the steel of the overpass, play and interact with the chaos of rus,t which play with pseudo-ordered chaos theory patterns seen in the almost regular scalloping of rust along the bottom of the fence and in the undulating asphalt of the path. The interplay of intent and accident is an engine of complexity and has deep philosophical implications. Humans and humanity are prey to time and the ravages of oxidation like everything else. Born and made and falling away into rot.
Creation and destruction are the tango of our days and of all the days.
It took a few days for me to muster the momentum required to compose myself in order to subjugate my will to the trial of sitting still, thinking still, attempting to expound at length what role various “environments” have played in my artistic endeavours. And why should that be? In the dead of the Canadian winter, the sudden bitter cold (-30°C) ironically acted as a catalyst, given how strong a reminder it is that external forces are always out to dictate our lives; and given that we don’t build our lives about them, but around these parameters — taken as tools or obstacles, favorables and unfavourable winds — they’re not necessarily what most would call a constituent of meaning in human existence; but let’s not forget what the age-old topic of choice for neighbourly smalltalk remains to this day: the weather.
Under the current temperatures, most people prefer opting for seclusion, myself included. The question then becomes: which room of the house, which time of the day, which amount of coffee and bread, and which mental state befits the learning drive, the creative impulse. There are many dozens of thousands of pictures that await my inspection, but they’ll be left untouched. I might in fact set out to add many more to the list tomorrow — one more drop in the lake — as an event of greater certainty draws on the horizon: snowfall.
It used to drive such excitement in me back when I lived in Hangzhou; the bamboo groves would crackle in an unknown distance as these giant grass blades bent down to the very ground in tense and fragile arches under the weight of accumulating snow. That happened only once of my own witnessing. ButI did see snow twice — the rest was resting on elusive Tibetan mountaintops. Here and now, looking out the window, what gentle snowfall says to you is that the temperature is nice, and it’s alright to walk out without precaution. But weather on its own would mean very little if everything else wasn’t forced to grow under its dictates.
Beyonds the facts of history, what was initially a French culture had to be entirely transformed by these northern lands. They’ve espoused the hardships, and no people pulls through that unscathed — but here we are now, in Montreal, oh vibrant Montreal! Not objectively vibrant, to be clear — probably among the least amiable of Latin cultures in some sense — but knowing what it’s been subjugated to, some kind of miracle, a heavy drive for survival must’ve hung in the air. Or perhaps it’s the ebb and flow of ever reneweing arrivals, immigrants carrying the natural ease of warmer coasts, that is blowing here, that insists that hope must be sustained against this adversity.
Art murals are all over my adopted city — that’s struck me first. None of those were to be seen in my now-distant previous life. Even in memories, art as an integral part of community felt out of the equation. The fault must perhaps be put on the innocence of said young mind, for it took me those many years in the Far-East to awaken my senses to those crucial worldly details. Deprived of this sometimes overbearing, almost numbing human exuberance, the metropolitan grayness of the Chinese east coast provided an excellent magnifier for what amount of nature we were lucky to be bequeathed with. The daily walks up-and-down the hillside and round its lakes, through the groves and amidst the tea villages; the uncanny slow pace of the wilderness on a backdrop of restless effervescence from working legions of urban migrants — as if standing on a branch atop an ant colony — the attention was drawn from me, despite me; a curiosity for every detail in the existence of every being, small and big, became increasingly manifest.
Despite a sun that could be directly stared at without shades, there was great deal of clarity of the heart during that epoch. Conversely, the intense blueness of the Quebec sky and the occasional theater of clouds, with all its nameless tragedies, provides a finesse that strokes the senses at a different bandwidth of frequencies. Not only does it announce either extreme cold or extreme heat, but its abundance overflows our capacities; one only seems to bear taking it all in by becoming more narrow. It is a great wonder to me, as I lonesomely scout the slenderness of endless back-alleys looking for treasure troves of remarkable markings and intrusions. Such corners of unassigned space proved rare in the wealthy Chinese city I used call home, though my non-searching must be at blame.
The forces seem more expressive here, sparse but intense; individuality has breached its way out of the egg — the seed of basic survival — and out in the wild, it is febrile, it seeks to convey a thousand thoughts to the world even before it knows what any of this is meant for nor where it leads. I am as awed as often annoyed by this frivolity, fault a growing age. One may only trade numbness for a storm, there is no way out of it; it might as well be embraced.
But what has photography to do with any of this anyhow? Everything, for it is but a tool, but a wheel on the road to realization. One may as well walk its way there, and who’d refuse a few short rides, if only once in a while?
And even more so if it proves cold out there.
▲ Closing word:
“We hope that you have enjoyed reading these reflections on how location and environment affect the work of these talented photographers, and that you have gained a greater appreciation for their art. We also hope that you have been encouraged to think more deeply about how your own environment affects your photography, and that perhaps it made you want to experiment more by visiting different locations. As for myself, I feel inspired to look at my neighbourhood anew to find images that I haven’t seen yet, that I walked by without stopping, or simply couldn’t see before.” — Paul Rowland
Thanks again to all the participants:
[ 1 ] Irina Litinsky / @irinalitinsky
[ 2 ] Muriel Gani / @murielgani
[ 3 ] Wendy Kappy / @wendykappyphoto
[ 4 ] Astrid Krehan / @krehanastrid
[ 5 ] Amy Ronis / @amyronis
[ 6 ] Matthew Fertel / @digprod4
[ 7 ] Gerard Hermand / @gerardhermand
[ 8 ] Josh Feldman / @cooperedtot
[ 9 ] M. Solav / @m.solav
Voxpop conducted by Paul Rowland.
Article edited by M. Solav.
Hintology is an abstract photography magazine project created in August 2020 which strives to create a community where every artists are given a chance to broadcast their voice, the aspiring just as much as the established. We are a small team of volunteers who rely on the passion and contributions of their community to help spread the beauty and diversity of abstract photography. If you share our vision of inclusiveness and inquisitiveness, you can make a difference by tagging your work with #Hintology on Instagram, or by following our page and joining our group on Facebook. If you appreciate our curative work and the interviews we conduct, please do consider donating via this link; all funds will go towards printing the first physical edition of the magazine.
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