Voxpop #5: “On Metaphors”

Presented by Paul Rowland

22 min readAug 25, 2023

Voxpops are experiments in which abstract photographers of the Hintology community either have their work engaged with specific audiences or come to discuss particular topics related to their practice.

“I have often felt a little uncomfortable with using the conventional vocabulary to describe taking photos, such as: ‘aiming’, ‘pointing’, ‘shooting’, ‘capturing’, because these words seem to be associated with an underlying metaphor of hunting or war, with the camera figured as a kind of gun. Of course, I know this doesn’t mean that photography described in this way is inherently violent or aggressive, but I believe that the way we talk about things is connected to how we think and feel about them, so I prefer to use a different language.

For example, my photography is more akin to the slow process of foraging and preserving, which is why I named my Instagram account ‘Jonathan Pickles the City’. When speaking to other photographers, I have noticed much difference and variation in how they talk about what they do, with some preferring to describe photos as ‘images’, or to say ‘make’ or ‘create’ instead of ‘take’ a photo.

This specific and conscious use of language appears to reveal something about how they understand photography, about the kind of images they make and their relation to the world as they photograph it. To find out more, I asked nine photographers to describe how they see their own practice.”

Paul Rowland

Image sample from each artist featured in this article (in the order below).


[ 1 ] R.J. Bardowick / @bardowicked
[ 2 ] Jessica Grady Heard / @visuals4cacophony
[ 3 ] Kenneth Strange / @kennethstrange88
[ 4 ] Christoph Bodmer / @christoph.bodmer
[ 5 ] Debra Booker / @debrabooker_
[ 6 ] Biju Ramankutty / @biju_ramankutty
[ 7 ] Tina Smeja / @tinasmeja
[ 8 ] Barb Kreutter / @barbkreutter
[ 9 ] William Graebner / @wsgraebner

[ 1 ] R.J. Bardowick / @bardowicked

“Distant Ship” (from the Sternbrücke series) by R.J. Bardowick.

I’m a visual artist, always have been. After learning the usual crafts at art school, I lost interest in representing things I see in a naturalistic way, and searched for ways to create images that I hadn’t seen before. My first way to go was abstract painting, then collage — a means of connecting far fetched elements to create combine images. Main influence: Robert Rauschenberg. My compositional approach was always decomposition, the idea (as in Jackson Pollock’s all-over) that the frame isn’t like a box that you stuff things into, minding the frame as an outer limit, but more like a window cut out of a larger continuum.

Through the years, I started seeing the kinds of images I’m interested in everywhere. So I started photographing them. The motivation and the thrill of it quite much resembles that of collecting seashells on the seashore. I hardly walk any given route without being on the lookout for these little gems that no-one sees but me. With the exception of my close neighbourhood and its routine shopping walks that I know every square millimeter of.

“Connected” (from the Sternbrücke series) by R.J. Bardowick.

I don’t see a great difference between the photographing and my painting and collaging work. It’s all about seeing images that intrigue me. I want images that, to me, look like something else than what they originally have been meant to mean. Art is seeing, art is transformation. When I find something that satisfies me, there’s a spark lighting up. That’s what I hope to show the viewers.

[ 2 ] Jessica Grady Heard — @visuals4cacophony

“Burnout” by Jessica Grady Heard.

My photographic collection of self-taught, intuitive, found art emerged from the nadir of a late autism diagnosis and the concomitant burnout that revealed it.

As a Black queer feminist mama in the U.S. who facilitates race and equity training in the education sector, it is no wonder that the year 2020 pushed me over the edge, my once subtle social and sensory differences becoming pronounced. Unbeknownst to me, the hypomania and racing thoughts that had propelled me through two decades of overachievement and workaholism in the name of social change, were not my strength but my Achilles heel. I had ignored and resisted the early signs of burnout in years prior, so once it fully hit me, my pace ground to an involuntary halt.

Though the autism diagnosis offered an explanation for my substantially reduced capacity, it was also deeply unsettling. I was overcome with grief as I concurrently processed the diagnosis, the pandemic, enduring racism, the climate emergency, intergenerational trauma, inner child wounds, and irreconcilable differences in my marriage. It was a spectacular mid-life crisis, in which I lost my sense of place and space in the world, and with it, my way with words. I was rendered speechless for some time.

Yet, in my silence and solitude, I began to honor my sensory experiences. Photography became a contemplative practice of documenting sensory memories I’d previously dismissed or overlooked because they seemed weird or nonsensical. I found myself taking photos of whatever caught my eye and gave me pause. In the perpetual stillness of my healing period, I was drawn into cracks, paint splatter, rust, repetition, reflections, textures, shadows, iridescence. As I built community with other neurodivergent people and learned more about autism, I realized I was capturing photos and videos of visual stims that were triggered by pattern recognition in everyday life. I kept stumbling upon and peering into infinite details I’d missed in my busy years. As I built community with other artists and especially became involved with Abstract Photographers International, I began to situate the themes of my photography in historical and cultural context. It was deeply affirming to know that I was not alone. There was an underlying order, tradition, and meaning to the seemingly chaotic abstractions I was collecting.

“Playground” by Jessica Grady Heard.

I now think of my photography as a representation of truth, grief, and resilience. In this decisive and unsettling time for our species, there is beauty in decay, in cycles of life, and in bearing witness to the pain and possibility of each moment. Through abstraction of the mundane, I depict alternative landscapes and textures that are hidden in plain sight. Once revealed, I find them emotionally resonant because they are familiar yet novel, experienced anew through abstraction.

My most common subjects are urban walls, dumpsters, fire hydrants, metal grates, towers, bridges, and plant life. My photos are in the tradition of abstractions from Black photographers of the Kamoinge, they are reminiscent of abstract paintings like those of Jackson Pollock, they capture Patterns in Nature as catalogued in Philip Ball’s book, and they are a form of folk art as celebrated at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

[ 3 ] Kenneth Strange — @kennethstrange88

“The Old Bullrider” by Kenneth Strange.

Abstract art has long been of interest to me. I don’t live in an area where it can be readily found (at least, to my knowing). Urban areas seem to be better suited for this art form, so I make my own abstractions. I’m not a structured or traditional artist/photographer. I react to and am stimulated by what I see, think and feel.

Currently, the iPhone is my camera of choice, even though for some thirty plus years, a SLR camera is what I used. Although I continually add new photos to my library, that is also where my creative art process begins. It does not include an initial plan. It begins with a blank mind, without thought. I look for a photo of interest. Then I peruse other images for one or more that may catch my eye.

“The Fence at the Top of the Hill” by Kenneth Strange.

Blending may be my next step, or software adjustments, i.e. over/under-exposure, blur, flip, distort, crop, resize; changing opacity, paintbrushing, texturing; using multiple blends and/or other assorted creative adjustments. Quite often, successful creations do not occur. Some days are like that. Other days, it’s like smooth sailing. I stop when I reach a point where I see, sense or feel something I like. The end result is the creation of my own unique/strange altered reality abstraction.

[ 4 ] Christoph Bodmer — @christoph.bodmer

“Quasi” by Christoph Bodmer.

Being a décollage artist means to be an urban archeologist, a researcher and someone who likes to be surprised. I observe the distribution battle of the available space in public space. It is a perpetual struggle, a battle that is being fought by a wide variety of interest groups. The décollage is a silent observer of these events and fights. On the basis of the décollage, I can follow the development (lines) of the last 10, 15 or 20 years of an urban landscape.

I will contribute Quasi to an exhibition in September at the Württemberg Art Association. The exhibition will ask about distance and proximity and how it can be represented in an artwork. Based on that décollage, I will have an artist talk with a panel discussion with illustrious guests, which will be recorded for the largest radio station in Germany. The title will be: “Perception and public space — the décollage as a silent observer of urban happenings”.

The following questions represent Quasi well: “Isn’t that illegal?”, “Can you just tear it off like that?”; these are the most frequently asked questions at my exhibitions. My most frequent exclamation is: “Please don’t touch and certainly don’t pick off the scraps of paper. You can see better with your eyes!

And already we are in the middle of the discussion about how much proximity is allowed, how much distance seems sensible. These are parameters that are constantly being renegotiated — often unconsciously, but mostly intensively. I personally feel that the wanting to touch an artwork is encroaching, and as an artist I would at least like to be asked whether the work is allowed to be touched.

“Karolinenviertel” by Christoph Bodmer.

I notice a strong interest in the material, especially among the older generation, who wants to feel and touch. The digital natives, on the other hand, usually take a much shorter look and initially seem less interested. But when they discover tags, spray paints or fragments of posters that advertised events that the younger generation may have even attended, their interest is quickly aroused and an avalanche of memories is released.

What they all have in common is the pleasure in the story of how I get the material for my décollages. There is a certain fascination, but also sometimes disgust. Because touching and tearing paper in all its aggregate states may seem appealing to many, but dirt, fine dust or even insects that nest, live and die in the layers of paper make some people twitch. The ridge is narrow, because what seems approachable has become untouchable from a different perspective.

The décollage also eliminates the distance, because it is exhibited almost without distance — while in public space it usually remains at a distance. Because it rarely attracts the attention of passers-by, although it is so close.

[ 5 ] Debra Booker — @debrabooker_

“Doorway to Heaven” by Debra Booker.

I have been creating and making art as long as I can remember (over five decades!). I have done many mediums: painting, drawing, assemblage, collage, mosaics, photography (I was a professional faux-finish painter for ten years too!). When I was around twenty, I got into black and white photography as well as developing and printing. Looking through that little viewfinder made me very focused on trying to find the perfect composition, lighting, lines and textures.

“Splash Dance” by Debra Booker.

I was then immersed in assemblage/mixed-media artworks that were very textured (think Robert Rauschenberg). I loved finding all kinds of things to glue onto canvas and paint. I have always loved “junking” — finding treasures amidst the everyday items in our world. The past several decades, I have been making mixed-media collages using found and vintage paper (encyclopedias, magazines and other things that were forgotten). Again, it was the thrill of the hunt and the appreciation of these items, their history and soul. That “love of the hunt” thing has stayed with me. I am always looking for an interesting shot in my photography. I love close-ups of the overlooked. I find it challenging and incredibly satisfying to find beauty in things that most people don’t ever see. I love finding textures, lines, colors, movement, rust, shadows, reflections, etc. in places where no-one looks. I think it helps others slow down and appreciate all the beauty that is out there as well.

[ 6 ] Biju Ramankutty — @biju_ramankutty

“Metamorphosis” by Biju Ramankutty.

Abstract photography is a captivating art form that relies on the manipulation of shapes, patterns, colors, textures, and other elements to create a pleasing whole that captures the imagination of the viewer. As a photographer, I find it to be one of the most fascinating forms of artistic expression. Abstract forms have the power to evoke curiosity, engagement, and emotional responses and allow viewers to interpret the image according to their personal experience. To harness its potential, I focus on vibrant and contrasting colors, dynamic patterns, unexpected angles or perspectives, shapes, lines, and textures. These elements stimulate curiosity and intrigue, leading to new and surprising images typically overlooked by more traditional art forms.

Finding something that excites me visually, from a location to a photo, is a personal challenge. In addition to representational style photography, I exploit various camera techniques, including camera motion, double exposure, slow shutter, creative blur, and more.

“Metamorphosis” — A transformation through imagination: collage photography reimagined. In this body of works, every image begins with a careful ensemble of artifacts with compelling patterns and texture. Each collage is then photographed using intentional camera movement (ICM) technique, resulting in a new and distinct collection of abstract visuals painted with light and the motion of the lens.

“Closer than Close” by Biju Ramankutty.

“Closer than Close” — In this series, I did a study of the reflections formed on the surface of a balloon. This simple child’s delight will be explored as a photographer’s tool taking a tour of the familiar home environment and transforming images through the convex lens formed on the surface of a toy.

Home and family have always been an integral part of my work. It is where I draw my strength, my joy and my creative energy, and I wish to share them with the viewer. Here, I attempted to see and show the house and the people living in it from a perspective I initially discovered while playing with my niece.

[ 7 ] Tina Smeja — @tinasmeja

“Infoamed” by Tina Smeja.

For me, photography is savouring delight in the experience of being alive. I’m most inspired when I’m able to recognize fluidity between the environment and myself through the interplay of perception, sensation, thought and emotion. My capacity to perceive and feel depends on my level of awareness; the way I engage in the act of photography depends on my state of being, which is influenced by the environment in which I find myself.

Over the past 20 years, my partner and I have been spending months at a time on his traditional lands in Eeyou Istchee, in Northern Quebec. It is a vast area of wetlands, boreal forest and coastal tundra. The curves of the landscape are subtle and the skyline is unobstructed.

The camp where we most often stay is accessible only by helicopter or bush plane during the fall months. It’s situated in an area that had been razed by forest fire 20 years prior to my first visit there. Burnt tree trunks leaning precariously, oversized jumbled pick-up sticks, and charred stumps are intriguing elements in this minimalist landscape. The wind whispers “impermanence” as it blows through… favourite sculptures topple and fall. Returning here for extended stays in different seasons, we also witness regeneration and renewal. The rain patterns “change” as it bounces off the bright yellow, red and orange bushes. Mosses and lichen shout at the top of their very small voices: “attention!”. Nature gives us a hint of her flamboyant side.

“In the bush”, my gaze is wide, I am quietly alert, I feel grounded in deep tranquility even as I may be physically engaging in different activities. The absence of distractions of internet and cityscapes leaves me feeling spacious, calm and present. My eyes take in contrasts, patterns, movement and stillness. I see and feel lines of energy. Shifting patterns of shadow on snow, wind in grass, light on water. I may appear still, yet I feel dance move through me.

I bring only my iPhone as we find firewood, fetch water, clear trails, look for game and pick berries. I’m not looking to photograph; I’m just being where I am. When Nature presents me with a scene or a detail, a gesture or a line that creates a sensation of excitement or deep peace, I gratefully and joyfully accept it as it is. It is immediate. I frame it as I see it.

I feel connected to this place through my partner, through the stories and teachings he shares and through my somatic experience as I walk the land. One fundamental teaching is that of reciprocity. As an example, for Eeyou, prey gives itself to the hunter. It is not skill alone that makes a successful hunter: communicating respect to the animals is most important. Gratitude must be shown to the animals, the Earth and the ancestors for all they provide. Whatever has been given by the Earth does not belong to one, but is to be shared. It is the Eeyou way of life. This resonates through me as we go about our days, gifted with Nature’s wonders. I am water flowing on ancient rock. I feel blessed to be here and to share what I have received.

“Envy” by Tina Smeja.

“In the city” is where I spend the summers. Montreal, always vibrant, is in festival fever from May to September, the longest lasting festivity being the “construction festival”, which to be honest, entertains, or rather, despairs us all year long!

So many stimuli solicit my attention. It’s not just that I’m navigating crumbling sidewalks instead of moss covered boulders; the dance is with the cacophony of the mass of pedestrians, cyclists, automobiles and heavy equipment. My eyes are scanning. My breath is uneven. My step is springy rather than buoyant. Muscles are taut, ready to spring into action, to dart around, jump ahead, maintain balance with the graffiti rhythm.

I walk. I feel like I am seeking I don’t know what. There is so much around me. My eyes are hungry.

I notice something. My body sometimes keeps moving forward. Then I stop. And I go back.

I am curious. Something has drawn me in. I have found a still note in the cacophony. This note reverberates with texture and colour.

It might be:

Whatever — it makes me go “hah” and slows my breath.

Often, it is a scene of decay or construction. It could be an outstanding (or ordinary) feature of architecture or a patch of weeds in an alleyway. I examine, explore, observe details and photograph from different angles.

I compose.

I feel satisfied — but, does that mean that I had not been complete before? or just, not feeling complete? What had been missing? What is it about this, being totally immersed in looking and discerning, that makes me forget my self and yet feel whole? I am in a chaotic environment, but have become oblivious to all but the detail and the stillness it has elicited in me. Is it this questioning that makes me human? I am of the messy soup of life, grateful and happy to be here at this moment.

Eventually, I end up “in front of my iPad” to review the bounty of instantaneous impressions from Nature or playful compositions from the back alleys. I feel a mild tingle of anticipation, hoping that the photographs have captured something of the essence of those moments when I forgot my self and was just in the field of being.

Most of my nature shots are minimally edited; I prefer to let the artistry of Nature be front and centre. Some thought and mental debate goes into triage and culling, but the curation is mostly informed by heart and intuition. Then, there are photographs which I feel to be mediocre renderings of great moments; I wonder, I imagine if there could not still be something special to be revealed there… and I try.

I have basic editing skills and I use them with basic tools. Sometimes a sweet surprise emerges from this play. It makes me appreciate how simple acts can transform my experience.

Meditation, photography and dance are contemplative practices for me. Photography and dance both have the spicy option of choosing to playfully engage with a “partner”. In Contact Improvisation Dance, a common way to enjoy the practice is the Jam, where participants move freely in and out of the dance space, in and out of contact with partners or witnessing others as they dance. There is no audience per se, and although everyone is improvising from their own felt experience, there is awareness of the shared space that supports creative choices. I experience Instagram as an analogous creative space for sharing photography. There is joy in making images and delight when viewers engage with them.

[ 8 ] Barb Kreutter — @barbkreutter

“Follow Your Own Path” by Barb Kreutter.

I spent many years of my life designing woven colourful fabric. Although I no longer design fabric, I have come to the conclusion that it is in my DNA that anything I create will be graphical and filled with colour and texture inspired by the landscape or my travels, much like my fabrics of years past.

I will often use camera motion or multiple exposure techniques. This process enables my camera to capture an image that is very different from anything that I am looking at with my eye. I love the unexpected images that the camera sensor creates with these techniques. I often will walk away from a location with a large collection of images that I will use later to create my final art. To be totally honest, I will also capture images that document what I see.

“Seperation” by Barb Kreutter.

Over the past few years, my creative process has evolved to its current state where I now consider all of my camera images components of the final image. It is when I sit at my computer or tablet that one of two things will happen. I will be inspired by the memories of the place where I took the image to create a series of work that will re-interrupt the feeling of that place or I may be inspired to create my version of landscapes that exist only in my imagination. All of my final images are created from several layers of my “components”. I personally find it important to title all of my images. Typically the titles have great meaning to me, but will seem obscure to most others without knowing the story behind the final image.

[ 9 ] William Graebner — @wsgraebner

“Belle Arti” by William Graebner.

As a photographer, I first became interested in “found” or ”accidental” art in Bologna, Italy, where I lived for six months in 1989. I became intrigued by the city’s rich array of posters, especially those that had been torn, revealing layers of imagery that, when exposed, created surprising visual relationships and provocative new images.

Years later, during long annual visits to Rome, I became fascinated with the visual iconography found on Rome’s walls — not the graffiti itself, or the wall art, which were in varying degrees intended as “art” — but the accidental or serendipitous or random confluence of multiple and/or unintentional interventions: graffiti on top of graffiti, drips and spills that enhanced an image, writing against a particularly complex, pitted wall or the working of water on metal, stone or wood over time.

Because what is being photographed does not originate in the mind of a single creative being, the process of making art is to some extent freed from the compulsions and obsessions of an individual artist. That claim may seem perverse, for the field of “great” art is understood to be the province of “great” artists, each with a powerful personal vision: van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol, Richter. What happens to art when the work begins, not with forethought, but with the juxtapositions of chance?

The obvious response is that the photographer is the artist, and that freedom from the self is an illusion. My own experience to some extent confirms that perspective, in that my body of work seems to differ from those of other photographers whose product I follow (and admire) on Instagram, a sign that there’s something in my head that isn’t in theirs — and vice-versa.

Even so, I feel that my method of photography contributes to the creation of some distance between the original material and the finished product. My set-up is minimal: I use a high-level point-and-shoot camera and automatic focus, and because I am almost always walking with my wife, whose patience is admirable but limited, I must decide quickly — some would say too quickly — what is worthy of capturing and how to best frame it. I am seldom in front of anything for more than a few seconds. Jackson Pollock (he’s no Jackson Pollock!) had his own way of disengaging from the conscious process of creation, using frenetic movement and a drip technique to tap into his subconscious.

Despite his efforts, Pollock could not escape the cultural climate of the postwar decades, and for whatever reason, I am drawn to that era’s abstract modernism. My photographs emphasize color, form and balance, a painterly quality and hopefully a certain ambiguity and tension (psychological or structural) — though I have no formal training that would lead me to believe my judgments in any of these areas would be superior to those of others.

“Blue Stonehenge” by William Graebner.

Over the years, I have moved away from representation, even of the minimal sort available in torn posters. Although I find great beauty (a quality to be valued, yet held at bay) in a rusted beam or door handle polished by centuries of hands, I would prefer that viewers not know precisely what they are looking at; I am reluctant to post a photograph of that rusted beam if it also contains bolts that reveal that it is, indeed, a beam. Poster photography can be rigorously abstract, but it also, perhaps too easily, yields a stereotype: a woman’s face, fractured (echoes of Picasso) by tearings in the poster, her remaining eye reflecting some damage, or irony.

To paraphrase Jorge Luis Borges: art is what cannot be done again. His definition is apropos of found art, which is evanescent; it inevitably ceases to exist, erased by authorities, covered or changed by artistic (or non-artistic) interventions. As a result, it is likely to be found in environments that allow layerings (or de-layerings, in the case of posters) to accumulate: cities where wall writing (tags, graffiti, murals and other variants) is ubiquitous and remains undisturbed for long periods, the work stations of artists who don’t care that their walls, tables and floors are neat and clean.

Of the cities that I visit regularly, Rome is an incubator for accidental photography; not only is it a poster city, but tag/graffiti removal is minimal, leaving Rome messy-looking while providing a nurturing space for found art. East London has its spots — commercial streets in ethnic neighborhoods, the canals, Hackney Wick — but its railroad lines are by-and-large inaccessible. Los Angeles lacks the age and decay of East Coast U.S. cities, and capturing found art there often involves the nooks and crannies of well-traveled and heavily postered/painted places, such as Melrose Avenue and its alleys.

My home base, Buffalo, a city of aging factories, iron bridges, abandoned shops and peeling paint, has proved to be a rich source of material — especially images emerging from rust. When Covid-19 pandemic struck, my wife and I began walking the city’s streets — every street, every alley, every Dickensian railroad underpass or boarded-up factories we could squeeze our way into. In the process, I took over 25,000 photographs, perhaps 1/10 of which I thought might have artistic potential.

Of course, whatever the locale, to visualize the source material of accidental art requires a way of seeing that is not a natural one, especially in a city such as Rome, where the built environment can overwhelm the senses. Something similar happens in Buffalo, where the city’s decline and decay — its powerful post-industrial present — can make it hard to see the environment’s “accidental” aesthetics. It may be that only when one has been in such a city many times, and for long periods, does one begin to appreciate the “found art” that is there, waiting to be noticed.

Closing word:

Photographers see their practice in many different ways, describing it variously as collecting, discovering, playing, transforming, manipulating and receiving, and comparing it to other cultural activities such as weaving, archaeology, treasure hunting and dance. You can perceive these influences and approaches in their work, which form part of their unique style and vision. We hope that this vox pop has encouraged you to reflect on and see your own practice more clearly, and perhaps even to examine how you work and experiment with other methods and techniques. We would love to hear from our readers about how you see your own work, so let us know your thoughts about this vox pop in the comments below.

Paul Rowland

Thanks again to all the participants:

[ 1 ] R.J. Bardowick / @bardowicked
[ 2 ] Jessica Grady Heard / @visuals4cacophony
[ 3 ] Kenneth Strange / @kennethstrange88
[ 4 ] Christoph Bodmer / @christoph.bodmer
[ 5 ] Debra Booker / @debrabooker_
[ 6 ] Biju Ramankutty / @biju_ramankutty
[ 7 ] Tina Smeja / @tinasmeja
[ 8 ] Barb Kreutter / @barbkreutter
[ 9 ] William Graebner / @wsgraebner

Voxpop conducted by Paul Rowland.
Article edited by
M. Solav.

View Hintology on Instagram.

…about Hintology

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 promoting our community.

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