Everyday Abstracts – From Italy’s Lake Region

By Dave Powell

Many photographers love abstract photography. And why not? Subjects are everywhere and almost demand capture. In fact, you may well have your own favorite subjects that you can’t not shoot. Like:

  • Wall graffiti/murals
  • Signs/posters
  • Store windows
  • Museum/gallery exhibits
  • Brick/paver patterns
  • Bathroom tiles
  • Architectural details
  • Manhole covers
  • Vehicle details
  • Light fixtures/effects
  • Shadows
  • Landscape elements
  • Super-macros
  • Close crops into other artworks

What are “Abstracts” Anyway?

It could be a mistake to think that “abstract” art is always non-representational. A lot of it is, of course. Jackson Pollock’s paintings, for instance.

Instead, it may be useful to review some of the word’s formal definitions. Here are a few from Webster.com:

  • Disassociated from any specific instance
  • Difficult to understand
  • Insufficiently factual
  • Expressing a quality apart from an object
  • Having intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content
  • Something that summarizes or concentrates the essentials of a larger thing or things

At their core, they suggest that an “abstract” anything has something unexplained, omitted or removed.  I mentioned this to my wife Kate… who’s also interested in art of all kinds. She thought for a moment and added: “… which leaves space for viewer imaginations to fill.”

Applying to Photography

Photographers have many ways to “abstract” the world… to leave something out for viewer imaginations and creativity to fill in. They include:

  • Shooting monochrome, at restricted wavelengths, or in unusual/unnatural lighting
  • Framing/cropping into subjects to focus on interesting details or remove wider context
  • Capturing subjects that withhold information about themselves (in the above image, do you see what’s missing?… it’s answered below)
  • Emphasizing tone, texture, form or structure over total real-world presence
  • Grabbing simple graphic representations
  • Zooming into the macro realm that’s outside our normal experience

As you view the following photos, ask what they may have “left out” for you to fill in. And do these gaps also make the images more striking, intriguing, dramatic or even mysterious?

For instance, I shot the second set of images below in black-and-white digital infrared. Its unusual tonalities and omission of real-world color often add drama and mystery. The image above goes even further– by failing to explain where its two flights of stairs lead (a mystery I wish I could fill in).

More Examples from Italy

Following are more photos taken during a Road Scholar tour of Italy’s Lake Region. The first ten images below were taken in natural color with my iPhone and Panasonic Lumix DMC ZS-100 (an excellent travel point-and-shoot).

Megalithic burial stones at the “Ötzi the IceMan” exhibit  in Bolzano’s South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Shooting indoors from a direction that produced this dark background almost eliminated any sense of time and place:

Stones in museum exhibit

Swirly street-paver geometry:

Street pavers

Faces in the grass at Malcesine’s Scaliger Castle:

Faces in the grass

Um… OK… I won’t:

"No drones" sign

We were pretty sure we didn’t need whatever this store was selling:

Odd store window detail

Moody late-night light, shadows and colors in our hotel lobby:

Night hotel lobby detail

Surprising ceiling detail in a roadside movie theater/convenience store. (I later cropped out the bottom third and rotated what remained 90-degrees counterclockwise into an even more abstracted image titled “Sol and Desert Dunes.”):

Ceiling detail in roadside convenience store

A tiny wall painting in Como’s Metropole Suisse Hotel. Some important information is lacking here: What is the little putto angel riding? Why sidesaddle? And why did the artist paint them in such different styles? We are left to ponder unexplained things:

Odd wall art in villa

Old wall detail:

Stone wall detail

“Faux marble” painted plaster in Lake Como’s Villa Olmo:

Painted "faux marble" wall detail

And Into the IR

I captured the following nine images in minimalist black-and-white with the Lumix DMC ZS-3 that I converted to digital infrared for this article.

But first, the infrared photo at the top of this article captured a private courtyard’s ornamental gate… backlit by the infrared “chlorophyll glow” from plants. (The scene didn’t look nearly as dramatic in realistic visible light.)

Next, we see our tour group walking under a similarly IR-backlit wisteria arbor. The chlorophyll glow dramatically highlights and “abstracts” both natural and man-made structures:

IR walking under an IR-backlit wisteria arbor

An IR-backlit bike:

IR backlit bike

Looking up a palm tree (not very far from the Dolomites and Alps!):

IR palm tree lookup shot

And through palm leaves cascading over water:

IR palm tree cascade

Shadows  too:

IR palm tree shadow

And architecture. This 900-foot war memorial is part of Como, Italy’s Rationalist Architecture Tour. Locally known as the Monumento ai Caduti, it was built to memorialize local citizens who died in World War 1… and bears an inscription that translates:“Tonight we’ll sleep in Trieste, or in heaven with the heroes.” Overlooking Lake Como, this Brutalist building was adapted from sketches originally intended for a lighthouse:

IR deco memorial tower

An IR-backlit “faux bois” (false wood) metal fence in Brunate, Italy. More than 2,000 feet above the city of Como, Brunate is reached either by a steep winding road or (more easily) a modern funicular. Black-and-white IR minimized everything except the fence’s geometric structure (which didn’t stand out nearly as well in normal light). Plus, there’s the unanswered mystery of where those stairs go.

IR backlit "faux bois" fence

Another backlit pergola. Note again how well infrared can “abstract” structures from their surroundings:

IR-backlit pergola

And building reflections (captured from our moving bus):

IR building reflections

As you see, digital infrared can turn representational travel scenes into moody, noirish abstracts. And future articles will move on to less-representational subjects!

Your Turn Now!

How about sharing your favorite abstract images (shot in visible light or infrared) in articles like this… or even in “One-Shot Stories”? Let’s inspire each other!

–Dave Powell is a Westford, Mass., writer and avid amateur photographer.

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About The Author

By Dave Powell
Trained in mathematics, physics, cosmology, computer programming and science journalism. Retired mathematician, award-winning technical and journalistic writer. 1989 winner of the Bruce B. Howat Award-- an international business-journalism equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. (Only one Howat was awarded each year, IF the committee in Geneva found an article they really liked. But I don't think the prize is granted anymore.) Also a past author and editorial advisor for Sesame Street... where I regularly worked with Jim Henson and Kermit!
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Geoff Chaplin on Everyday Abstracts – From Italy’s Lake Region

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

Excellent article, analysis and images. Thanks!
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Dave Powell replied:

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

You're very welcome, Geoff! And your critique is appreciated since I wondered how the article's slightly "academic" approach might be perceived.

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David Dutchison on Everyday Abstracts – From Italy’s Lake Region

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

I was "wowed" several times. A really enjoyable bunch of pictures to look through.
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Dave Powell replied:

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

Hi Dave, So sorry it took me so long to reply. I recently discovered that not all comments generated automatic alerts in my email. So I'm now going through every article to look for comments that I've missed. I'm so very glad that you liked the images! Infrared especially puts a whole new slant on the world!!

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Ken Hosie on Everyday Abstracts – From Italy’s Lake Region

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

Very nice pictures, Dave, particularly the IR shots. I too have a converted camera (Nikon D80/720nm). I’m never sure what to do with the white balance, can you give me any tips? Ken
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Dave Powell replied:

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

Glad you liked the photos Ken (especially the IRs!). And you ask a great question. I’ve never owned a Nikon DSLR, so I can’t address the D80 specifically. But I can suggest several general approaches to IR white balance: * Before shooting infrareds, you could use the camera's menus (if a command is available) to select the specific real-world color that you want captured as white. And for IRs a good choice would be to point the camera at well-lit (but not overly bright) grass and select that color. Then try some shots and make adjustments until you like what you get. * Or you could similarly point the camera at a well-lit (but not overly bright) 18% gray card and select that tone to capture as white. * But I have reasons to suggest doing what I do... nothing. I’ve never set a custom white balance because it won’t produce predictable results! As mentioned in my IR-workflow article, regardless of how you initially set your camera, the resulting images will vary (more widely than with visible wavelengths) based on environmental factors like time-of-day, amount and location of cloud cover, and especially, the angle of the sun’s location in the sky with respect to the main axis of your lens! In other words, even if you set a custom IR WB, every image you shoot may look different-- even in coloration-- due to changes in the environment, where you stand, and the direction you point your camera. So in my case, I just don’t worry about it! Hope this helps!

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Ken Hosie replied:

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

Well thank you Dave, that is very encouraging. I have tried the grass method but do find custom WB a bit tricky on the D80. So I’ll not worry about WB and just see how I get on. Thanks

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Dave Powell replied:

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

Righto... and enjoy it Ken!

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mike tynan on Everyday Abstracts – From Italy’s Lake Region

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

Dave,... 'tonite we'll sleep in Trieste'.... this wording might refer directly to the memorial located just outside Trieste.....the REDIPUGLIA Memorial which, when PRESENT, is overwhelming..as it should be.
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Dave Powell replied:

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

Hi Mike, I viewed that monument's Wiki page, and while the place is also a Brutalist build, it tragically covers MUCH more ground... and a shocking number of lives lost. Definitely overwhelming (even viewed online), I can't imagine how sobering it would be in person. Thanks for the additional info! Dave

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Aad on Everyday Abstracts – From Italy’s Lake Region

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

Nice pictures, not too abstract.
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Dave Powell replied:

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

Thanks Aad... You got the point! Abstract images don't have to be unintelligible. Even everyday travel scenes can be made more abstract in interesting ways.

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Justin Mueller replied:

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

“… which leaves space for viewer imaginations to fill.” your wife's comment is exactly what abstract art is for me, my mom was an abstract artist and my home is full of her work. Observers always asked her what did they mean...

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Dave Powell replied:

Comment posted: 11/08/2023

Thanks Justin! I'm curious about how your mom liked to answer that. There are so many possibilities: * More important is what it means to you. * What do you see in it? * Sometimes "meaning" is more a feeling. What do you feel? * Close you eyes, then open them onto the art, and what hits you first? * Abstract art is often a "construction." How do you think I created this? Or... something else!!

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