Abstract thoughts on abstract photography

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Built on shaky foundations

In my earlier photographic period, I’d often made the mistake of thinking abstract photography was just a catch-all bucket for images that didn’t fit anywhere else; I even had a folder for that kind of thing called ‘Random’. From time to time, during my many photographic excursions, I’d find my eye deviated from the ‘objective’ – not that I had one. Admittedly, at that point, I’d mix shooting with an objective – say wildlife, or street, or architecture – with sessions where I’d just go for a walk with camera in hand and shoot anything that appealed. It was during one of those sessions that I started to be drawn towards arrangements of objects that were visually appealing for reasons I couldn’t understand or put into objective terms; there wasn’t a real subject per se; sometimes, I just found the whole scene/ frame appealing. ‘Click!’ went the shutter, and one more image got consigned to the ‘Random’ folder.

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The barrier

Those of you who get image updates via the app or follow my flickr stream will probably have noted me uploading increasing numbers of images that are nothing more than pure light, colour (and sometimes not even that) and geometry; the subject or object being photographed isn’t instantly identifiable. In fact, the subject is frequently not identifiable at all, no matter how long you stare at the image. Yet somehow, these images ‘work’. You might even have wondered if I’d offer them in a future print sale (I hope). The question I’d like to address today is why.

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Blank canvas awaiting an idea

I am not a fan of abstraction for the sake of abstraction: there are times when photographers try to ‘force’ a new perspective out of an old (usually iconic) subject, and in doing so, either get so close or such a strange perspective that the object is no longer identifiable. To me, this almost defeats the purpose of taking a photograph of that object at all: imagine going to the Eiffel Tower and doing a macrophotograph of one of the rivets – without caption or context, no viewer would know what they were looking at, much less that it was part of a famous landmark. I suppose in this situation, one would want a photograph of the tower from some other vantage than is usually seen; however, in trying too hard, the image becomes a failure. (It would of course be completely different if you were doing it as part of a study on say, steel textures.)

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Urban tribute to Vienetta

Let’s suppose you are drawn to a well-executed abstract. Why? Chiefly, I think it’s because it’s the complete opposite of what the name implies: some degree of randomness and lack of control. The fact that there are no clearly identifiable subjects at all makes everything reduce to its constituent geometry. Then, beyond the shapes of the objects involved, there is also the effect of light creating additional geometry in the scene, be it in the form or shadow or emphasis of texture (which I suppose is also shadow on a micro-scale, really). Finally, we have color. That’s about it – assuming you still can’t identify the subject, or the subject itself isn’t that interesting. Abstract images created in this vein are nothing more than pure composition.

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The purity of distilling composition without the distraction of subject allows the photographer to control precisely all aspects of composition, adjusting the edges of the frame for the effects of light and color where necessary (different colors, areas and brightnesses have what I like to think of as corresponding ‘visual weights’; you need to take these into account when trying to create a balanced composition). Put it this way: if you viewed a Rothko in isolation, you’d be able to appreciate the geometry, form and color; but if the Rothko had a naked [insert person of fantasy here] superimposed in front of it, I bet you wouldn’t notice that it was a Rothko at all. Or had geometry. Or color, for that matter. This is a prime example of the subject distracting from the composition.

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Not being a student of art history – or art – at all, I suspect a lot of modernist and postmodernist painters actually had something like this in mind: they wanted nothing more than to decompose the world down into purity of composition. The Impressionist movement may well have been the start of this, even if the Impressionists themselves didn’t actively think about it in this way – after all, the name implies that the artwork has to impart the feeling of being there rather than the full reality*. Impressionism in photography only works so far (I’ve tried it on a couple of occasions) mainly because there are limits to what you can do in most situations without resorting to postprocessing filters or defocus; most of it involves reflection, water and perhaps out-of-focus foreground objects running interference.

*It could also have been the consequence of myopia and lack of spectacles; I’m pretty blind when I don’t wear my glasses and sometimes walk around without them to try visualizing the world in Impressionist terms. Warning: don’t try this when driving. That white blob may well turn out to be a motorcycle, and closer than you think.

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Torsion

I actually think the opposite works for photography: having everything in focus removes all of the visual cues afforded by depth of field and perspective; further removing identifiability of the subjects adds to this by not allowing the viewer to find any visual anchors to relate the rest of the frame to. It’s actually quite an interesting exercise, and much more difficult than you’d think at first: resorting to telephotos for compression and isolation means that your composition has to be relatively planar or distant; you won’t be able to obtain sufficient depth of field otherwise. On the other hand, if you use a wide lens, then you’re almost certainly going to get something else unintended in the frame which would result in a breakdown of the abstraction. This in turn limits your perspectives, and your possible angles; I find myself enjoying the challenge immensely.

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Projection

More than ever, heavily directional light is your friend: a scene with shadows will look completely different from one without, and if the shadows are hard enough, the barrier between hard, permanent reality and the ephemeral breaks down somewhat. More than that, abstraction allows us to distill our interpretation of a concept or feeling into its purest visual form; these individual images could even be used as elements in other images to express a more complex idea. These are perhaps the strongest of all abstract images, and the most difficult to create; arguably even more challenging than ‘normal’ images: one has to be capable of first translating an idea into a visual, then either creating a suitably matching scene, or being able to find and isolate it in the real world – neither of which is easy. The former requires a degree of creativity that goes beyond most people; the latter constant observation. (And of course the ability to shoot anything and everything doesn’t do any harm, either.) I’m inclined to think that understanding the rationale behind such images and having the ability to create them would thus inevitably lead to stronger ‘normal’ images – though I do wonder if it’s possible to pack too much into a single frame. So next time you see me post an abstract image: pause and think, is there an idea here? If not, I’ve got to head back to the drawing board. MT

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Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.

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Comments

  1. Wow, I really like the shots that use reflections. They look really interesting and made me do a double take. I enjoy it when I have to ‘work hard’ to understand an image.

  2. Loved your article and share of thoughts on the topic of Abstract. I was dealing with it myself this last December holiday, when walking long the beach when nature has just created all these amazing arranged shapes. Abstract shapes! your abstract images are beautiful.

  3. These are some wonderful abstract shots ming, great work. Looking forward to seeing some more.
    rick.

  4. To the assertion that “if you viewed a Rothko [painting] in isolation, you’d be able to appreciate the geometry, form and color,” I say you have two strikes there : at least for the works he’s most famous for, there was the absence of the first two –only color! (-;

    Elsewhere I just left you a note about how some of your pleasing photos remind me of the photorealist Richard Estes; among the set here, obviously, it is the car-reflections one. Cf. i.p. “Broad Street” (2003) :
    http://www.artnet.com/usernet/awc/awc_workdetail.asp?aid=139829&gid=139829&cid=15766&wid=425966197&page=15

    And for a fun time with what one might more narrowly call “geometric abstracts”, see Gianni Galassi’s splendid set of “Black & Blue” and “Square” images (starkly blackened shadows + deepened blue sky + whitened concrete, often –not exclusively)! (He’s a big fan of *always* having a camera, and has like the E-M5, G15, among several others.)
    giannigalassi.typepad.com/photos/square/

    (-;

  5. Very nice work Ming! A little off topic perhaps but what 28mm lens do you favor most with your D800E? 24mm? Thank you.

    • Errr…24mm isn’t 28mm. There’s quite a large difference in the angle of view.

      I either use the 28/1.8 G or Zeiss 2/28 Distagon, depending on whether I’m shooting documentary or static studio setup.

  6. Speaking personally I love abstractions and distortions in my own work, but I don’t really analyze them. An image just catches my eye and I make the photo. Then I see what I can make of it with a little post processing to accentuate the image.

    I like your work. here are links to several samples of mine. Some more abstract, some less so. All based on architecture and architectural details. Keep up the good work and your blog.

    Office life

    Clouds in the sky, clouds in the glass

    Waves

    Convergent

    Modern Art

    Hong Kong - Old and new 2

    Abstract mechanical

    Stadel in Melbourne

    Cranes on the skyline

    Triangular abstraction

    • Good stuff, Peter –I looked (so far) at 2nd, 4th, 6th. (4th reminds me of G.Galassi’s shots.)
      For “Clouds in the sky, clouds in the glass”, you might have a neat crop from just the “in the glass” half, which by eliminating the realistic part (pure sky, undistorted) can accentuate the geometry of the clouds assembled in those Mondrian-like blocks, complemented by the non-sky blocks (I’m thinking of a vertical crop that includes several of the non-sky blocks).

  7. NeutraL-GreY says:

    I can relate to the notion of being blind without corrective spectacles. When I do walk around without correction I cant see any details, only the general shape. I find that it is an interesting exercise to try and imagine photos in this state (although it is potentially dangerous).

  8. Hi Ming,

    would’nt call your set here neccesarily abstract. For me the wording minimal fits much better here. There leaks to much reality into the photos. One can rather easy easiliy recognize what it is (car, window, sidewalls auf a building, water surface, welding seam…) and you can’t manipulate the photo like a painter can do with a painting to seperate the painting from reality.
    That leaves a lot of possibilities to get minimal composition and rare occasions for “true” abstractions (“true” is a difficult wording here, but guess you know how to take it).

    By the way. I like the second pic, the welding seam. This is a very nice minimal composition. Yet it is very easy to recognize it for what is is.

    Minimalism is is something I really like and enjoy and it is a very important approach for me in my own photography. And it is the natural way for photographers: Finding the frame and leave out everything what one considers as disturbing. Somehow the essesence of photographer (in my opinion).

    cheers
    Stefan

    • Not quite sure I agree with the definition – minimalism to me is paring away as much as you can but still retaining the essence of identifiability of the the subject. Abstracts may also be minimal, but not all minimalist images are abstract…intention, perhaps is the difference? Or as mentioned by Jim in another comment, the ability to rotate/ present in any orientation and still have the image ‘work’?

      • Most thoughts on abstract works (not limited to photography or artworks, or even writing) still seem very much based or anchored on principles of design or art. Meaning, you still see an idea, a graphic design principle, composition principle, etc.
        Wouldnt a purely abstract work, or rather, is it possible that a purely abstract work be devoid of the shackles of the trained mind?

        If it were possible to empty our mind of our training, education, life lessons, experience, would not a square blank white canvas then be classified as abstract? As in being to see or experience new things in that blank canvas?
        Just wondering…

        • I think it probably would count as abstract. The question is though – short of chemical or trauma-induced amnesia – how would you blank your mind? And if you did, you wouldn’t remember that the purpose of the blanking was to create art, which in itself is a kind of structured bias of purpose…

          One of the reasons why I’m all for giving a camera to my (eventual) children as soon as they can hold one.

          • Perhaps I did not mean the blanking of my mind, just my preconceived notions, training, etc. It somehow seems unattainable, the closest example would be the 3 year old child who seems to be in a whole new world of their own when you catch them just staring into the sky…
            Somehow the notion wouldnt work with an adult, that person would come across as ‘duh’… no insult meant.
            Who knows, maybe that child staring at the sky, just might also be going ‘duh’?
            One day science might be able to prove my hypothesis that an adult that is able to mentally remove preconceived notions and training would start thinking in whole new ways. :-)
            As for the child, I think it will still be going ‘duh’ or ‘whee!’, since biologically it is still developing the capacity for higher rational thought.
            Then again, it just might be that child’s abstract thinking (it has to be mainly abstract, since higher rational thinking is just starting to develop) that we are after here and in our art.

            • Yes, your camera toting 2 yr old just might prove my final hypothesis above in stunning medium format. :-)

              • Haha, I don’t know about that. Unless somebody makes a weatherproof, ultra-tough medium format camera…

                At least it’ll be so large they won’t be able to eat it, I suppose.

            • I think we’re able to do it – that’s what creatives do, by definition (at least the good ones) – but to what extent, I’m not sure. If we can’t work outside preconceived training etc. then we’d never be able to produce work that’s any different from what came before.

      • Hi Ming,

        intention can’t be the difference in my opinion. The obersever never knows your intention. The photos must stand for itself.
        If one is a talented persuader the oberserver believes anything one claims and pays big money :o)

        What I find interesting from your “Abstracts may also be minimal, but not all minimalist images are abstract” is that the opposite holds true as well. Might this mean: Minimal is never Abstract ?

        cheers
        Stefan

        • I think my brain just went pop. Deep breath:

          Minimalism is the removal of all excess to distill something down to its core essence. If only the essence remains, and that’s an identifiable part of the original whole, it isn’t abstract.

          • Ah, but what if the removal goes beyond that so that only the underlying idea or gesture or emotion of the original is left? That is, we don’t know it’s a picture of a person or the Eiffel Tower anymore but the feeling of the original image is still conveyed? To me, that’s the essence of abstraction, and that’s how the technical fields as well as many abstract artists have practiced their art.

            One example: Webern’s opus 10, 5 pieces for orchestra are, one could argue, highly desiccated versions of the gargantuan, overwrought Romantic symphonies that came before him. I think Rothko works in similar ways, too. Perhaps abstraction in photography is finding those essential lines and shapes that are expressive and getting rid of everything else, even if it doesn’t look like reality anymore.

  9. For me (may not be useful or relevant for others) there is a difference between your graphic images where you can recognize the subject but the image is really about the lines, shapes, etc and the relationship among/between them, and an Abstract image in which the content is less definable. To be a pure abstract, the image can be rotated in any position and still hold together. Which orientation to choose is strictly the artist’s preference. Again, this may not make sense for anyone else, but it works for me.

  10. First pic like some one create painting….

  11. Great photos and text–as always!

  12. Abstract is such a broad term I thought I’d look up its meaning. Wikipedia gives a useful article on the term Abstraction that I thought might be useful here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abstraction An excerpt from this on Abstraction in Art “it refers to art unconcerned with the literal depiction of things from the visible world—it can, however, refer to an object or image which has been distilled from the real world” Still pretty broad though, there’s going to be as many interpretations of exactly what this means as there are fingers on all photographers.

    So if normal photos are specific and concrete, then are abstracts the summation of these, like Gursky’s Rhein, images that try to find a commonality that we can all relate to? A snapshot of the superset?

    My own abstracts are of the long exposure fuzzy type. They are a deliberate attempts at capturing movement rather than static subjects. Since they only have loose subjects, framing and even focus, their probably as far away from the constraints of normal photography as you can get but are still photos.

    Hmmmm… thanks for the thought provocation again!

  13. Ming, I enjoyed this series. I have been doing a lot of this kind of photography recently, often with extremely boosted contrast and color. My recently published “Hungry Fish” won picture of the week this week at Nikongear. We see these things, and while there might not be a scene in the conventional sense, there is still something interesting and even beautiful.

  14. great images, specially i loved that nameless watery (green-bluish) one.

    I am also a wanderer of fine-art or abstract imagery. A few days back, i was thinking about taking a short course on fine-art for the academic patterns & processes with the plan to apply those in my photography. But, i have to satisfy myself with some Wikipedia-based knowledge on impressionism, expressionism and japonism :(
    To me, any image that ignite our emotion is a piece of art. That emotion can be lust, fear, depression, joy, love or any other else. Now, any art that ignores its inside-objects for individual identity will be a piece of fine art for me.
    Though, i don’t know yet if there is any difference between fine-art or abstract photography or not.

  15. These are great images. Sometimes I remember that a photograph is just a recording of the effect of the last scattering surface of several photons – we’re actually photographing light, not things. But my day job is building astronomical instruments so that might skew my attitude a bit.

    • No, you’re bang on: no light, no images. :)

    • But without things to refract, diffract, reflect, absorb or transmit the photons, there is no image. So I think it’s safe to say we are photographing things. Photons don’t just act like that by themselves. Semantics perhaps, but we’re just blurring [confusing?] the difference between recording/capture and photography.

      I only say this as we don’t want to go down the Kantian route and start talking about things-in-themselves as opposed to things as we find them. The philosophic equivalent of a dog chasing its own tail [though, all philosophy may just be precisely that].
      Ah! Reminds me: one of my best anecdotes — I’m talking all time top three material — two intellectuals were debating how they could be sure reality as sensed wasn’t all just a trick played on them by a master illusionist [the Devil, or something, whatever]. One was philosophically subscribed to the proposition that reality as we find it isn’t real, it could well all be dream, a simulation, who knows, yada yada… He spoke at length and laid out his theory in intricate detail on why we don’t experience what we think we do, and then he turned to his opponent, and invited him to respond. His opponent walked over to a stone and kicked it.

      • Technically we are recording the reflected photons, but I get your point.

        REality: isn’t that The Matrix? Nobody can prove either way. But people still try.

        • Tom Liles says:

          Yes, as I say: the difference between recording/capture and photography. We record the photons. But only because we photograph things. Photography is performative, we “see” [sense] something, we capture it. I might even add in, we then present it. Photography.
          I know where the photo in photography comes from. Just as what the graphy points to. The compound is more than the sum of its literal parts.

          The fascinating photos we often see in the news of distant galaxies or star clouds, etc., many of them weren’t taken optically. Anand knows this better than any of us, I’m sure.
          [though radio waves, etc., are photons, too, of course]

          I’ll remember that thing about the pigeons someday MT, promise you :)
          I need to rewatch the film to prime it in my memory: it’s the most annoying thing –> at one time THE MATRIX [and GLADIATOR] seemed like the most ubiquitous films on television. Like ten a penny. Like STOP SHOWING THE MATRIX AND GLADIATOR EVERY FRIDAY NIGHT FOR GOD’S SAKE! level repeated. So just when I need THE MATRIX to roll around the most, it NEVER gets in the scheduling. Haha.

          • I get around that by having a DVD set…it’s an awesome film, both for cinematography and execution, but even more so for the idea. That, and inception.

            • Tom Liles says:

              I have both the Blurays and DVDs…

              Somewhere!

              [probably at the bottom of over 12 removals boxes worth of cinema that I own :) ]

              • Tom Liles says:

                P/S INCEPTION was great, and especially so for anyone who’s ever read any Jung. A good film for this topic, perhaps.

                On a Nolan bent, I’ve a massive soft spot for THE PRESTIGE. The film itself a metaphor for film making; reminds everyone of the much slept on genius of Nicola Tesla; and is an investigation into what you see vs. what you think you see. And more. Love it.

                • David Babsky says:

                  ..Then, of course, there’s the recently-released “Now You See Me” ..not “Matrix” mind-opening, but certainly an entertaining “..investigation into what you see vs. what you think you see..”

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    Thanks for that one, David. Wasn’t up on NOW YOU SEE ME—this is how far I’ve fallen behind with films. I did like Louis Leterrier’s UNLEASHED (released as DANNY THE DOG in some territories) but the rest of his output not so much.

                    Not abstract, not illusory, but well good: I rewatched Ken Loach’s KES last night. Mmm. It was nice to hear again thick northern accents I grew up amongst [and had myself, until I came out to Tokyo]. Enjoy the patois. What you heard versus what you thought you heard :)

                    “Ar, gi yover ah doiy mi sen,” etc.

                    Abstract to some!

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Illusions or reality…

        – Sum, ergo sum, said the bee.

        Lawrence van der Post in one of his books quotes a Bushman – now we would say one of the San people :
        – There is a dream dreaming us, he says.

  16. Franco Morante (Adelaide, South Australia) says:

    Loving these images from your ‘Random’ folder Ming.

  17. HomoSapiensWannaBe says:

    Thought provoking, Ming. Here’s what it provoked in me: Why does an abstract image have to have any idea at all? Is the need for an “idea” the need to project a rational and familiar pattern or form over something that is… abstract, foreign, alien, unfamiliar, etc.., in order to contain and “tame” it? Can’t we have an emotional response to visual stimulation without having a name for it?

    • It doesn’t, other than what is required for the image to qualify as abstract – the contents being not immediately identifiable.

      Yes, we can have a simple response to visual stimuli: do you like it, or not? Ultimately I don’t think it’s anything more than that.

  18. I am a big fan of what I call realistic abstracts. Many of your examples fall into this “category”, being recognizable things photographed in some arrangement that has no particular subject (as you say) except the arrangement itself. Humans are pattern animals. We love them, recognize them intuitively, and react very positively to interesting ones. One of the capabilities that separate us from other creatures is that in order to “see” we don’t need motion. If you stay completely still (and are up wind), the wolf won’t see you, but a human will pick you up as a break in the pattern. It’s why ghillie suits work for snipers in natural environments, they blend with the pattern around them.

    I don’t think such abstracts divorce photography from reality, but employ it to show the forrest, not the trees, bushes, plants, people, and other animals that live there. And many times it’s a “big” picture of a fraction of the larger realm, like your 3rd image above, which is one of my absolute favorite of all your images. It represents repeating and contrasting patterns you can get lost in and which are a constantly new discovery each time you view it. In that sense it’s as open ended and imaginative as the very best “peopled” street shots.

    • Aha! Pattern recognition might be the key to all of this: “We love them, recognize them intuitively, and react very positively to interesting ones.”.

      Breaks in pattern work for subject isolation; think of it as inverse camouflage. But with abstracts, I think the pattern is so broken that it becomes a pattern in itself…

  19. The barrier – WOW

  20. Dear Ming, I found your lines very motivating – some very interesting points boiled down to those few concise paragraphs (a feat of abstraction in itself, congratulations). I often get stuck with what I think you call the idea of the picture in your last paragraph: I often ask myself why we make abstract pictures.

    It is fun and demanding just the way you describe it, plus I really love abstract art … composition is a great game. Additionally I tend to think that abstraction shifts the attention from the subject of a picture to the picture itself. Which is hard to do in a photograph because people will always tend to solve the riddle and find out what they are looking at (just because they know this is a photo and not a painting). I see abstract photography as an effort to ‘free’ the photo from the strings that tie it to reality.

    But the question is still here: Why abstract?

    • I don’t know the answer to that one myself. Perhaps because ultimately every image decomposes into nothing more than lines, shape and color; maybe abstract photography is the purest distillation of that. Or perhaps, due to psychology – like everything else – there are just some thing that appeal at a subconscious level, and this is one of them?

  21. Hello,
    I like many of your abstract photographs as well and myself often take photographs that fit this category label. Nevertheless, I do not like the designation “abstract photograph” very much – even though it is widely used. According to my understanding, abstract art is independent from the “real world”. In my opinion, a photograph can therefore not be abstract, but it can look like abstract paintings. This is of course just semantics and should not distract from the fact that your compositions are appealing and beautiful!
    Florian.

    • Thanks Florian. I don’t like the designation either, because it implies a lack of focus – when in fact I think you have to think very, very hard in order to make an image divorced enough from reality that it isn’t immediately obvious what it is. I couldn’t think of a better/ more obvious name though – what would you call it instead?

      • For me, the “real thing” that was the source of an “abstract composition” is always important and I think of my photographs in terms of these “real” subjects. For example, I photograph reflections on cars that I label “carcolors”, patterns and geometric compositions formed by light & shadow (another label I use) or reflections of all kinds (I also have many “water” photographs that could fit this category, but I may look for something more interesting in the future).
        In my opinion, such “abstract” photographs taken in the man-made environment resemble what is termed “intimiate landscapes” in nature photography. As I understand, thist is a kind of photograph between broad vistas and macro shots that involves a more intimate interaction with the subject – which may be another description of the difficulty in creating an interesting image that you describe. In this respect, I think these photographs could be called “intimate cityscapes”, but for me I have not been searching for a term that would encompass all the different photography subjects.

  22. These are some of my favorite images. I really learned a lot from the last one when you posted it. Best Wishes – Eric

  23. very heavy topic. very well thought out. Now that Ming has mentioned it, I’ve been noticing more pictures that fit into that abstra genre. It is too heavy at the moment, I’ll have to re-read (probably a few times more after) after a good nights sleep.

    The wonderful thing about abstract art / photography is that it really requires the viewer to contemplate and reflect on their own thoughts and perceptions and look at the elements presented.

    • Take your time. There are many things I like about abstracts: firstly, the possibility for every individual to see what they want in it, and therefore for the image to have the capacity to satisfy a very wide audience; secondly, the neutrality of it all; but above everything, the possibility for infinite variation!

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