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In sunshine and in rain

I am continuing my project on female photographers influenced by abstract expressionism in the Arts with the Croatian photographer Olga Karlovac. She takes photos of people walking in the streets of her city, often in the rain and in the dark, using motion blur to distort shapes and produce elongated silhouettes. The resulting images are impressionistic, dark and blurry and I am really fascinated by them (click here for a video of a recent exhibition of her work).

I decided to have a play and see whether I could replicate her approach. I had a free afternoon and headed to a familiar location - Torquay seafront. I sat on a bench and spent time watching the movement of the people as they walked along the promenade overlooking the beach. I was struck by the diversity in age and nationality - snatches of different languages as they passed. Some were strolling, others jogging, toddling or riding on bikes and scooters. I wanted to capture this diversity, and also the light, joyful holiday atmosphere.

So, the first challenge was that it was a bright sunny day, very different to the scenarios chosen by Olga! But I played around with shutter speeds and added a variable neutral density filter and found I was able to control the amount of blur, adding a small element of intentional camera movement (ICM). A young lad kicking a football was an ideal subject to try things out:

The technique I used gave a feeling of energy to the images. I continued with a range of people, aiming my camera at people's feet because of my ethical dilemmas with street photography (see my post on Playing with Street Photography)

I was successful in that I caught blurry images, some silhouettes and there is some sense of movement. I was not satisfied that I had achieved the diversity that I was observing, or the capturing of fleeting moments a la Olga. I realised that Olga captures her images while she herself is in motion, either walking or travelling in a vehicle, and I had been static. People had passed me by, rather than me walking with them.

Having undergone this critique of my images and done further research on Olga's work, I took the opportunity of a rainy day to try again. This time I went to my local town centre and walked around while photographing (very conscious of my camera getting wet in the process!). Shooting in the rain was a new experience, and I was surprised how different it was to the shoot in Torquay. The streets were nearly empty. People scurried by, huddled up against the rain, no conversation, very subdued. And so the atmosphere that I captured was quite different. As you can see from the photos below, I got very mixed results - here is a selection of the more 'successful' images.

The rain added a luminosity to the scene, with the reflections from the pavements. Using black and white emphasised the shapes and the contrast. There is more dynamism and energy as I was moving too.

Although I had taken them in monochrome, because they were raw images Lightroom converted them to colour when I uploaded them. Initially cross that I would have to change them back again to fit in with Olga's style, I found myself preferring the colour images! The splashes of colour give a real 'pop' and the rain seems more prominent:

and thank you to this person for wearing pink! I am really pleased with this one. The watery effect, the splash of colour, the spotty umbrella, the blue shopping bag, all contribute to give a lovely tonal range to the image overall. For me, it really reflects the feelings of a walk in the rain.

Reviewing my images lead me back to an earlier discussion on what is abstract photography? Using abstraction in photography changes the subject and/or setting in the image so that they differ from how they appear in reality. All of the seven elements - shape, form. colour, line, pattern, texture and space - still apply (see Lee Aspland’s website for more info), but they are distorted and altered to make the image surreal. As such, abstract photography rejects traditional artistic realism and has a focus on spontaneity and improvisation. Its images aim to evoke feelings, often they do not contain the usual frames of reference. This leads many viewers to criticise them because they can't work out what they represent or what it is about.

So, it is interesting to consider Olga's work with this in mind. In the majority of her images it is possible to identify the subject, usually people, and the setting, often in the street. They are impressionistic, yes, but abstract? Olga encourages us to recognise the "familiar in the vaguely there".

I think it can potentially be helpful to think of abstraction as a process, as a continuum, from, for example, Fanny Sanin's blocks of colour, Elaine de Kooning's gestural approach, such as The Bull (1959) to the impressionists where there was no intention to create a totally realistic image. Imagine a console in a recording studio with all those sliders. In abstraction, each of the 7 elements is on a slider, for example black and white to full colour, high key to low key for contrast. I guess what I am doing is playing along this continuum. Each photographer has the sliders set in a different combination and through this project I am learning how to take more risks, to adjust and play with these 7 elements to create the effects that particularly resonate with my emotions during a photoshoot.

Here are two examples where I have played with movement and shutter speed to alter the reality of these street scenes, capturing an the impression of the empty cafes in the rain, but not distorting the reality so much that it is not possible to tell what it is. The frame is full of the subject of the image. I like the sharper angles and lines that have emerged, and again the splash of colour is a joy:

Whereas in these two images I have focussed more on the light and patterns on the pavement, with just a fleeting glimpse of some feet. The colour palette is much more muted, and the subject of the image, the walker, is in the margins. This is for me much more abstract.

Sometimes it is possible to create an abstract image from a section of a larger photograph, as in this example:

To come back to Olga, possibly this image gets the closest to what I set out to achieve. It has the distorted silhouette, the wonderful light on the rainy surface, a sense of movement, and enough mystery to make it intriguing. As Georgia O'Keeffe notes: "It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we can get at the real meaning of things."

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