Beyond Landscapes: Natural Forms and Abstract Expressionist Painting

Abstract art in the 20th Century, especially Abstract Expressionism as it emerged from Surrealism in the 1940s in New York, has enabled us to appreciate much more than landscapes—scenic views from a distance—in the biophysical world. Much of my work in geological photography derives from these insights, so that I actively look for formal compositions in the mineral and botanical world, not worrying about conveying a sense of place or even a sense of what an object happens to be. It turns out these were the same considerations that abstract expressionist painters were making in the early 1940s, as they separated themselves from figurative representation.

Knowing this, I attended a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art February 2, Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera, featuring over 50 works, mostly large scale, from the 1940s to the present. After reading about many of these paintings, I had forgotten how big so many of them were. Standing before them they envelope your field of vision. Since I’ve known and loved them for a long time, they’ve certainly affected what I look for in both geological and botanical photography (as well as my photography of scrap metal, see

Have a look at the drip painting by Jackson Pollock that was part of this exhibition, the famous Autumn Rhythm from 1950:


And here’s a closeup of part of it:


Notice the sense of layering of turbulent lines and colors from the very controlled pallet he uses. Notice the depth, with the various sizes of drip-dots that seem to go far into the background; and notice how the overall chaos of swirls and splotches coalesces into an exciting whole that expresses a vibratory power, hardly captured by the simple word “rhythm,” yet unmistakably a very complex rhythm. Pollock maintained that he felt the force of Nature coming through him as he painted, which he did from his gut, completely intuitively.

Some years ago, I came across a patch of fungal growth near the seaside on Martha’s Vineyard. I immediately recognized it as the most interesting thing I had seen on the Island and created a number of photographs of it. In post-production, I replaced the black background with an undulating copper gradient, so that the bone-white fungus stood out, along with some spider-like green plants. I recognized that there was a strong analogy between its chaotic profusion of form and that of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. My informal title for it, therefore, was “Jackson Pollock Was a Realist.”

Branching Fungus


But if Pollock was the most radically original of the Abstract Expressionists, he had colleagues that went in different directions, some of them using irregular and raggedy geometric forms. Here is an example by Joan Snyder, Smashed Strokes Hope (1971).  The Met’s commentary speaks of Snyder’s rebellion against the regularity of a grid, leading to a feminist paean to promiscuity and the exuberance of pleasure. 


But when similar dynamic tensions are found between order and irregularity in nature, we realize that we can project any human aspiration onto these abstract forms. Even though my example below is quite different in shape, density, and of course, color from Snyder’s painting, the same principle of tension between regularity and irregularity applies. This is a 100-million-year-old mud mosaic pattern from Clayton Lake State Park in Eastern New Mexico:


Perhaps an excerpt from the Snyder painting will make the analogy clearer:


Now according to Martica Sawin in her book Surrealists in Exile (1995), both the Surrealists who came to this country to escape World War II, and our home-grown Abstract Expressionists, were inspired by rock formations. Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning were famously impressed by the red rocks around Sedona, Arizona, and Ernst found inspiration for his painting in them.

In the Metropolitan’s show, one Abstract Expressionist painting comes quite close to a literal convoluted rock surface, except that this isn’t exactly a painting. Hungarian artist Judit Reidl (b. 1923) salvaged and cleaned up the layers of rejected canvases that she had used to cover the floor of her studio, then presented them as  “found” painting, dated 1959–1964, and which she named Guano (Menhir). The process brought her ironically close to a geological composition:  its “orogeny” was not via artistic intention, but rather through the accumulation of discarded material. The artistic act was her declaration that her familiar functional object was a “found” painting. This is very close to what we do in geological photography. She humorously called it Guano, since it amounts to her artist “droppings” while working, but then put (Menhir) in parentheses because, once erected as an art work, it resembled a vertically standing rough rock from (prehistoric) megalithic times.


Here’s a detail that reveals its geomorphic patterning:


Any number of my “miniscapes” offer close analogies to this found sculptural “painting.” Here’s one example, though in a sparser rhythm, from the rock beach at Roche’s Point, County Cork, Ireland:15.MetropolisAfterHours.Roche'sPoint.Ire.MR.

And here’s another, an example of the “boxwork” in Wind Cave, South Dakota:


Cloughmore, Achill Island, County Mayo Coastline

I returned to Ireland last summer (2018) to see some of the things I missed in my grand tour of the the island the previous summer. The place is virtually inexhaustible, however. I was planning to see Connemara National Park, after spending the night in a small town in County Mayo, but flipping through my Rough Guide to Ireland, I discovered Achill Island, a fabulous collection of unspoiled beaches, with some spectacular rocks, a mountain you can drive up to catch the view, and a Deserted Village from the days of the famine. This drone video is from our first stop, at Cloughmore, due south from the short bridge that links the island to the mainland. I was struck by a grassy meadow I saw on a small island in the bay called Achillbeg, that had four sheep on it. I had no idea how they got there. The drone went over for a closer look. The large Clew bay is in the background. Afterwards, the drone examined a small rocky cove.

Of Processing and Overprocessing

As I demonstrated in my last post, we photographers are always processing our images to narrow the gap between what our sensors record and how we envision the subjects of our photographs. This may or may not be what we actually saw—if we remember it!

There are many third party applications that help this along—third party because the photographer is the first party and Photoshop is the second (with Lightroom in between for the first edit). One of the most powerful ones to enter the market recently is Aurora, which enhances the color range and detail of images. It offers itself as a High Dynamic Range (HDR) processor, so it does in one step what had taken 3 or more exposures sandwiched together in Photoshop, to do beforehand—obviously a time-consuming process. It adds some pazzazz to most images.

However, one must also be careful not to overuse it, since it can also make a photograph look unnatural. Here is an example where this type of processing was absolutely necessary, but where the very processing that saved this image also made it look artificial in one particular area. So it was necessary to walk the image back to the original in that area by combining the processed image with the original image in separate layers, then painting in the layer of the original image to make a final image, more powerful than the original, but equally believable. Here are the stages:

  1. The original image, taken from a helicopter above the island of Molokai in Hawaii. Conditions are less than idea: (a) one is constantly moving, (b) shooting through a clear but curved plastic bubble window, and (c) contending with a rotor that rotates too fast to see, but which the necessarily fast shutter stops, so that it blocks parts of the scene. Here is the original photo, as problems are obvious. There’s a reflection in the upper right and a smaller one just right and above the center; there’s an overall dullness, much of it due to the mist.
  2. I cropped the image to remove the upper right reflection and cloned the smaller one out. Then I boosted the color dynamic range, adding some brightness and saturation, and I also enhanced the structure a bit, to give a better sense of detail to the trees, sand, surf and water. Here was the better, but there’s a problem: the clouds in the upper left show sharp divisions between tonal areas. The border areas between darker gray and light gray tend to be jagged, betraying some overprocessing. To remedy this, I had to layer this image over the original one and enlarge the original so that the processed image superimposed exactly over the original one one (by reducing the opacity of the layer on top and changing it size until it overlay perfectly). Then, using a layer mask, I painted out the jagged clouds and the background rock wall on the left, to let those of the original image show through. Then I flattened the whole thing to make a realistic composite that was far more powerful than the original: fact, by doing this, the misty area on the left helps set off the clear, saturated jungle treetops, thus making the composition stronger—a double win for this image. The irony is that I only noticed the problem on the third round of the final revisions. On the first round I concentrated on textual errors; on the second I corrected the brightness of several images that were two dark (I had to calibrate my monitors!); and then on the third, when I thought everything would be fine, I noticed the jagged clouds and made this (hopefully) final correction.

I keep thinking of novelist Henry James’ observation that “genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains.” So it’s not a matter of being brilliant—so many people are smarter than I am. It’s just a matter of going to all that trouble to make something perfect. It’s that (!) easy!

Photo Post Production: Fiction “Truer” than Fact

People often ask of photographer who produce eye-popping landscapes, “Did it really look like this?”

The implication is that the photographer added some color intensity (saturation) and maybe cleaned up the scene a bit, so that it now looks closer to a movie set than something the viewer has actually scene in reality.

And it’s true, that we sometimes (often?) crank up the color a bit. But more pertinent to the art of photography (rather than the impact of a landscape, though they may overlap) is the treatment of nature in black and white.

Of course, everyone thinks of Ansel Adams on this subject, with his classic images of Yosemite National Park taken in the 40s, 50s and 60s of the last century with a large-format view camera in black and white. He was a supreme darkroom technician, enabling him to turn visible, 3-D, nature in color into compelling, eternal black and white statements of the sublimity and balance of the natural world. He wrote a famous book on “The Negative,” inspired generations of photo artists of nature, and was, in the 1960s, the person most responsible for photography’s acceptance into the world of upscale fine art.

Black and white landscapes remain a challenging and popular art form, though it has certainly lost ground to color in recent decades. However, in the domain of mostly abstract miniscapes, as illustrated in Earthforms, black and white is usually the medium of preference, often offering more powerful versions than ones in color of the same image.

One major reason for this is because the spatially limited subjects of miniscapes often don’t include much color variety. The blue of the sky is excluded, as is most or all vegetation. The rock or mud may not contain much  color. This situation gives us the opportunity to remove an element of dullness and intensify contrast and structure in the image. Mud mosaics provide a perfect example.

Here is the photo as originally taken of the mud mosaic from Cathedral Wash included in the Earthforms collection: is not an uninteresting photograph, having many intriguing formal elements: the irregular shapes of the plaques, the corrugated textures including the sand, their illuminated edges set off by the harsh shadows between the plaques and created by the dried curls of the mud. But it only rises to the level of “interesting study” at this point.

Removing the color abstracts the image to a degree from its substance as mud and underscores the formal interplay among the above elements: that I’ve left the image slightly toned. But now the corrugations are more dramatic, the tonal contrasts have taken on a somewhat metallic aspect, further pulling the view away from the association with mud, and the jagged outlines stand out more.

But there is one more process I discovered to move the image closer to abstraction, away from the association with mud, and I found it quite by accident: turning the image upside-down., suddenly, what were concavities become convexities; the small rock at the center of the small plaque in the middle becomes a crater, giving it a lunar aspect. The light seems to be coming from the left in both cases, but we read it as hitting a bulge first, which then casts a shadow against the separated wall of the plaque. We know it’s mud, but there’s something bizarre about it, even astonishing that those oddly textured tumescences could have such irregular rings and spaces around them. (It even reminds me somewhat of Archile Gorky’s style of painting, with floating masses inside separated outlines). The reversal of relief perspective turns it from an image of parched dryness to one of fullness.

The image doesn’t quite match as anything one has seen before, yet as a photograph it had to have been there. The anomaly draws us in.

I’d be very interest to know what other people think of this image and my explanation.


cropped-coverbackground-cropped.jpgArt, science and progressive politics—why should they be separate domains? Serious art is a way of knowing the world: how to get along with others, what’s out there in the world, what to admire, what to be wary of—in short, how to life. Science explores the particulars, and politics is the endeavor to work with others to make life better—hopefully for most people! They’ve all been my passions since childhood, and this book  brings them all together. And today it is urgent that we bring them together: we need to act collectively to preserve what we can of the livability of this earth. As Gaia prophet, independent scientist James Lovelock notes,

Over half the Earth’s people live in cities, and they hardly ever see, feel or hear the natural world. Therefore our first duty if we are green should be to convince them  that the real world is the living Earth and that they and their city lives are part of it and wholly dependent on it for their existence.” (from The Vanishing Face of Gaia, 2006, p. 147)

Nature is not merely a place to go to relax and unwind: it is the very ground of our being. Our very survival absolutely depends on a myriad of systems functioning correctly and interconnedly. The Gaia concept is an attempt to embrace this entire enterprise, although its complexity is beyond our understanding. What we do know, however, is that we humans are damaging these systems with out waste products and food production, to that point that the Earth will support many fewer of us in the coming years.

Most people live very provincially, occupying a very small section of the Earth. Even committed travelers can never grasp anywhere near its entirety. Still, by offering a diverse enough selection of glances at Earth’s marvels, I hope to give the reader/viewer a sense of the diversity and magnificence of the Planet that supports our existence. The surface geology that I photograph are but the visual remnants and traces of unimaingatively long processes, including those that connect the deep composition of the Earth with its surface.

We all love landscapes. The great master painters and photographers have captured rare moments when the light, sky, and formations come together in a near mythological union. I hope some of my images in this book fall into this category. But I also wanted to share my discoveries on a much smaller scale: the compositions at hand and underfoot, which I call “miniscapes.” These are often the size of art works that might hang in a gallery, and many of them evoke familiar artistic styles, like Abstract Expressionism or Surrealism. The fashions for these styles have come and gone, and they’ve settled comfortably into the status of classics. To find similar formations in the natural world, however, is still a kind of revelation: they were obviously there all the time, from long before these styles became popular, and they’ll still be there. We might say that these styles are an acknowledgement of a certain kind of natural beauty, giving us as nature-lovers the capacity to appreciate other phenomena. It’s analogous to the conquest of dissonance in music: what one age hears as dissonant, a later age will experience as beautiful and evocative. So these artists, many of whom openly acknowledge the source of their inspiration in nature, return us to its direct contemplation. I’m thinking in particular of Jackson Pollack who considered himself a force of nature, and the French Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, who, we now know, was inspired by rocks on the coastline of Brittany, although for many years no one guessed that his “enigmatic objects” were actually drawn from reality.

So painters have enabled photographers to see more, and hopefully we photographers can help extend everyone’s vision,  increasing not only enjoyment, but appreciation for the natural world, which has taken so many thousands and millions of years to create its “compositions.” It’s this world that needs our committed and vigorous defense now, as the depredations of the industrial civilization that enables us to live in comforts unknown to our ancestors.