Looking Down


Where we place our attention determines what we see.

In normal, everyday life we’re often looking straight ahead, intent on what’s ahead and where we’re going next.

Occasionally, we look up – to tree tops, birds flying, cloud formations, blue skies and stormy skies. We might look down occasionally to examine a beautiful leaf or an insect.

When I was at a Miksang contemplative photography workshop in Boulder, Colorado we had an assignment to photograph concrete, that literally changed my view. Since then, I spend a lot of time looking down at the ground beneath my feet.

It’s one way to pause and see what’s right here, right now. I find accidental art – the random way things come together on the ground – as well as an ever-changing canvas of the seasons.

Here are a few things I’ve seen lately.

Try looking down today and see what you find.


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The Fun and Freedom of Abstract Photography

Brushes in car wash

Brushes in car wash

I’m a huge fan of abstract photography. It wasn’t always this way. At one time, I didn’t understand the appeal. But, then I went to an exhibit of the abstract expressionist painters from New York and something was piqued in me.

These images were not meant to be understood, but felt.

In this post, I’ll explain the term “abstract” and why this type of photography is fun and playful and can help us become better photographers. I’ll show examples of my own work, and point to resources for you to learn more.

What is abstract photography?

John Suler, in his book on Photographic Psychology (free online), says that a photograph is abstract when you ask yourself, “What is it?”

Ron Bigelow has written a three part series on abstract photography. In part one, he defines an abstract image as:

  • Not representing the subject in a literal way.
  • Communicating primarily through form, color, and curves rather than image detail.

An image with people and other subjects creates a conceptual (thought-based) experience. We immediately label or name what we see in the scene.

If the image evokes an emotional response, it may be because the scene has a particular meaning for us or we are reacting to the visual elements – color, lines, textures, patterns – at a subconscious level.

We create the meaning – either what it means to us or what we think the creator of the piece had in mind.

With abstract photography, these conceptual labels are not apparent and the viewing experience becomes very different, more visceral or perceptual. Not knowing “what it is” allows us to explore how the image makes us feel, without trying to figure it out.

Chair seat in laundromat

Chair seat in laundromat

Why Create Abstract Photography?

1. Gives us practice in recognizing the elements of visual design and in composing.

2. We can explore the emotional aspects of color, lines, shapes, and patterns.

3. Helps us to expand our perspectives and see in new ways.

4. Can help us get out of a photographic rut.

5. It’s fun and freeing.

Seeing in Abstract

Abstract images can be found just about anywhere. I see them on the ground, in textures and patterns, graffiti, rust and buildings, in the sky and in water.

Often, when we move in close, showing only part of a subject, we create an abstraction.

However, it’s not absolutely necessary to move in close. In the three images below, I used long shutter speeds and camera movement to create blur. This disguises the conceptual subject matter and emphasizes color and movement.

Thanks to Freeman Patterson and Andre Gallant for my introduction to these ideas.

abstract photography blur

The series of images below are a few of my favorites and show the wide variety of subject matter available for discovering abstract images.

Reflections in Glass

Reflections in Glass

color and shape

Color Blocks on a Wall / Envelopes on a Table

rust street sign

Back of Street Sign

spiral staircase ago

Spiral Staircase at Art Gallery of Ontario

Reflection in Car Window

Reflection in Car Window


Why not give abstract photography a try?


Another session of Going Abstract begins October 19th. It’s a fun, laid back introduction to abstract photography.

Learn more and register here.

More Resources
Brenda Gottsband is a master at abstractions from buildings. Take a look.

Abstract Photos Created by Repeating Everyday Household Items

My Flickr Set of Abstractions

Abstract Expression and Graffiti

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How an Ansel Adams Book Changed My Life


This is a re-write of a previous article. The story happened twenty-one years ago and I’m revisiting the Ansel Adams book now.

Finally. 1 p.m. My favourite time of the day. My two youngest were settled into their afternoon naps and the oldest was in school. I had an hour to myself before the late afternoon routine began.

I needed this time to recharge. Life with three young kids and a husband who travelled frequently was busy and exhausting. The days all seemed to run together. It was like I was on a ferris wheel ride that never ended – round and round we went, only stopping for much needed sleep.

Moving to a different country had lost its sense of adventure, leaving me feeling disconnected from family, friends, and even myself. I would wake each morning feeling numb. My life had no direction and purpose, other than caring for my family. Don’t get me wrong. I loved my family deeply and felt lucky to be able to stay home with them. But, something was missing.

My refuge came from this one hour time slot, curled up on the couch with a book of letters and images by photographer Ansel Adams, listening to the soothing piano music of George Winston, and sipping a cup of sweetly scented Early Grey tea.

I don’t even know how I came to have this book. I wasn’t into photography at the time, except to record my kids’ antics and our infrequent vacations. I kept scrupulous scrapbooks of our evolving life.

I did admire Adams’ wilderness photographs, but this book was about much more than photography. His wit, passion for life, and humanity shone through his letters to friends and family.

Adams had been groomed to be a classical musician, but a summer trip to Yosemite National Park sparked his passion for wilderness and photography. Although he loved music, he followed his instincts and became one of the premiere photographers in the country, with music as his hobby.

Adams was also a workshop teacher, writer, and environmental activist – but most of all, he was an extraordinary communicator through writing and photography. His photographs were not strict documents of wilderness. Through his deep presence in the field and his darkroom process, he was able to show not only what he saw but how he felt in wilderness – a deep sense of reverence and connection. His photographs were used as evidence in congressional hearings and were instrumental in the formation of many of the U.S. National Parks.

In a letter to his future wife, I felt as though Adams was speaking directly to me.

One cannot live on love alone – the soul hungers for expression and ceaselessly strives for an understanding of all that comprises the cosmos. The more of beauty in the mind, the more of peace in the spirit. Time is a definite and moving quantity – conserve it! The structure of life we build for ourselves determines the colour of our soul. Think more of yourself, realize your duty to yourself, and your duty to those who shall come after you, who shall shape their lives on your influence. Develop the sense of inner beauty and majesty of Nature. ~ Ansel Adams, Letters & Images

This quote, this book, sparked a longing in me to develop this sense of inner beauty. My first step was to visit Yosemite National Park, a place Adams loved and photographed extensively. Next step was to take a black and white darkroom photography course at the local art centre. And, the rest is history.

Transformation comes in unexpected places.

I recently finished reading the autobiography of neurologist Oliver Sacks, who sadly passed away just a few days ago. His life has inspired me to think about ways to restructure my life in the coming year.

What’s been inspiring you lately and what will you do with it?

George Winston’s CD – Autumn

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A Visual CV

Inspired by Nathan Wirth’s visual Q&A at COOPH, The Cooperative of Photography. They call it a Visual Q&A. Wirth answered a series of questions with images and his answers are brilliant.

I think this is a great exercise in self-awareness for any photographer, creating a sort of Visual CV. My answers are below.

Who are you?


Why photography?


What is your trademark photographic style?


What truly inspires you?


Where do you go when you close your eyes?


Where is home for you?


How would you describe your lifestyle?


What makes a great shot?


How do you view the world?

sunflower back

What is an important lesson you’ve learned?

I’d love to see your visual CV. Add a link in the comments section here if you try it yourself.

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Today is World Oceans Day

Although unofficially celebrated for years, in 2009 the United Nations officially declared that World Oceans Day would be held on June 8th each year. Today is the day!

Why do we need a day to celebrate our oceans?

Because they need our help. For years, the sheer vastness of the oceans made us think that they could swallow up whatever we dished out. That is proving not to be the case.

The water that makes up most of our planet (70%) acts as a huge carbon sink. Increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects our oceans (and consequently, us). Warming of the oceans results in melting glacial ice, rising sea levels, heavy rain in some areas, and drought in others.

We can start making a difference through personal choices to lessen carbon emissions – reducing meat and fish consumption, eating more locally and sustainably grown food, and reducing our use of plastics.

Below are some resources I’ve found to be helpful.

1. When consuming seafood, be aware of the sustainability issue and whether the fish is safe to eat (doesn’t contain mercury or other toxic chemicals). Learn more on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program.
2. Coral reefs are worldwide are endangered. This fascinating interview with scientist Margaret Wertheim at On Being describes the coral reef project. And, Wertheim says in that interview that coral reefs are a metaphor for how we can respond to environmental problems as a whole.

If you look at real corals, a head of coral is built by thousands of individual coral polyps working together. Each coral polyp is a tiny insignificant little critter with almost no power of its own. But when billions of coral polyps come together, they can build the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living thing on earth and the first living thing that you can see from outer space…. We are all corals now. ~ Margaret Wertheim, On Being

3. Our oceans are at the lowest levels on earth so everything ends up there. Pollutants from our yards and businesses, and fertilizers from farms end up in our waterways, creating “dead zones” where sea life cannot survive. Plastics and other garbage end up in the ocean and do not completely biodegrade.

This is so harmful to sea life and has created a huge garbage dump in the Pacific Ocean, named the Pacific Garbage Patch.

Photographer Chris Jordan and his team spent time on the Midway Islands in the Pacific Ocean to document the effects of the garbage patch on wildlife. The results are heartbreaking. See the trailer for The Midway Journey film.
4. For a comprehensive look at the state of our oceans, watch this TED talk by ocean researcher Sylvia Earle, where she shares astonishing images and shocking stats about our oceans’ rapid decline — and her TED Prize wish: that we will join her in protecting the vital blue heart of the planet.
5. There is a passionate article about our oceans on the Virgin website – We Need a Blue Revolution.
6. Read the book, Blue Mind by Wallace J Nichols, about how being near or in the water affects our brain (in a positive way).
7. Take the Seven C’s Pledge for Ocean Conservation below (via The Ocean Project).

Conserve by upgrading to energy saving appliances and compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Consume consciously by reducing, reusing, recycling, and purchasing “green” products.

Communicate about the impacts of climate change on the ocean.

Challenge yourself daily to cut your carbon emissions.

Connect by volunteering with a local watershed or ocean group.

Celebrate World Oceans Day.


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Imagining the Story Behind a Photograph

The best photographs often tell a story, whether real or imagined. In our online visual journaling workshop, we practiced telling three types of stories – ambiguous, personal, and documentary (as described in this article from Digital Photography School).

I found the ambiguous (or imagined) story to be quite fun to do. With the photograph below, called Secret Garden, I started to think about who planted the beautiful garden seen beyond the white picket fence. The story evolved from there and I was quite surprised by the ending.


Secret Garden


Once Belonged

There was a time when I was allowed inside. I cared for this secret garden. As a matter of fact, I planted most of what is still here.

But, that was many, many years ago. Back then, I felt a part of the family. They saw me every day in the garden and stopped to say hello and have a conversation. Sometimes, they would even invite me to take a break and have a cup of tea or cold lemonade with them.

There was lots of laughter and I felt like I belonged. I thought they truly cared for me.

Then, I grew older and couldn’t do the manual labour as well anymore. One day, they gently suggested that it was time for a new gardener. They thanked me for my many years of service.

The new gardener seems to be keeping up well. I only know because I can peep through the fence every once in awhile.

I hope you’ll give this a try with one of your own photographs.


p.s. If writing about your photographs is intriguing to you (and you’re in Ontario this summer), please consider joining Sally Gentle Drew and me for a one-day workshop in visual journaling – Saturday, July 18th in Burlington, Ontario. Learn more here.


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