Minimalist Photography – The Subject is Secondary
Think of the phrase minimalist photography and what comes to mind? The answer, I suspect, is lots of very plain backgrounds with very little else going on within the frame. A distant monochrome seagull against a clear gray sky or a small window set in a vibrantly colored but otherwise plain wall are two examples of what passes for minimalism in photography today. If you are more gear oriented you may see minimalist photography as putting the emphasis on equipment—the less and smaller the equipment, the more minimalist.
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Every so often a discussion appears, on on a prominent website somewhere, asking for people to comment on what they consider to be fine art photography and/or fine art photographers. The latest one that I have come across is on Linkedin. (Unfortunately it is within a locked group so there is no point linking to it). Right off the top I want to say that I have never and never will refer to myself as a fine art photographer. The words hold no meaning for me and what follows is an attempt to explain why.
Fine Art? – That depends upon the artist’s intent.
As I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion I came to photography via other, more established, visual arts such as painting and drawing. Within these disciplines the term fine art has a very specific meaning that has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of work produced. It means, simply art that has no purpose other than being art – art that is its own reason for existing. In other words it is art that is not intended to sell something, i.e. commercial or to decorate something or to do anything else other then be looked at.
One thing the term fine art most definitely is not is a measure of quality. It is instead related to of the intent of the artist. To qualify, the intent would have to be to produce something that has no specific purpose outside of itself. Of course the piece produced may be put up for sale and could even make the artist a bucket-load of cash but this is very different than the production of a piece of commercial art, say as part of an advertising campaign for example, where there is a specific function in mind from the outset.
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A few days ago, while doing the weekly grocery shop, we stopped to look at bath mats. I know, such a glamorous life. While normal people would think in terms of which one would provide the best grip or even which one would best match the decor not me – I immediately go to that part of my brain that assesses photographic possibilities and then goes on to obsess over them.
My wife, Meg, is used to this approach and is extremely understanding so we walked out of our local Target with a very over the top blueish/aqua transparent and semi transparent thing that is meant to resemble pebbles under water (I think).
I spent two hours positioning, lighting and taking photos of this bath mat. I have over three hundred photographs of it – most of them being basically garbage and will never see the light of day. Here are a few that I thought were OK and worth showing. This intense focus on one subject is a great way to train the brain and the eye to really see. A don’t think that I’ve ever known a good photographer who wasn’t at least somewhat obsessive.
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For some reason I do not like looking like a photographer when I’m out and about. Something very old geezerish, (and I write as a member of that particular demographic) about wandering around with bags and camera vests and the suchlike. Reasonably priced, reasonably large sensor equipped, mirrorless cameras promise to make this concern a thing of the past.
My default walking out of the front door gear.
In Math there is something called optimization theory. The subject area can be guessed at from the name and is probably best explained by example: There is a hole to be dug. The hole digger has to work out the best amount of soil to extract with each dig so to speak. To much soil on each shovelful and he or she will tire quickly while too little will allow said digger to go all day but will not remove the maximum possible amount of dirt.
Deciding what camera gear to take on a trip or into a studio space has always been a bit like this – too much and confusion and an aching back result, to little and the shot could well get away. The camera problem is actually more complex than the shovel one as there is an extra variable to consider in addition to bulk and that is cost. Making smaller things do the same job as bigger things is expensive – especially in the early days of release.
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This post is a stab at a topic that has preoccupied me for much of my creative life. It is one that I want to finally bury for good and this piece is an attempt to do that. Apologies in advance if it comes across as a little preachy (I really struggled with the editing).
…but is it Original?
The subject of originality is one that occupies all artists including photographers at some point or other in their careers. Some never move past it and spend their entire careers striving to produce something that is truly original. History tells us that such a pursuit only rarely if ever leads anywhere good. The more common result of this approach is a frustrated artist who got stuck so to speak, and therefore failed to reach their full potential.
A certain level of acceptance is a good thing. I have no issue with is the Post Modern idea that everything has already been done and all that is left is arranging the elements in different ways – juxtaposition. Many artists find this concept terrifying and many an existential crisis has been prompted by little more than consideration of this fact.
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This is one of my favorite sets of images.
Just click on any of the thumbnails to see a much larger version (will open on this page and in this window).