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.
With regard to minimalist photography, there are definitely two sides to the coin: aesthetic minimalism and equipment minimalism (for want of a better term). For the most part I will deal with them as separate issues, as I believe that it is perfectly possible to be aesthetically minimalist while owning a truckload of equipment. Conversely, it is possible to take visually complex images with nothing more than an iPhone. I will start with a few words about equipment then move on to the aesthetic.
Websites and photoblogs seem to be springing up all over the place, where the authors pride themselves on the fact that they only use a certain type of camera. The favored camera for this type of enterprise is usually one attached to a smartphone, although sometimes point-and-shoot compacts are considered OK. The one type of camera that always seems to be considered out of bounds is the DSLR. I would guess that the Micro Four Thirds would also be considered too sophisticated by these authors.
This approach seems gimmicky to me, a sort of enforced minimalism. I think that placing limits and setting parameters can be a very good thing, but a refusal to go above a certain level of technology come what may doesn’t really serve a useful purpose other than a possibly self-promotional one. This approach also tends to turn photography into a sport, insomuch as the photograph itself becomes less important than the self-imposed technical limitations set by the photographer. When I look at a photograph as a consumer, I don’t care what equipment was used—that is the photographer’s problem. I only care about whether the photograph works, whether it engenders an emotional response in me.
While I may not see the point in setting arbitrary technological limitations, I am certainly not advocating the opposite, an infinite budget approach. There are two fundamentally different philosophies that underpin equipment purchases, a bad one and a good one. The bad approach is to set a budget then equip up to this budget. The camera and equipment manufacturers love this philosophy as it makes them very rich. This is why they are prepared to spend vast sums of money to make this way of thinking the norm. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the marketing side of things as that is a discussion for a different post, but here is one quick example:
The “consumer” and “pro” labeling of DSLRs is no accident. It is designed to get the buyer into the market and then to make them feel inadequate, so that they consequently set a stupidly high equipment budget. This labeling imprints the idea that a person is not a real photographer unless they own a so-called pro level camera. Now, the so-called pro DSLRs are better cameras insomuch as they are more rugged, but they are never going to confer greatness on the photographer who is holding one. The industry deliberately implies and conditions people into believing that great photography is simply a matter of having very expensive equipment.
The good approach to equipment is a very simple one, base purchases on need. Let your photography tell you what to buy next and not a glossy online or magazine promotional puff piece. Another quick example:
I had been shooting landscapes and decided that an efl 35mm lens wasn’t quite wide enough to get the shots that I was seeing with my mind’s eye. I then considered investing in some equipment. No one told me that I needed have to have a wide angle lens, I discovered this for myself.
Now, I could have played into the industry’s hands and spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars on the top of the range, fastest, widest, sharpest lens on the market. This would have represented an extremely high risk for me, so I found a much more conservative route. I purchased a $20 adapter from Amazon that was designed to turn a Nikon kit into an approximately 17 mm wide angle. It is a bit clunky but it does exactly what it claims to do. It produces an image that is a little soft around the edges but, with a little work in Lightroom, is more than acceptable in quality terms.
At the time, I never saw the adapter as a permanent solution—I just wanted to get a feel for shooting real wide angle, to see if it appealed and, if so, how much expenditure would be warranted. In my case I didn’t feel compelled to by a specialized ultra wide angle lens—in fact I still use the $20 adapter from time to time as it does what I need it to do. Don’t get me wrong, if a lucrative contract was offered that required 17 mm efl shots I would buy or rent the top of the line equipment. This is how expenditure should be decided—by the needs of the photography and not by outside interests.
To summarize this section, a minimalist approach to equipment should not be about setting some arbitrarily low bar and saying that everything technologically superior or more expensive is forbidden, but rather be one of purchasing based on need.
Minimalist photography is not simply about taking a photograph of less. Minimalism is about getting to the essence of something. By definition, it is a reductive process—a process that starts from a non-minimalist position then, through the stripping away of what is not important, gets to what is important.
There are many pages on the internet that feature supposedly minimalist photography. These usually have titles such as 50 Great Minimalist Photographs. The photographs featured are usually good, but whether they are the results of a minimalist approach is up for debate. I suspect that they are more about good design practices than reducing a thing to its essence. This goes to the heart of what I want to explore a little here, how two images can be superficially very similar but can come from very different places.
The following is an oversimplification but it serves to make a point. The designer with a camera starts with a design-based idea, finds something in the real world that is a close match, then takes a photograph. The photographer philosophically inclined to minimalism will take reality—whatever it may be—and find a way to reduce that to its essence. Aesthetic Minimalism is a process that can be applied to just about anything in the visual world; it has depth, layers and meaning, whereas photographic design minimalism is all about surface. From a photography career and development perspective, the former is sustainable while the latter is not.
(I ought to make a couple of things clear at this point. I am certainly not saying that the design approach to minimalism is in any way inferior, just that it is very different. I admire good design as only someone who is very bad at it can. Also, I am only talking about two-dimensional visual design and not three-dimensional, where function is obviously the major consideration.)
Let’s leave design minimalism behind for a moment and focus on the type of minimalism that interests me, which comes from reducing something to its essence. It is impossible to consider minimalism without considering abstraction, and that is what I’d like to do now.
To reduce something to its most minimal involves the stripping away of layers to get to its core. Each layer removed represents another level of abstraction. As a photographer, you have a cluttered scene in front of you, so you search out a part of it that has some sense of order to represent the whole scene. This framing process removes a lot of information—therefore, it is a level of abstraction. There is also an even more obvious abstraction going on at this stage—the reduction from three to two dimensions.
Now on to the editing. You may decide that the photograph works better in black and white. The loss of all that color information, the reduction of the image to tones, represents another layer of abstraction. The abstraction doesn’t have to stop here—turn up the contrast to lose shades of gray, and this reduces the information in the image even further.
You have probably noticed that the above pretty much describes the process of making a photograph, whether minimalism is taken into consideration or not. Even the most generic photography instruction book will advise the photographer to simplify the scene by the use of good framing, for example. The conscious adoption of minimalism as a lens through which to practice photography forces the reductionist process to be a very conscious one. This in turn leads to much stronger image-making.
Ultimately, I think that minimalism is a state of mind. Some of us are reductionists by nature and others are not. We all have different ways of interpreting the world around us. A big part of being successful in any walk of life is to know our own nature and to act accordingly.
There is no point in adopting a strict minimalist approach to aesthetics if you like highly decorative art or architecture defined by its ornamentation. If, however, you see beauty as emanating from function in the three dimensional world, then the minimalist approach may be the right one.
By Steve Johnson