“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, Leonardo Da Vinci
Minimalism of any form requires a degree of discipline…
The discipline required is to recognize what is essential and is superfluous. So it is with minimalist photography. One needs to understand the frame and remove anything unnecessary. In order to achieve this level of understanding a journey is required.
Beginners in photography are advised to fill their photographs with their subject. This can often translate into lots of details and lots of colour. The transition between this and minimalist photography is significant.
When I started in photography I followed the ideas expressed above. I looked for sweeping landscapes full of detail and in post processing I would enhance everything to the nth degree. I had a moment though where a work colleague asked me how I had brought out a particular tone of green on some seaweed clinging to rocks in the foreground of my photograph. I immediately became embarrassed. I had achieved this by moving some sliders in Lightroom. Nothing wrong with that of course, but this colleague was an artistic type and I felt the question carried with it some doubt as to my creative ability.
The journey had begun.
Around the same time I had been experimenting with black and white photography and enjoying the results. In order to move things along I attended a workshop with Colin Homes who was shooting with medium format film and digital cameras. I was mesmerized by his film cameras and workflow. He was shooting long exposures and spoke to me about reciprocity failure while checking his watch to monitor the time his film was being exposed for.
Colin pointed me in the direction of a number of great film photographers whose work I fell in love with. Shortly thereafter, I bought a Hasselblad 501C/M and some black and white medium format film. My collection of photography books also increased dramatically at this time and I studied the work of great film photographers.
The purpose of this background is to explain how I ended up shooting square format photographs. There is something magical about the square and it has had a significant impact on my concept of composition. I find the square restrictive but I mean that in a positive way. Without the latitude that a rectangle affords, it becomes vital to ensure the composition of a photograph is thought about carefully before you open the shutter.
The most important element of minimalist photography is composition. If you are stripping the elements in your frame back to the essentials it is of primary importance to ensure that your subject is placed appropriately. Using square format provides a further challenge in that you have to decide whether you are aiming for a degree of tension in your photograph or you wish to give your subject a degree of breathing space.
So how does one compose a minimalist photograph? Composition for me is such a personal choice that I do not believe I can provide any helpful detail to answer this question.
Each photographer will compose according to how they see the natural placement of an image on the frame. Of course, there are differing degrees of strong and weak composition. For me, the answer lies in the combination between your personal choice, the subject matter and the need for either tension or space in the photograph. The best advice I can give is to be bold and experiment. When it works well you will find a natural balance in what your eye sees.
To push the aesthetic that I wish to pursue in my photography I choose to use black and white film. This is a personal choice. Minimalist photography can be achieved with colour images but there is a need to select one or two colours and nature’s palette does not always afford us such luxuries.
It is easier in my opinion to use black and white to portray the vision I am trying to achieve. I must caveat here and admit that I will often add a touch of sepia to my final photograph but this is generally very light and wholly dependent on the subject.
I mentioned the Hasselblad camera that I use earlier in this article. Why with all of the technology available would I choose to use manual mechanical cameras? I spoke to a photographer friend, who shoots digital, about this recently. I showed her my camera and she remarked that it looked complicated.
To my mind, my cameras are incredibly simple. I don’t need to worry about complicated menus, white balance, noise reduction, mirror lockup and all the other electronic things that get in the way of taking photographs.
My workflow consists of composition, exposure reading translating into aperture and shutter speed and pressing the shutter. The only change to this is in long exposure work. Of course, this requires the use of filters sometimes and a degree of calculation as well as working with reciprocity failure.
I have realised that I no longer think about these things. They come naturally to me in the same way as driving a car comes naturally once you are familiar with it. I have heard lots of advice on how important it is to get to know your gear. There seems little point in elaborating on this other than to say that once you know your equipment you are free to concentrate on the most important thing – composition!
For the majority of my photographs I use Ilford HP5+ and I have grown quite accustomed to working out what the correctly adjusted exposure time is for each scene. I have found that the simplicity of my camera allows me to create simple, minimal and beautiful photographs.
Everybody has their individual way of working and their preferred equipment. I have listened to the debate as to how Ilford HP5+ compares to Kodak Tri-X. I enjoy using both but I find that HP5+ affords me greater creative latitude in the darkroom. I have shot Tri-X and printed from it in the darkroom. I do like it but find the high levels of contrast not always suited to my vision or to the photograph I am taking.
When I think of minimalist photographers, I immediately think of Michael Kenna, Josef Hoflehner and Fan Ho. There is an interesting range of diversity in this group of three. Most of what I have seen recently from Josef Hoflehner is colour although his earlier work seems to be generally black and white. There is a portfolio of his work entitled “Can’t you see”, and in naming it in this way Hoflehner is requiring the viewer to look beyond the simple details in the photograph.
He wants you to see what is unseen. I look at these photographs and feel a sense of abandonment, as if the Earth has said goodbye to all of the people and our legacy is the buildings that now scar the landscape. This form of minimalism is very beautiful but carries with it a deep sense of melancholy. The scenes may have lots of detail but they also carry a degree of emptiness. It is testament to a creative vision that I can only stand back and gaze upon with deep admiration.
In Michael Kenna’s photographs the minimalism tends to have larger degree of negative space as opposed to the emptiness of Josef Hoflehner’s work. He uses water, sky and snow to isolate subjects in order to concentrate the viewer’s attention on that subject’s placement within the frame. There is an intense focus on shape and form and contrast.
Michael Kenna has an unerring ability to take a subject that has been photographed acutely (such as the Eiffel Tower) and interpret it in ways that have not been seen or considered. With his move to the Asian landscape of latter years, Kenna uses the concepts of Zen, Haiku and Kanji to describe his work. All have the concept of minimalism and this translates into photographs that emulate those disciplines in a way that only he can.
Fan Ho (who passed away earlier this year) represents a different position on minimalism. Like Josef Hoflehner, not all of his photographs display the minimalist aesthetic but in certain pieces it is very strong. ‘Approaching Shadow’ is one of my favorite photographs and in it Fan Ho demonstrates how minimalism can at once be simple and elegant, while displaying depth and a strong narrative.
It is that essence of taking the viewer beyond the content of a photograph that makes his work so unique. In addition, Fan Ho often captures a form of timelessness in his work and it is by stripping away the unnecessary detail that he has managed to achieve this. ‘Back to Mother’ is a photograph that is over 60 years old but could have been taken yesterday. It is graphically very strong, has a great narrative and yet only has a very small number of elements that contribute this.
It is a masterful demonstration of the allure of the minimalist photograph.
~ Darren Kelland
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