Using the language of minimalism in film photography

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I am usually hesitant to assign labels on my photography, I think out of concern that a definition may limit my mentality, and restrict my potential to possibly defy that label later on. I do my best to shoot everything that catches my eye, not just in keeping with the work I publish but also images which will eventually contextualise those stories and characters.

Even when it comes to the genre my work falls into I have started to avoid calling myself a street photographer, and now try and be as broad as possible with “documentarian” but even that has its issues. However when analysing the visual/aesthetic aspects of my photography there are some categories of art theory that I feel my images invariably fall into; by studying these more concrete aspects of my work I can have a better understanding of the conscious and unconscious decisions that go into my compositions. I can emphasise or avoid certain aspects, and keep them in mind while producing a hopefully visually consistent body of work – while still avoiding the limitation of a thematic genre.


Minimalism has always been a key aspect of the work I enjoy, and the work I enjoy creating. There is something so inherently logical (to me) to framing an image with the intention of reducing down to the core, most essential elements. This way I can convey an idea in as few steps as possible, meaning that an audience can hopefully universally interpret my intent, without having to put in too much work. This has been the main consideration of my images, all the way from my earliest Fashion portraits to my current reportage work.

Fashion Work, Leica M240 // Reportage, Leica M6, ILFORD Delta 100 Professional
Fashion Work, Leica M240 // Reportage, Leica M6, ILFORD Delta 100 Professional

Minimalism in photography can be a fairly nuanced topic – I think there are some people who wouldn’t classify any of the images above, or indeed any image I’ve ever created, as minimal. Minimalism can mean a removal of the majority of elements until only one single shape or colour remain. This would be a great interpretation to apply to something like landscape photography, maybe astrophotography, and the current New Wave street photography leans towards this interpretation of minimal ideas fairly frequently.

However I think that this interpretation of minimalism relies on a fairly superficial understanding of minimalism which leaves out the idea of intent. If the intent is to simply produce something with a minimal aesthetic then for sure reducing down a composition makes a lot of sense. When there is more than just artistic intent – when there is a message, or a story which unfolded in front of you without much time to react then there is only so much you can so in those few seconds to create a frame that encapsulates that one moment.

Using the language of minimalism in film photography
Using the language of minimalism in film photography

This means something not as simple as just as little as possible per frame, one character per frame, but rather one strong idea per frame. The viewer can spend their time absorbing and unpacking that one idea, which I prefer conceptually to an image with less depth that requires projection from the viewer as opposed to intent from the artist. This requires thought from the photographer to reduce down their concept and then translate that into their frame. If the artist is able to do this effectively, with little excess, then it doesn’t necessarily need the cleanest, emptiest implementation – what matters is that that one simple idea is well represented.

Often I have to react to situations or potential which don’t last more than a few seconds, so there are a few ways I rely on to reduce a situation down in my film photography workflow. This includes the use of sharp, contrasty films which give clarity to my results.

I compose using figure to ground as my integral compositional cornerstone – if I can’t achieve figure to ground through composition or use of depth of field then more often than not I’ll simply not take the shot – or at least not publish it. The cleanness offered by a good application of figure-to-ground composition is unrivalled in its ability to produce a result that can be understood from a glance, all elements of the image handed to the audience without them having to work for it.


Figure to ground means a good definition between the subject and the ground they exist against in the image. For me this means making sure that my subjects don’t overlap in a distracting way; everything exists across the plane of the image in its own space.

For example this photograph was shot in a very busy scene, but the central point of the image is immediately understood – everything that needs to stand out from the crowd does so. I would call it a minimal image, whether or not others agree.

Using the language of minimalism in film photography
Using the language of minimalism in film photography

Despite the cluttered environment the essence remains uncluttered, which it would not do if I had knelt down to the same level as the subject, or moved any closer. This would have caused overlap, and not given me the puzzle-piece snugness of this image, where everything just clicks into place. The best of my images share these characteristics. Although there are many aspects of this specific image that I would change, I had only a short window to notice the scene and react to that potential – and the image works despite my opinion of its shortcomings.

I tend to use longer focal lengths, as I find this a more natural way to compose. I find that with 35mm lenses or below I am not able to fill the frame in the same way – instead I find that I have an image and inside that image somewhere is the frame I intended. Rather than cropping in I can just shoot at 50mm+ and avoid this unnecessary negative space with a more natural frame to my eye.

I have been working on incorporating a 24mm lens into my serious photography, but think that I will be most comfortable at 50mm+, with 90mm being the current comfort zone for the majority of my work, especially in street photography. Any focal length can be used for a scene, it just depends on the way the photographer chooses to apply it.

Using the language of minimalism in film photography
Using the language of minimalism in film photography

I also prefer to frame the majority of my images vertically. This is for a few reasons – I have a stronger association between the portrait orientation and “photography” whereas a landscape image feeds more into a cinematic sequence of events occurring across the frame.

The vertical frame has the added benefit of less side-to-side clutter – especially in urban settings. In an urban setting buildings are very vertical, and can be used to block your subject in from side to side, but don’t contribute much in my opinion. A vertical frame allows the majority of possible negative space to be either the ground or the sky (my preference is the sky) which allows for the eye to come to rest on the subject without having to search the sides for any interest.

Using the language of minimalism in film photography
Using the language of minimalism in film photography

Empty space is an interesting element to incorporate, as I think there is useful empty space and useless empty space. If it emphasises some aspect of the main contention of the composition then I would say it’s useful, but if it unbalances the rest of the composition then I’d say there’s probably something I could have done better.


This is probably the best example of how I don't want my photographs to look. Mostly nothing with a little bit of something.
This is probably the best example of how I don’t want my photographs to look. Mostly nothing with a little bit of something.

Through this combination of considerations I am able to create minimalist work I enjoy. There is enough of the visual language to keep distinctions between elements in the frame, but are broad enough to applied to any number of possible situations. It means my minimal work doesn’t have the fewest elements, but only the essential elements, without excess. Detailed, active scenes, but with as little distraction as possible.

The main divide between film and digital minimal work is that the way detail is rendered differs between the two mediums. I think tiny distant figures are much less well defined on even the sharpest frame of film than what’s possible from a clean digital sensor.

This drives my workflow when using film to closer work, with a greater emotional connection to my subjects as well as that tighter physical proximity.

Using the language of minimalism in film photography
Using the language of minimalism in film photography

In my digital work I am less concerned at shooting from a greater distance, leaning towards a new wave style as I can rely on that clarity. Less of a consideration of scale as I know my subject will stand out if exposed well, using light architecture to accentuate their figure.

The digital is the overall clearer image, but I think the film photograph has the clearer idea - but with definitely less definition of the subject.
The digital is the overall clearer image, but I think the film photograph has the clearer idea – but with definitely less definition of the subject.

In my film photography I am more inclined to work on a composition that really dominates my frame. This means that empty space is still useable, but to a much lesser degree – I somewhat feel bad for wasting the physical space of film, but that has less to do with it than just clearly showing an idea. My ideas of film are clearer the closer I get. The grain and lack of sharpness play less of a role in detracting from a composition the closer I am to a subject while shooting film.

Smaller detail in my images have always worked better on digital, and sometimes this has been disappointing. This shot for me was mainly about the speck of the helicopter, but it doesn’t work very well unless printed at 8×10 or larger. The detail simply isn’t there in the scan, where I’m sure it would be in a digital version of the same frame.

Using the language of minimalism in film photography
Using the language of minimalism in film photography

All of this means using the space of a 35mm negative to the best of my ability, by making my subject as prominent as possible – usually by using them to fill the frame. This also means being discretionary about using things like negative space to emphasise. Minimalism like many photographic tools has its heart in emphasising certain aspects, and I find that with my digital work I am emphasising the emptiness – with film it makes more sense to emphasise the parts that are full of life, energy, and action.


Thanks for taking the time to read this! If you enjoyed my work here you might consider following me on Instagram. I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.


~ Simon

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8 thoughts on “Using the language of minimalism in film photography”

  1. Reading this a couple of quotes came to mind (and I’m probably paraphrasing them here)
    “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept” — Ansel Adams.
    “In explaining something you should make it a simple as possible, but no simpler” — Albert Einstein.

    I think both are illustrated here.

    Reply
  2. Articles with real insights into more philosophical concepts, or perhaps best said as delving deep into the mind of the documentarian, require significant introspection over a long period. I, for one, really appreciate you sharing your thoughts. Thanks Simon!

    Reply
  3. Art is the process of addition, elements built up from nothing but the artist’s vision. Photography is the process of elimination, removing elements that do not contribute to the photographers vision.

    Reply

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