Reality is complex. Photographs shouldn’t dumb it down.
The sea, the sky, seperated by a perfectly straight horizon. Add a single white dome, with possibly a supermodel running down stairs in a striking red dress. That lone distant mountain with a blue river meandering through a uniform coniferous forest in the foreground. What could be prettier?
A lot, actually. Including the featureless village street above.
It took me a while to understand why most of the superstar photographs of Instagram, as well as most long exposure minimalist shots leave me cold, even though minimalism as a concept appeals to me greatly, and the ultra minimalist shots of Hiroshi Sugimoto or Michael Kenna often feel irresistible to me.
By that, I do not mean that we have problems. That getting up in the morning to face road rage, an angry boss, tiring meetings, and an exhausting family in the evening while juggling two side-jobs to keep Bobby in Uni and meet rent, is taking a toll. Though that would make for a great photographic subject. An exercise in empathy.
No, my view is far more optimistic, and science-based.
Life, in general, stems from complexity, and breeds it for as long as sufficient energy is at hand to sustain its growth. Life and complexity are unseparable.
The Sun pours terawatts of photons on the Earth and life emerges, in ever growing variety and complexity. That man’s progress and activities come at the cost of this diversity is an unpleasant fact and something more and more of us are standing against and actively fighting. But, left alone, nature and life breed complexity. And how various people in various areas of the globe have organised to deal with this and the local conditions forms the backbone for their culture, agriculture, art, architecture, suffering, partying … Complexity breeds variety. Consciousness itself is but the emergent byproduct of sufficient neural complexity.
I think this should be celebrated in photography, as corny as that might sound. I’m pretty certain most humans are hard-wired to appreciate the harmonious complexity that nature and good architecture/urbanism surround us with. Why else would the Navajo walk in beauty, and city-dwellers crave forest-bathing? Would either enjoy a cartoon version of those surroundings? Many of us like playing chess, reading intricate stories, tasting elaborate cuisine and … complex … wines. It’s the priviledge of adulthood to step out of a world made of one colour, one taste, one idea, and to navigate complex concepts and relationships that we have no chance of completely mastering.
Now, as mentioned above, several minimalist photographers greatly appeal to me. Michael Kenna and Hiroshi Sugimoto, to name just two. Or Adrian’s wonderful serene seascapes from the last post. And I’m not completely adverse to a minimalist approach myself, here and there.
But, whenever my mind is awake enough to achieve it, I far prefer make a statement beyond “this is pretty/funny” (as above), preferably by finding compositions that order multiple elements into an interesting whole (as below).
Here’s where many minimalist amateurs differ from Kenna. Both will use long exposures and simple landscapes to create their photographs. But one has a reason for doing so, is making a point, while others don’t and are not.
Michael Kenna uses the passing of time to reveal the different nature of water, cloud, tree and stone. Hiroshi Sugimoto removes time from seascapes or derelict theatres to create a series of portraits highlighting their differences, much like the Bechers with industrial buildings. Adrian sometimes uses simple compositions to communicate serenity / tension. Nancee simplifies to highlight variety (of textures, materials, reflexions …) in a raw creative approach.
Without the intention, the recipes are just empty shells, that lead to boring, formulaic images.
Steve Jobs was an archetype for the product simplifier. Yet he never dumbed anything down.
Akira Kurosawa could create visual simplicity in a scene involving hundreds of actors and hundreds of props.
Amazon simplified shopping like no one before. Yet, offering thousands of references from as many brands and individual small businesses, in dozens of different countries and legislations, can in no way be called dumbing down.
And the photography that interests me most is the one that simplifies a complex – typically human behaviour and culture – subject without dumbing it down. This can be achieved in one of two ways (that I can think of).
Extracting a simple scene from a complex one. That is what co-author Philippe does when diving into a wild roadside bush no one would even notice to extract an elegant poem of a microworld. Here, the subject is as much the poet as it is the flower.
Aranging a large variety of parts into a cohesive whole, largely through composition. This is what Lad Sessions did in his recent series of portraits of the forest floor. This is what Paul Perton does with street art, road signs and window reflections, in an urban environment. This is also what I try to do, in my sleepy semi-rural home or during travels.
No all of us are Robert Franck or William Eggleston, able to produce what looks like a total absence of composition, but still conveys a very clear message in some very messy scenes.
Some our our compositions are too ‘easy’ (above) or sometimes too personal to be relatable.
But I do believe that trying to bring some visual order to a complex scene is a great way to comunicate something more lasting than a minimalist shot. A viewer drawn in by good clarity of intent will look at all the details in the complex scene for far longer than they would a dumbed-down image.
Better still, how we chose to simpify (monochrome vs colour, composition, lighting, post processing …) is how we create a specific style and create a recognisable photographic personality.
French philosopher Edgar Morin write, in his « Introduction to complex thought »: « To distinguish without sepratating and to associate without reducing ». Sounds an awful lot like composition to me 🙂
All I know is that photographs made to be minimalistic rather than using minimalism to convey something leave me fidgety and unsatisfied. Whereas photographs that successfully present a complex scene in a balanced way feel soothing and complete. That’s where I’m heading, or trying to 😉
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