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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Complexity is stalking you, my friend. More and more often, I find the only way I can comment on your articles is to have two copies running at once – one where I work through the article and the other (like this) for a running commentary.
Prettier is simply one genre. Photography captures ANYTHING, pretty – pretty ugly – brutally ugly – ephemeral – daytime – nighttime. The lot.
Photographers make choices. And none of them do “the lot”.
By the way, as a lifelong introvert with rather extreme empathy, I love the suggestion of a photographic subject that is an exercise in empathy. What sort of camera do you have in mind?
Do you have a “high jump” board on that swimming pool of yours? Next thought is abandoning complexity and leaping straight into simplicity – further, actually – minimalism. I find my flower photography trends inexorably to minimalism. I’ve tried so many different things – but the final cut is almost always minimalist. A search for something which symbolises the scene I started off with, but the detail is on the cutting floor.
When I look at other people’s images, I let my empathetic connection take over. I can – and sometimes do – mentally tick off things that I regard as important for a particular shot. But then, there still has to be something – something special.
I’ve heard all this stuff about 10 billion photos of the Eiffel Tower, but that’s that wrong approach. You look at some of Philippe’s flowers, you look are Nancee’s landscapes. You’ve never seen these, but two guys who took off to the centre of Australia and came back with a dozen photos on display at my local camera store – just blew me away. Hardly any detail in most of them – but the impact was astounding, I kept having flashbacks for months after I saw those images.
It’s not the camera. It’s not the subject matter. It’s in the magic of creating an image.
The “rules” of composition – any attempt to codify how to take a good photo – all those ideas simply get in the way of creativity.
Thankfully creativity is alive and well in some quarters, as the pages of DS so richly illustrate.
Hi Pete, all of this is true. And it’s a good thing that everyone is photographing different subjects in different styles. I’m just noticing a tsunami of over simplified photography that does’t feel natural or particularly good. To me, it’s interesting to also see work that embrasses variety and complexity, which forces every photographer to approach it in their own style, rather than all flock to the single style the market seems to be pushing (that f/0.95 portrait with a cappunino mediterranean i the background). Yuck 😉
Well having been my mother’s second greatest disappointment, joining some “flock” with a herd instinct dragging them all over the cliff isn’t my scene, either.
I hear – loud and clear – what you are saying. And in several of the photos here, you’re doing it. But then you’re flipping, and doing the opposite.
One of my favourites here is the door/face – with the letterboxes/eyes winking at the viewer – priceless, very ingenious! I bet there was no clatter of hooves, no dropping of iPhones, when you took that shot! No 10 million clones, on Instagram!
Your lead shot – the village street – the “clutter” is neatly masked by the shadows/tonal range, making complex simple.
The next shot – dreamlike – reminds me of Tuscan valleys, villages in the alps. You could enlarge this one and hang it on your wall, it has so much to say, and yet it doesn’t shout any of it. You could stare at it whenever you pass by . . . and that, for me, is the difference! The “test”!
Anyone can “take a photo”. But will they look at it ever again, after the next day? Will it haunt their mind, for months or years?
How it does that, is the point – not whether it has this characteristic or that one.
Empathy! You and your wife should sit in the row behind me, at a classical ,music concert. I don’t “need” analysis to tell me whether i Like a performance of a piece of music. My ears take over – the muscles that surround then go into spasm – my ears flap – and the people sitting behind me start to point and giggle.
Funnily enough your B&W shot of leaves, just before the shot of the window shutters, has a similar effect. Every time I try scrolling up or down past it, the screen stops on that image, so I can stare into again – as it stares back at me.
Good post Pascal. I admire Michael Kenna’s photography. I would say that amateurs who seek to emulate his work believe it takes only a 10-stop or darker ND and then shoot away. What Kenna does is first is to exquisitely simplify the composition and then he applies the ND. Too, I understand Kenna will also spend hours simply absorbing the scene before ever taking a camera out of the bag. Few of us have the patience to do so.
Exactly, Frank. That’s another topic I’d love to write about. Few of us spend time with the subject. I can’t remember who that but to paraphrase “when we look at something familiar long enough, it becomes an alien object”. Because our minds are so used to simplifying our vision enough to deal with big volumes of visual data all day long, we tend to skip a lot of the details. So staying with the scene and the subject long enough tends to make us see it / photograph it very differently. And some of Michael Kenna’s photograph last multiple hours. Patience indeed 😉 Cheers
Wow, this cold, wet, gray day must have inspired philosophizing, Pascal. I’m going to have to come back and read your post later. Right now it makes my head hurt. I woke up this morning thinking that life is like a bunch of bananas. Now I’m going to have some gruel and coffee and photograph birds for a while and quietly meditate.
Well I hope you enjoy some of it at least 😉 😉 😉
Hello Pascal. Over simplification is a mindset and most habitual one I agree, BUT as you know (here it comes) unless one is going to seriously do something with what they have taken, besides the usual (IG/FB post), the problems which you’re speaking about will continue to haunt photographers for decades to come. Here is an article from my friend Tim Layton, someone I work with, that will humble and SHOULD inspire most photographers. Welcome to the life of a true professional printer and then smile and realize that other half (the forgotten half) of the equation is complex yet yearning to be simplified too. https://timlaytonfineart.com/exploring-ilford-warmtone-fb-foma-131-classic-fb/
Thanks David. I’ll read that with great interest. As you say, real life is the only arbiter 😉 Hope you had a nice trip back and have settled into a pleasant winter routine by now. Cheers
Well stated, Pascal! You’ve explained exactly the issue with minimalism in photography – it’s a balance of how to selectively reduce a complex image (idea) to its essence. Easy to say, yet hard to do. Your lovely third image & the pano of tree trucks are beautifully complex and satisfying, and are speaking to me!
Thank you Nancee 🙂 Glad you agree, because your photographs are among those that inspired me to explore this idea in the first place 😉 Cheers !
Another set of enviable images. The B&W images of the city street, the valley, and the doors against the wood pile resonate with me.
Since much of what I do is in the realm of “Street” photography, I am chasing the magic moment. Which has given me pause to recognize that I haven’t conditioned my brain to see the longer view. When I was trying to be the next Ansel Adams, I was quite a bit better at recognizing the longer view. Today, if I were to go to a location captured by Michael Kenna, a few of which are less than 40 miles (66 km) from my house, I could not see, let alone capture, the subject the way he did.
And photographers like Michael Kenna have a huge advantage over me when it comes to time. The best I can do is visit an area and hope I get favorable conditions when I am there. Michael lives with his subjects for months, while the best I can get is days. So he makes the advantage of finding the subject and waiting for the right conditions, which for many of his images occur at night.
Hi Paul, indeed. I think one of the main differences between talented / proficient amateurs and pros is that the pros spend the necessary time on the job. It’s their money maker, and the time is justified. But, in the case of excellent artists, there’s also that incredible eye … Kenna is up there. Cheers.
Pascal, you obviously think much more deeply about these things than I.
You’ve made me consider why I sometimes gravitate to “simple” images.
With the seascapes, it’s an attempt to capture the emotion triggered by the perceived beauty of a vast sea of aquamarine and an even bigger sky of blue as far as my eye can see – I’m often transfixed by it, and often moved by it for reasons I cannot explain. If my photos can even begin to boil that down into a simple image then I’m happy.
With subjects architecture, I think I’m trying to create an “elegance” through simplicity. I’m very drawn to symmetry, forms and lines, and putting them in what I think is the “right” place in the frame removes a tension that a lack of symmetry would create in me.
I often feel my own “complicated” pictures are too “busy” and therefore confusing – but that’s because I’ve failed to know how to create a picture that can tell the correct story. I’m not good at “story”, so I think I try to replace it with simplicity.
Tension is an interesting observation. It was part of what interested me about the installation of the impact of people and the city on the environment – which was what inspired me to see trees against concrete or the wake of ships in the sea. I wasn’t confident that the message in these photos would be apparent – but if you see tension, then hopefully it was, on some level.
I’m simply not clever enough to take complex pictures.
Hi Adrian, you know what they say. Some people do, others think about doing. Maybe I just think too much, period 😉
It’s hard to describe what makes a simple image good or just boring. But your seascapes are always interesting. They never seem to start from a purely visual point of view. You always include that one (or 2) ingredients that create a compelling idea. The guy fishing with the plane in the background, for example. Is the plane bringing in more tourist firshermen? Is the firsherman a local annoyed by the flow of tourists … we never know, but the photographs introduce some form of interesting dialogue. Whereas some minmalist photos are just pretty and, after 5 seconds, feel like “so what?”
Putting things in the right place for balance. I understand that and feel a similar pleasure in doing so. It’s the joy of composition, and you do it marvelously with your architectural images.
Pascal, one thing I didn’t mention (and neither did you!) is the impact of the size and form of reproduction of a picture and the relationship to composition and content.
On my phone your “complex” pictures are hard to interpret due to scale. What works as a 6′ wide print in a gallery doesn’t work on a small screen.
I think this is what drives content on social media, because most is consumed on mobile. Either consciously, or more probably subconsciously because certain types of pictures get more likes, photographers who post to social media tend to show the type of pictures that get the best reaction on a small screen.
I also suspect that as so much social media is about lifestyle and a kind of aspirational airbrushed perfection, that favours certain types of picture.
So we shouldn’t ignore that size and medium may strongly influence what works best. Complex pictures on a small screen are simply difficult to interpret and understand.
Very true, Adrian. I hadn’t factored that in. Mer (comment below this on) makes this point too. I’m still in two minds about phones. As wonderful as they are in daily life, the idea that a phone screen could be the final fleeting destination for an image is very unsettling. Oh well …
A large chunk of the population has grown up viewing images on their phones. The small screen is their first and maybe only access to photography. On these small screens, simplicity rules – shapes and composition that can be taken in quickly, assessed, and then probably forgotten. Complexity that is appreciated on a larger screen or print is often squashed out of existence by the small screen and also the briefest of time spent viewing.
Still, there is some excellent composition going on in many simple images, the stuff that uses form-contrast-colour(?) to latch onto the subconscious. How many of these images would have viewing-pleasure-longevity, I guess the best way to know would be to print them and hang them on a wall for a period of time, but I ain’t going to do that.
Out of interest, I had a quick look through Sony World Photography 2022 shortlisted images. They are very small-screen friendly, but often have that knack of adding the extra good stuff when viewed large. A good example of this is the winner of Street photography – on the big screen it adds a lot of interesting detail and a real sense of ‘what the hell is going on here’. Some images have people that are only really obvious at a larger size, adding a sense of scale that is lacking when viewed on my phone.
One of the images from the Guardian’s ‘My favourite phone image’ section made it into the Motion shortlist and I’m pretty sure that there’s a bunch of other phone images spread across the categories. On a large screen, it’s obvious that images were assessed on content over pixel-peeping. Nice.
Ah, that’s an interesting thought. Living through phones does indeed reduce your interactions to a very minimal set of perceptions. To me, that feels like a shame. As useful – indispensable – as phones are, I feel that a creative hobby should be that one occasion when you can be free of their shackles. I find viewing goof photographs on a phone a depressing experience, because some photographs should be viewed small, other should be viewed large, and the phone hinders that.
But that’s just me and, as you say, some people are creating tremendous work with phones. Heck, I’ve even considered ditching my camera for a phone.
Ultimately, I don’t mind minimalist photography. It can be wonderful when it’s done for a reason. It’s the formulaic version that gets under my skin, and to which I far prefer photographs of reality, which is never minimalistic. Cheers.
Really interesting read. For me personally formulaic images are the boring ones regardless of complexity. That said I’ve taken my share of such pictures and still enjoy them if I have a personal connection to that moment.
I often compare everything to food. Take something very simple and common such as bread – the ingredients are just as simple and common. The type of flavours if you stick to the ingredients are rather limited as well. Yet the results can be so different .. if I pick up a bread in a grocery chain it won’t get me excited – even if they offer a large variety of types. I know pretty exactly what it’ll taste like and it’ll be the same the next day / month…
However if you take the time to properly bake a bread it can be so satisfying. Only the simplicity allows me to appreciate the finer details in texture, aromas etc. I’ll enjoy it even without any toppings. If I add cheese or something else with a very strong flavour the bread becomes more of a canvas and more subtle details get lost / require a training to still make out. You can make that dish more and more complex and it doesn’t necessarily gets better. However you might get away with a lower quality bread – the point of interest changed.
And I have friends that won’t appreciate the food or dislike it, mainly since it doesn’t taste the way they are used to. And that’s perfectly fine as well.
In a way that applies to photos too. For most here photography is a hobby and we have a certain curiosity that goes beyond the simple ‘consumption’. And we likely all have taken formulaic and simple pictures to understand it better or replicated a certain look, but eventually use it more purposefully or alter it to make it our own. That might be part of the reason why we are able to enjoy more complex pictures.
Cooking is actually a great analogy. I hadn’t thought of it. You can go to a very high class traditional restaurant (fine art) or to a very modern molecular cuisine place (which would be more conceptual photography). Both can be excellent in very different ways. And there are also big chains, predictable, average (or mediocre, depending how you want to look at it 😉 ) which are the formulaic, crowd-pleasing, photographs we find on Instagram, for instance. And since we’ve all made easy recipes and taken fomulaic photographs, those of us who enjoy fine cooking, probably enjoy fine photography in a similar way.