Minimalism in photography can arouse emotions and leave other observers indifferent. It’s an enigmatic ‘genre’ – or does it even deserve that accolade? Perhaps it’s only a tendency, even? After all, who sets the rules on how minimal an image needs to be in order to be considered minimal? Let’s explore the thoughts and images of some members of the Film Shooters Collective.
Most photographers would agree that minimalism starts with a process of reduction to some degree. And as a body of photographers that use film as a medium, the resultant slowing down of the creative process must surely be in tune with the minimalist ethos.
Colton Allen, who has a well known body of work with many images tending towards the more minimal, says that for him it’s 'about seeing past the noise of the world, and finding relevance in the seemingly insignificant. The texture of surface, the way a shadow falls, the simple beauty in shape and form. These are things we tend to take for granted and they go unnoticed.' Indeed, minimalist photography has often gone hand-in-hand with those, like William Eggleston, who photograph the banal, the overlooked or the incongruous and put them centre-stage, under the spotlight, revealing their beauty. So, despite being a process of material reduction, it’s also heavy with ready, creative potential.
But how much of a craft is it? Despite the apparent simplicity of the product, the effort required to acquire, compose and tell a visual story requires the photographic skills we all use in any genre. Is it more difficult to shoot a fine landscape study, taming all the inherent chaos and waiting for the perfect light, or wandering the streets endlessly and micro-composing that perfect traffic bollard? When done well, a minimalist photograph can emote like no other.
Darren Kelland quotes Leonardo DaVinci in saying that 'Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication' and asserts that minimalism requires confidence. 'With minimalism you have to be sure that your subject, composition, and colour palette are compelling enough to engage the viewer. There has to be the fabric of a story that is suggestive enough to allow personal conclusions to be drawn,' he says. Darren raises the bar even higher, challenging that 'The photographer must leave the viewer with an immense sense of sophistication, otherwise the photograph fails. There is no hiding place in a minimalist photograph.' So is minimalism one the highest aesthetic expressions in the world of photography, even?
In meeting this challenge Mark Hillyer admits 'I find it much harder to tell a coherent story by removing parts of the composition until only the bare necessities remain.' And he interestingly prefers to concentrate more on utilising negative space before the obvious choices of colour or other compositional elements. We often hear that what is left out can be as important as what’s left in a composition. Mark puts the case for minimalism beautifully and poetically: 'Minimalist photography is like trying to write a story with only a handful of words at your disposal. Sometimes a photograph can be worth a thousand words. A minimalist photograph is more akin to a Haiku.'
For Robert Rogers, it’s also a matter of what is excluded from an image as well as what is included. This extends to where the viewer is lead beyond the image itself. He uses the image to ask a question of the viewer: 'The photo does not answer the question, it only poses it,' he says. So a simple image can carry a strong narrative or convey a visual metaphor as effectively as a more complicated image.
Take a look at Brad Lechner’s image and see if you can relate to the balance he perceived and interpret your own narrative. 'The expanse of the sky behind my wife seemed to mimic the size of the hotel roof, which we had all to ourselves.' Space is a repeating and liberating feature of minimalism, a frame within a frame.
An accomplished photographer will often be able to scroll through endless images on the internet, pause on one fussy, chaotic image and message the author, recommending a crop. Once executed, a masterpiece is born, or if the image is very detailed, possibly several.
So how about setting those parameters we talked about in defining minimalism in the first place and do we really need them? Rajmohan remembers seeing 'entirely featureless white surfaces being exhibited, eliciting both acclaim and opprobrium.' So Rajmohan’s suggestion is that 'a minimalist image has to have at least one point of visual interest – the stronger and starker it is in contrast to the remainder of the image, the better. Even better if such an image can surprise, puzzle or startle the viewer.' And he positively asserts that minimalism is 'as much an art as any other genre/theme of photography.'
Or should we even try to put a label on the genre at all? Kevin Rosinbum thinks it’s 'inescapably indefinable,' as the more it is debated, the more vexing and elusive a definition becomes. But don’t worry, because Kevin’s appraisal is probably the best for most of us: 'I can't tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it,' he laughs.
But at the end of the day it’s all about how it makes you feel, isn’t it? Do we need to be invited to interpret a story or do we simply want to be immersed in beautiful, aesthetic abstraction? Repeated sentiments of solace and peace echo constantly throughout minimalist photography and none more so than in the work of Nils Karlson. His trademark abstract seascapes are about trying to convey a meditative state 'between breathing out and breathing in,' he says. Quoting from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Nils says 'At this moment, your state of mind is by nature pure emptiness. But this state of mind is not just blank emptiness, it is unobstructed, sparkling, pure and vibrant.' Nils and others are basically using their cameras and minimalism to photograph feelings.
Very much in agreement is Katt Merilo, who says that a minimalist image is meditative and a retreat from the unending stimulus that the modern world bombards us with. But returning to the discipline required, although an experienced photographer, she feels it’s not as easy to attain in practice. 'I find it difficult not to cram my images with as much information as I can, sometimes mistaking more information for more ‘interesting’. But then I see a really well done minimalist photograph and it’s the visual equivalent of a long, slow, deep, cleansing breath in the middle of a whirlwind. Sometimes you need to look at an emptier canvas to really get the picture.' Perhaps there’s an argument for serious photographers not to attempt complicated compositions until they’ve mastered the basics through minimalism? Or possibly it’s better the work the other way, slowly distilling an image to its pure essence?
Also in search of solace through minimalism is Danielle Beck. 'I am drawn to minimalism in my images quite often. I have been seeking minimalism overall in my life and so it only makes sense that I seek it out in my images as well,' she says. And so minimalism appears in lifestyle as well as architecture, design and across the arts. It seems to offer peace and refuge from our noisy, complicated world.
Citing minimalism’s ability to record the overlooked and grab her attention, Jane McLoughlin also reflects on the 'quietness and stillness' that these images can convey. And how? 'By taking a subject back to its bare minimum and giving it space, minimalist photographs allow me to pause and reflect. I love that.'
So, are you inspired by this discussion on minimalism? Louis Sousa heard about the work of American photographer Harry Callaghan whose work was shot within a few blocks of his office. So an enthused and energised Louis set off on a 'focused design to shoot sparse objects.' By looking at the work of the great photographers, we gain inspiration and ideas to build on and innovate in our own way.
Why not give it a go too? There appear to be no strict rules, other than an artistic intent and a reduction of visual clutter. Whether through your camera, your possessions or even your way of living, you may find solace as well as improving your photography.