Monthly Archives: February 2015

Minimalism

Sunset Over the Front Range Denver, Colorado, 2015

Sunset Over the Front Range
Denver, Colorado, 2015

A lot of the photographers whose work I admire seem to get labeled with the appellation “minimalist.”  While I have a working sense of what minimalism in photography is, I was curious if there was a formal definition or approach.  After doing a little looking online, it turns out there doesn’t really seem to be a consensus, so I’ll go with the definition set forth in my favorite non-authoritative source of knowledge, Wikipedia – “movements in various forms of art and design… where the work is set out to expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts.”

Minimalism causes a bit of a tension for me in my practice of photography.  For the most part, my photography comes to me fairly naturally.  I see things in the world that provoke my visual interest.  I react to them with my camera, and I edit the camera’s captures to translate them into what I saw with my mind’s eye.  It is, blessedly, a fairly simple and straightforward process, at least at it’s most basic and fundamental level.

Not so with minimalism.  In my mind’s eye, I can easily visualize the kinds of minimalist imagery I would  like to be making.  In the real world, it’s difficult to isolate minimalist compositions from all of the background clutter and visual noise.  Whereas most of my imagery results from compositions that practically jump out at me from the seen world, with minimalism for the first time it’s just the other way around – I’m having to work to try to see where the minimalist compositions are.  As of right now, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

As an aside, I will say that about 98% of the minimalist photographs I see out there – at least in the landscape realm – seem to be scenes of water or snow.  This is understandable, since water and snow are naturals for minimalist compositions.  I live in Colorado, a state not known for its extensive shorelines or large bodies of water, so my opportunities to use water in this way are limited.  We do get a fair amount of snow here in Colorado, but being a good Coloradoan, if there’s snow on the ground I’m usually skiing on it, so I probably miss a lot of photographic opportunities that way.

In any case, if you take water and snow away, it seems there’s a lot less role models to look to for minimalist photography.  I think the image in this post fairly can be called minimal.  It consists of only three elements (the mountains, the sky, and the thin strips of clouds) and just about only two tones (nearly pure black, nearly pure white, and a small portion of grey tones in between).  Keeping with my working definition of minimalism set forth above, I hope it captures the essence of the sunset over Colorado’s Front Range, at least as I saw it on that particular day, by eliminating all of the non-essential things that were unnecessary to communicate that essence.

Speaking of eliminating non-essential things, you may be interested to know where this image was photographed.  Spoiler alert – if you like to experience your photography purely, without knowing the story behind the work, then read no further.

This image was photographed in the parking lot of the Park Meadows mall in suburban Denver, Colorado.  Just outside of the bottom edge of the frame, not included in the image, are the miles and miles of sprawling city lights of Denver, and if I had moved the frame just a bit lower, you would see the light poles and concrete parking spaces of the mall.  Photographing with my camera and tripod set up, I can’t tell you how many strange looks I got from busy shoppers heading to their cars with their day’s purchases, and I suspect the circling mall security patrol might have given me trouble if I had stayed longer.  Still, it’s consistent with my firm belief that compelling images can be seen just about anywhere, no matter where you have to plant your tripod’s legs to capture them.

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Formalism

Architecture Study, Series 1, No. 7 (Julie Penrose Fountain) Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2014

Architecture Study, Series 1, No. 7
(Julie Penrose Fountain)
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2014

I’ve become interested recently in the idea of formalism in art and how that may play a role in my photography.  At the outset, I should state that I have no formal training in art or photography, and so my thoughts on this subject are based only on my own experiences making images and what I have otherwise read or taught myself.  That being said, my understanding of formalism in visual art is that it is an approach to making images that stresses the purely visual aspects of the image – line, shape, texture, etc. – rather than other ways to interpret the image, such as what the subject is, what the concept is, any social or historical contexts, etc.

Formalism really resonates with me.  I think it’s always been the crux of the way that I see things photographically.  To me, objects in the world are more than things that happen to be in my field of view.  Lines have power, they slice through the air in arcs or diagonals, or create balance and harmony in horizontals and verticals.  Shapes have weight, they pull and tug on things and need to be arranged and balanced.  Textures have feel, the smooth ones feel like you could reach out and glide across them, the rough ones feel like they could skin your knee.  Composing a photograph is mostly a fascinating and immensely enjoyable game that’s all about managing these powers, weights, and feels to arrange them in pleasing, harmonious or interesting ways.

What’s missing in this approach?

Well, for starters, there’s not a whole lot of emphasis on the subject.  In this image, the subject is the Julie Penrose Fountain, a large work of public art in a park in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  However, the image is not about the fountain, at least not to me.  If you were to look up a picture of the fountain online, I think you would agree that this image does not represent what the fountain really looks like in a faithful or representative way.  Rather, this image to me is all about the lines, the shapes, and the textures.  And not even these lines, shapes, and textures in an abstract, theoretical way, but rather in the way that the lines convey power in their sweep, that the shapes defy gravity in their curves, and that the metal surfaces create fluidity in their smoothness.

What else is missing?  There’s no particularly cerebral concept here – the photograph basically is a visual game, and represents no deeper thinking than simply the impact that the visual information has.  Also missing is any social or historical context – it just doesn’t matter to me when this fountain was erected, or why, or even who Julie Penrose (the fountain’s namesake) was.

If there’s a criticism of formalism, I suspect the criticism is that formalism is cold, emotionless, and detached.  I respectfully disagree.  While it’s certainly possible that formalistic art can be cold, emotionless, and detached – any art can be bad – there’s nothing about a formalistic approach that commands this result.  Instead, when used well, I think formalism serves to bring out and highlight the emotional impact of an image, for example by emphasizing aspects such as power, weight, and feel, and eliminating competing and potentially distracting elements like concept and context.

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Outside, Looking In

Bristlecone Pine, Mosquito Range Windy Ridge, Near Alma, Colorado, 2014

Bristlecone Pine, Mosquito Range
Windy Ridge, Near Alma, Colorado, 2014

There’s a certain image of a landscape photographer that seems to be held in high regard these days.  This kind of landscape photographer is a person who immerses himself deeply into the wilderness, perhaps spending days or weeks at a time removed at great distances from civilization and insulated from all human contact.  A person who travels at great lengths and through epic hardships in order to reach places ordinary people can’t.  A person who communes so intimately with nature that he or she appreciates it on a level that normal people do not, and for whom a camera almost is secondary to the outdoor experience, such that any images made manage to be somehow both incidental to the outdoor experience and yet still attain virtue in a way that cannot be achieved by those among the crowded field of ordinary photography.

I’m not that person.

Yes, I enjoy being outside, but my backcountry skills are limited and my outdoor experiences mostly are confined to daytime trips.  Yes, I enjoy a good hike to get somewhere interesting, but most of my photography is done fairly close to my car.  Yes, I often get to locations away from crowds of people, but I don’t eschew the popular overlooks or the landmark destinations.

The problem is, landscape images made by the kind of photographers first described above seem to be treated with a kind of almost reverence that images made by other photographers don’t get.  There seems to be a link made between a person who commits a great deal of time and resources to being in the landscape, and the quality of the images that this person makes there.  It’s an extension of the idea that the photographer is more important than the photograph, an idea that usually is treated with disdain by most photographers I’ve met, but somehow seems subtly validated in the field of landscape photography.

I don’t begrudge those who choose to approach landscape photography in the manner first set forth above.  Really, I don’t.  But there seems to be a negative implication among those who do that those who don’t cannot make landscape photographs that are equally worthy, and I do have a problem with that.

Ultimately, landscape photography is more about the photography, and less about the landscape.  It’s more important to see the landscape through the eyes of an artist, not the eyes of a wilderness adventurer.  It’s more important to be knowledgeable about photographic techniques and equipment than about backcountry survival skills.  It’s more important to feel moved by the landscape on an emotional level regardless of the ability to move through it on a physical level.

I suspect my views on this are out of the mainstream.  I’m okay with that, even though sometimes it feels like I’m on the outside, looking in.  But being on the outside and looking in sometimes is not a bad place to be.  It tends to create a perspective that is less common, more unique when compared to that of the “in” perspective – a potentially powerful tool when applied with creativity and restraint.

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