Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
– Albert Einstein
This is one of my favorite quotes about photography, along with “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are” (Minor White) and “Anything more than 500 yards from the car just isn’t photogenic” (either Brett or Edward Weston, depending on who you ask). Okay, the Einstein quote probably wasn’t about photography specifically, but I find it highly applicable to this discipline.
In previous posts, I talked a bit about my takes on Formalism and Minimalism. Simplicity, to me, is a broader, more ambiguous concept. The best description I’ve been able to come up with is that it is the absence of unnecessary complexity. In this sense, works that are formal or minimal probably would be considered simple, but not necessarily vice versa. The image in this post, for example, has formal elements, but to me the overall arrangement of the elements is just a little too imprecise for it to be truly formal. Similarly, the image has an element of minimalism, but there’s just a little too much detail in the background for me to call it truly minimal. On the other hand, to say that the image embodies simplicity sounds about right to me. It’s about striking just the right balance between too much and too little – being made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
There’s many ways to achieve simplicity in a photograph. Here, the very foggy conditions I encountered one day last summer on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park did much of the work for me at the point of capture. I built on that by adding, with judicious application, white gradients around the edges of the frame. To me, this heightened the effect of the fog and created the illusion of added sharpness and contrast in the trees, the illusion resulting from the juxtaposition of the trees (which were not covered by the gradient) against the soft and high-key background (which was subject to the gradient). The white gradients at the frame edges also serve to reinforce direction of the viewer’s attention to the trees centering the composition, kind of a nifty flip of the old photographer’s trick of darkening the edges of the frame.
Simplicity is a virtue. While I appreciate and try my hand at more specialized approaches to photography, such as formalism and minimalism, simplicity still is the benchmark I keep in mind as the basis that underlies my fundamental approach to making images.