Although I wouldn’t label all of my work as minimalist, it is heavily informed by many of the same principles. Perhaps this comes from my background in graphic design. I appreciate the elegance of minimalism in the same way an engineer would appreciate the simplicity and efficiency of a well-designed machine with no redundant or extraneous parts. However, minimalism seems to be a style that many people don’t get. Some may view it as purely esoteric, but I also wonder if people mistake simplicity for lack, failing to see just how much artistry actually goes into a concise composition solution. Minimalist art is not the same as abstract art, but they do have areas of overlap. Since I’ve previously written much on the subject of abstraction, I’ll try to avoid repeating similar concepts. This post is the first of a two-part series that I hope will offer some insight into the craftsmanship and creativity that goes into paring down a composition of all nonessential components, particularly within the medium of photography. I hope to convince you of the elegance of a reductionist approach to composition, and that achieving simplicity takes much more finesse than you might expect.
The Art of Exclusion
It has been said that photography is an art of exclusion. I don’t typically relate to broad generalizations, but I wholeheartedly concur with this assessment of the medium. I’m hard pressed think of any other visual art form that so consistently presents reality as an obstacle to the artist; as a problem to be solved.
This dilemma might be easier to explain with a quick analogy: If a painter is working on a scene with an old barn on a grassy field and doesn’t like the look of the highway bridge in the background, he simply doesn’t paint it into the scene. A photographer approaching the same scene has to be a little more innovative because her camera is going to capture whatever she allows in front of it. To exclude unwanted elements in the composition requires good problem solving skills and a solid understanding of the different techniques photographers use to organize a scene: focal length, depth-of-field, motion blur, proximity, angle of view, etc. Unfortunately, even with the skilled implementation of the above techniques, photographers are sometimes forced to compromise our desired or ideal composition to keep unwanted elements out of the shot. [I’m well aware that many modern photographers are incorporating newer technologies of digital manipulation and multi-image composites as additional ways of solving such problems, but that is a whole different discussion]