Minimalism is a word bandied about by some photographers and overlooked by many others. There’s so much more to it than excluding elements from our images, and embracing its wider meaning can transform the way we approach photography.
As the architect and last director of the Bauhaus, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, said, “less is more.” However, minimalism isn’t just the reduction of elements in a picture, but also the rejection of all that is ornate. Like most art movements, it began in the West as a denunciation of what had come before it. In this case, partly, modernist art, like that of Pablo Picasso, who later went on to embrace minimalism. In Western art and design, it first appeared in America in the 1960s. However, it predates that. Under a different name, the style of excluding clutter from art and design had been an important part of Japanese culture for centuries. Look, for example, at the following picture.
The Landscape of the Four Seasons (Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers) by Sōami, produced in the early 16th century, has a minimalist aesthetic typical of the Japanese culture for hundreds of years. It should be noted that the right-hand image should be viewed first, and from right to left. You can read the reason why here.
Like many art movements, that minimalist approach has its roots in philosophy. Zen Buddhism is concerned with reducing extraneous details from life. Meanwhile, in Western philosophy, the movement stems from the work of Gottlob Frege, and his philosophical examination of truth.
Within photography, minimalism is so much more than just excluding subjects from the frame. As with other visual arts, it can be considered that the image has its reality. With most photos we produce, we are depicting the world around us. Whereas, with minimalism, we are not trying to represent external reality, but asking the viewer just to respond to what is in front of them. Minimalist photographs have a refined beauty, representing a harmonious and simple order.
We are finding that beauty in the mundane and in unexpected things, often by highlighting abstract geometry. The images also have an honest quality, as they are not claiming to be anything more than what they are; they are not pretending to be something else. In minimalist photography, we are rejecting the depiction of reality.
To understand this principle, consider the following image. It is a sunrise over the sea, with the sun reflected in the water. The second is a crop of the same image. Without the context of the first image, the yellow line can lose meaning. It isn't necessarily the sun shining on the sea, just a yellow line across a textured surface.
Minimalist Photography Is Always Representative of Reality
There is a major difference between most minimalist art and minimalist photography. However hard we try for it not to be, a photograph is always a representation of the real world. Consequently, our minimalist images can, at first, just be geometric shapes, but on closer inspection or longer consideration, the subject becomes apparent. As accepted by modern Gestalt theory, our mind suddenly changes from seeing the shapes and patterns to the recognition of the subject. Accordingly, in our art, minimalism can also be considered a branch of abstract photography.
Using Minimalist Photographic Techniques
How can we introduce minimalism into our photography? Our approach to minimalism can be to capture either existing minimalist subjects or use camera techniques to achieve a minimalist result.
So, we can also look for subjects that are already minimalist, such as modern buildings, and even everyday possessions. The chances are that your cell phone, laptop computer, and some cameras are minimalist in design. Their form follows their function. Alternatively, there is a myriad of in-camera techniques including achieving a shallow depth of field, using long exposures, intentional camera movement, getting up extremely close or standing well away, shooting in fog, and using large areas of negative space.
Minimalism in Design
Within design and architecture, minimalism is the product of architect Louis Sullivan’s idea that form follows function. Taking this doctrine to its logical conclusion, all decoration and ornamentation become redundant. Inevitably, all that is left is stark negative space and the essential elements of the design.
Minimalism in design also differs from that of photography and the visual arts in that it is, in theory, a solution to maximize functionality. In art and photography, the minimalist approach is conceptual.
Minimalism in Everyday Life Is a Good Thing, Isn't It?
In recent years, adopting minimalism into everyday life has become in-vogue, and it is an approach not without its criticisms. Marie Kondo talks of ridding us of that which doesn’t "spark joy." It rang true to 11 million people who bought her Kon-Mari method book.
This approach is appealing. In the USA, households, on average, own over 300,000 things. Much of it is useless, just clutter that gets in the way. There’s something obscene about hoarding junk when so many people are homeless and starving. However, critics say that in attempting to achieve this minimalist style, we are creating “mountains of unwanted stuff” and, ironically, are needing to buy more things to fit with the minimalist aesthetic. Furthermore, that stark bareness can itself become overbearing and oppressive.
While some claim that in place of clutter, we are making room for time and creativity, others say that the space can restrict us.
Objects can be inspirational, and if we remove those objects from our lives, is that potential for creativity reduced? After all, many great creative minds were known for their untidy disarray of their workplaces: Beethoven and Einstein were renowned for their clutter and JK Rowling’s desk is famously messy. Research shows that while good health choices, generosity, and conventionality are typical of tidy minds, disorder produces creativity.
Is Enjoyment of Minimalism Subjective?
As with all things artistic, the enjoyment of minimalism in photography is subjective. I far prefer seeing photos with very simple compositions, and you may disagree. Nevertheless, herein lies a dichotomy. My appreciation of minimalist art and photography is at odds with my appreciation of ornate engineering, decorative architecture, and embellished design.
I believe that following minimalist principles in design, stripping away ornamentation, and sticking rigidly to the idea that form follows function, produces uninspiring bland ugliness. Thus, in architecture, I get a greater emotional response wandering through an ornate cathedral, mosque, temple, or palace than strolling the austere corridors of most modern edifices. Likewise, I am more inspired by my wife’s 19th-century writing bureau than a Panton chair.
I would rather look at a steam locomotive from the 1800s than a modern electric train. Similarly, classic cars are ornate things of beauty, whereas the simplicity of most modern automobiles is bland to look at. Then, compare the lines of the Mayflower with those of a cruise liner. Even the engineering of the Victorian sewage system in London, designed by Joseph Bazalgette, is a thing of beauty.
Furthermore, I believe that beauty and ornamentation are a function in themselves, therefore should be included in their form. For example, as I have written before, I far prefer using a camera that is inspiring to look at and use than a shapeless plastic lump. The strict adherence to form follows function often ignores that, but it's a concept that camera manufacturers have realized, with the OM System (Olympus), Fujifilm, and with their latest release, Nikon is catching onto.
However, contrary to my thoughts on design, removing extra elements from a photograph can usually improve it. The aesthetic of a simple, singular subject against a sea of negative space appeals to my mind’s eye. Does it yours?
This summary of minimalism is, of course, a generalization limited by the length of the article, and, as always, there are exceptions. It’s also a subjective view. But do you agree with me? Or are your views of minimalism the opposite of mine? I would be interested to hear your views.