by julie posted April 17, 2009

Can simplicity have depth in photography?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the parallels and the differences between photography and painting. Because painting is (possibly, depending on your own viewpoint) about the process of creation by hand, brush stroke after brush stroke, and this contributes a large amount to the value of the finished piece. It gives you something to think about when you”’re looking at it. So when something is created by mechanical and electronic means and within a fraction of a second, what do we look to, when we’re trying to find the artist in the work? There seems to be a general belief that there’s skill involved in balancing images with complicated compositions – or even, not balancing them in order to say something, or balancing them so that what is actually complicated doesn’t seem so. Then there’s the inherent quality of photography that allows us to capture more detail in a scene than we could actually perceive at the time, and come back to marvel at it in the resulting image. It seems to be about having plenty to look at in a photograph.

So what happens when we have simple photographs? Can they only ever be suitable for superficial appreciation? Surely within minutes of browsing something like Michael Kenna’s work it’s clear that there’s something else to it, beause even though sometimes the compositions are pared down to the minimum, there’s something else there. And he does it, over and over and over again, and I remember seeing his stuff years ago and I still love the same images now that entranced me back then.

I like to shoot simply. I found out early on that to make my images work, I had to strip them down to the bare bones of what I was photographing before I was happy. But I wonder, when you’ve done that so much that you don’t have to think about it anymore, does it start to get repetitive? Is it too ‘easy’? I think it takes skill to suggest the form of something with only a couple of strokes of a brush but a simple photograph just doesn’t have the same foundation. I’m floundering a bit trying to distill my musings into a concise question but the closest I can get is:

What’s the value in simple images?

6 Responses to simplicity

  1. The value in simplicity is the same as the value in any abstract art — you strip away much of the context and let the viewer do more of the “work”.

  2. I do think that simple images have great value. When you strip them down to their very essence, as you do, they open up a world of possibilities.

    I’m not quite sure why we work so diligently to find out voice, seek out our own style, find it, then question if “that’s all there is?” rather than to continue to explore that quiet voice. I guess that it’s just the nature of the beast to constantly seek dissatisfaction.

    I looked at Michael Kenna’s work and those images very much speak to me, as do some of yours. They are simplicity personified and each one of them speaks to that quiet voice within me. That little seen or felt peace that is frequently overwhelmed with the constant noise of the world.

    It is so good that you have found your voice. Stay there and explore it. It’s good that it is second nature.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days…..

    I posted a shot on boards the other day, and somebody (whose work I greatly respect, if that matters) commented that it reminded him of Thailand, my first reaction was to think, well it was a lot colder, but then I thought, my simple shot took him to Thailand, how cool is that….

    One thing I’ve learned since I became involved in a camera club is that you can never really know how an image will be received, folks can pick up on (what seems to me) the strangest things in an image and really go for them and also reject out of hand what I would have thought to be good……..

    Anyway enough of my ramblings, I don’t think there is really anything such as a simple image, the good ones have the power to take the viewer somewhere, maybe somewhere good, or bad, but they have evoked a response and that’s not simple to do….

  4. I think somewhere there is a quote that says something along the lines of how wisdom is found in brevity. I think the same can apply to photography. The more we simplify, the more we get in tune with what has attracted us, and the ability to communicate that to a viewer.

  5. Perhaps simple images have an appeal because their simplicity short circuits the mental noise that often occurs in busy or complex images. When presented with a complex image the mind automatically starts labelling and filtering in accordance with memories and beliefs. With a simple image the mind quickly quietens down as there is little for it to grasp onto and with the mind out of the way clear seeing happens, the effects or consequences of which cannot be described of course as this would merely be more mental noise. Some experiences simply get lost in translation when the mind gets involved. Perhaps this is why art appreciation is such a personal thing.
    Abstracts and minimalistic images, I imagine, work in a similar way.
    Just as eternity can be found in the briefest second, unfathomable depths can sometimes be seen in the simplest image.

    btw, thanks for introducing me to Michael Kenna :)

  6. It’s nice when I’ve been toiling with a question in my head and other people can come along and answer it in different ways, but contribute to an overall better understanding of the subject. Cedric’s point about how our minds automatically start labelling and categorising and filtering elements of complex images especially brought a whole new way of looking at it, and I’m mulling over that now…

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