The old aphorism “less is more” is true of many creative pursuits and landscape photography is no exception. Deciding on a composition when framing a scene is an exercise in subtraction. Unlike the painter who starts with a blank canvas and builds up his image by the addition of paint, as photographers we work in the other direction. We constantly remove superfluous detail from around the edges and frame our composition to only include intended elements. This exercise in subtraction or simplification is often pivotal to the creation of powerful imagery.
Minimalism is a relatively recent trend in the arts, only emerging in the later half of the last century. Minimalism refers to any art or music that is stripped down to its most essential features, minimizing unnecessary and distracting details or embellishments. This idea sits comfortably with the subtractive nature of photographic composition, which is also concerned with minimizing unnecessary detail although many would argue that true minimalist art only includes what we might consider extreme examples. Perhaps the term ‘post-minimalist’ is more encompassing and descriptive of the images you see here. Post-minimalism refers to any art that has been influenced by or builds upon that strictly described as minimalist.
Short moments of silence can immeasurably strengthen the impact of a great speech or musical piece. The Japanese have a word “Ma” which has no direct equivalent in the English language but describes the emptiness or space forming part of something, which although empty, helps form the essence of it. For example, the empty space within a bowl is an equally important part of the overall function as the material from which it is made. Such empty or “negative” space forms an important constituent of many images and its inclusion frequently provides an important counter-balance to the main subject, significantly strengthening its presence.
Another, maybe less obvious way we can allow aspects of minimalism to influence photographic style is to minimise the complexity of colour in our imagery by creating compositions that use a limited number of colours. This is one reason why black and white images can be so powerful, they minimise distraction created by otherwise interesting and eye-catching colours. Alternatively, colour can often enhance photographs by influencing image-mood. An awareness of such benefits while minimising distractions can take our creativity to another level and optimize the impact of our imagery. I will often limit my use of colour but still make blatant use of it’s power to influence the mood of an image and this is especially true of the colour blue, a personal favourite and constituent of some of my most successful images. Alternatively, I have found that using a limited palette of suggestive pastel shades can introduce a beautiful yet powerful subtlety to landscape images.
As mentioned earlier, the minimalist aesthetic is concerned with minimising distracting or superfluous detail, so in searching for the minimal vista we are looking for simple compositions. Scenes with large more homogenous areas lacking in detail to help “set-off” a relatively more complex or detailed main subject are ideal. Such simplicity may be introduced by lighting, location or weather. Twilight can often simplify colour as well as dramatize it, especially during nautical twilight when the sun is well below the horizon and a more saturated but homogenous dark blue becomes dominant.
Wide-angle lenses have a wonderful perspective for the minimalist, with a careful choice of viewpoint we can use their wide perspective to make background features appear smaller and less distracting. Pointing our lenses upwards to include more sky is another powerful way of minimising clutter in landscape compositions. However, my favourite method of minimising background clutter is by assuming control of the dynamic aspects, especially moving clouds and water, using long exposures to “smear” and “blend” them into a homogenous expanse.