Simplicity vs Simple – these are two words that are so similar, but are also so different in meaning. And they trip photographers up every day.
Simplicity, elegance and purity are words that are associated with the best photographs. They talk to an image that wastes nothing on superfluous detail, on content that is not central to what the photograph is about. Many photographers, from Minor White and Ansel Adams to more modern masters like John Paul Caponigro, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Idris Khan all, in very different ways and with very different subject matter, bring simplicity to their work. Some have been directly inspired by ideas of simplicity inherent in Zen Buddhism, others with ideas of minimalism and abstraction from modern and contemporary art practice, and yet others from a desire to create an image that is coherent and whole.
Such an image is true to itself, the photographer who made it and the ideas the photographer was trying to capture. In fact, we sometimes think of them as honest images, and this is very close to the mark.
The process of creating such images is far from simple. The complexity in creating images with simplicity may lie in the actual equipment used, the photographic processes required to produce the final image or in the thought processes the photographer has needed to go through to get to that moment in time when it all comes together and the image is made, or in all of these.
Any photographic process is complex. Whether it is film in a pinhole that must be processed, dried, examined and then printed using more chemical processes and decisions at every step of the way or a completely digital one used the latest gear, complexity lies at every turn.
And this is where photographers are often confused – they believe that to create images with simplicity and elegance that they must use a simple process. The truth is there are no simple processes in photography. Chemical developing is complex, it only seems simple because of familiarity. Inkjet printing is likewise complex. And so it goes.
Processes do not have simplicity, elegance or purity. There is nothing pure about gum bichromate or film. People confuse processes from a more simple world with more simple processes. It is not true.
What a photographer should seek is a process or set of processes that allow them to express themselves most effectively. What those processes are does not matter in any way beyond the photographer. What matters is the resulting image. How the photographer got there may be interesting from a number of perspectives but is only a tiny part of the whole journey the photographer went on to produce that image. The most important process, what was going on in the photographer’s head, heart and soul generally lies hidden, only to be revealed by a careful contemplation of the image, consideration of the photographer’s other work, any writings they have provided about their thinking and perhaps some biographical study of the photographer’s life.
This is the real beauty of an image with simplicity – beneath that simplicity is a great and wonderful complexity of life, love and thought that brought the photographer to that point.
Where is your journey going to take you?