Michael shows that less is more, and it’s what you leave out of an image that counts…
This is one path that you’ll be hard put to find anyone disagreeing with – and it extends way beyond photography to just about every creative endeavour you can think of, from writing to music… the power of simplicity.
There are lots of good quotes about reducing and simplifying, which is always a good sign. From photography we have Bob Carlos Clarke saying, “The essence of great photography is economy, and it’s all to do with confidence. Crap photographers don’t have any confidence and therefore they don’t have economy.” From the world of advertising there’s John Hegarty with: “Whatever you’re creating, simplicity is the ultimate goal. The power of reduction, as we say in advertising, means taking a complex thought and reducing it down to a simple, powerful message.” And my favourite, French philosopher Blaise Pascal ends a letter to a friend with: “My apologies for this letter being so long. Had I more time, it would have been shorter.”
In photography, it generally boils down to getting rid of stuff inside the frame, or at least, getting rid of clutter. The trick, if there is one, is knowing what to leave in and concentrate on – and having a reason for doing so. The techniques are generally to do with finding the right viewpoint that simplifies, framing that simplifies and a focal length that either excludes things or makes them appear too small to matter. One of the most convincing arguments for reducing in photography (apart from the fact that most viewers seem to like it) is that it’s very much about exercising control – about putting your stamp on a scene. As Pascal the letter-writer mentioned, reducing takes time and effort.
A little something
For the shot above, of the Bayuda Desert in northern Sudan (which is mainly desert anyway, but this bit is even more barren) I wanted to make a shot that said ‘emptiness’. Most photographers in deserts like raking light from a low sun that throws up ripples and dunes, and I admit to being partial to
that myself. In this instance, though, I wanted the opposite. I wanted the Godforsaken impression that you actually get from mile after mile of nothing, under a blazing hot sun.
Now it would have been possible to do a kind of Hiroshi Sugimoto and have a totally featureless sandy-coloured band topped by a blue band, but that would have been too abstract for my taste. So while it might sound paradoxical to step back from total blank emptiness, the scene needed some small hints and clues. Emptiness is actually about three-dimensional space, and for this I needed a few small features to give scale. It actually took a lot of driving time to find this lone bush, but it does the job of emphasizing the surrounding nothingness. And conventionally attractive light was definitely not wanted in this case. There was a wide choice for the angle of view – any angle that didn’t include the road or Land Cruiser – and I settled for this one, with two small mounds on the horizon forming a triangle with the bush.
Our globetrotting Contributor at Large, renowned photographer and prolific author Michael Freeman, presents a month-by-month masterclass that’s exclusive to
N-Photo, in which he explores his tried-and-tested paths to more creative photography. Michael has published dozens of books on photography, including the bestselling PerfectExposure.
If you enjoy this article and want to learn more, there are 50 more paths to be discovered in Michael’s new book Fifty Paths to Creative Photography (NB: all 50 are different from those that will be featured here in the magazine).
Three small visual elements actually enhance the sense of emptiness, and provide structure to the image