Have you ever lost yourself in one of those photos with a large empty portion, with only the sky or maybe a massive green field, and an object or person that stands out perfectly? Well, welcome to minimalism in photography.
We often get a dreamy and serene feeling when looking at these photos, but why? How is minimalist photography different, and why does it convey unique energy?
We’ve got answers for you – our fellow enthusiasts of minimalism in photography. Keep reading and learn more about what minimalist photography is, what distinguishes it from other styles, and who are the photographers exploring simplicity through their cameras.
Table of Contents
What is Minimalist Photography?
Minimalism in photography holds on to the rooted attachment to meaning. As we’ve pointed out in other articles, minimalism is a philosophy of simplicity, based on Zen principles, but it’s far from the emptiness people (wrongly) tend to associate with what’s minimal. Minimalists find meaning in the essential, or in other words, find the bare essential meaningful and fulfilling. And minimalism in photography is aligned with that mindset.
That being said, minimalist photography is a form of art that can convey feeling but is devoid of massive visual stimuli. This type of artistic project works as a much welcome break from the crazily intense world we live in.
In minimalist photography, the primary focus is on a striking subject. This subject must be stripped down to its essence in an environment free from clutter. However, more often than not, this is challenging as there is a fine line between a minimalist photograph and a simply boring shot. The photographer must be able to capture the true nature of the subject in a way that evokes an emotional response from the viewers without resorting to many colors, shapes, or textures. To achieve this, minimalist photographers must develop their creative power/creativity and be able to observe their surroundings in a particular, attentive way. Seeing beyond the obvious allows photographers to find the best subjects and thus capture the perfect moment.
To make the subject the central element of the photograph, photographers use a minimal amount of compositional elements and take a photo with few colors, patterns, and shapes. Again, this simplicity won’t result in a dull work: on the contrary, it will be intriguing for art lovers. Without a million details to pay attention to, the viewer manages to focus on the subject and is allowed to be creative and simultaneously analytical. Why analytical though? Because simple works like minimalist photographs are divided into layers. If, at first, it’s just a house by a river, the more you look, the easier it gets to decode the message and maybe develop a whole narrative around what you see. Simple things can be the most difficult to solve – Hemingway created the world’s shortest short story and to this day there are still people peeling its many many layers. Simple, but able to provoke a response, see?
There are common elements to minimalism in photography, which we will address in the following point. However, as you may already know, minimalism is flexible, as it adapts to what you need. You might find meaning in a photo with 5 colors instead of one or two – that doesn’t automatically mean it’s not minimalist. Keeping your work to the bare essentials and finding meaning in every aspect is key.
History of Minimalism in Photography
Although minimalism is thought to have originated in China, as a mixture of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, it was Japanese minimalism that inspired Western minimalism. Japanese minimalism is a descendant of the Zen Buddhist philosophy, which means that whoever intends to adopt the minimalist way of being must be aligned with the ideals of achieving tranquility and finding meaning in life through simplicity. And this is precisely what happens in the world of minimalist photography.
The history of minimalism in the West began in the 1950s. Innovative artistic movements surge for several reasons, but we can point out two that were decisive in the appearance of minimalism. Firstly, the movement surged as a reaction to a few artists that felt the need to part ways with abstract art, namely abstract expressionism. Shortly after, the minimalist principles spread from painting to other forms of art, such as sculpture, cinema, literature, and, of course, photography. Secondly, the social, economical, and political consequences of the Second World War became part of daily life then and so artists sought to bring the message and enjoyment of art back to the people’s daily life through simple works set on basic elements, such as color and line.
Thus, even if in different forms, photographers started to focus on the purity of a subject and eliminated all distractions. Some embraced black and white images. Others focused on showing how minimal elements can make up a meaningful work of art.
But the result is the same: seemingly strange, empty photos that in reality tell a story without the need for compositional components – only the essential, which is enough to convey a concept, an idea, or symbolism.
The Key Elements of Minimalist Photography
Minimalism in photography aims at conveying a message or a concept while getting a reaction from the viewer by featuring only what the photographer deems essential.
Even though, as previously stated, it may appear in different forms and styles, there are a few guiding lines that facilitate the process of creating a work of minimalist photography.
Therefore, the main elements of minimalist photography are:
To create a beautiful, meaningful minimalist photo there must be negative space, which the Japanese call ma. Negative space, simply put, is open, decluttered, or empty space. For example, if you take a photograph of an object and the background is a large chunk of blue sky, the sky is your negative space.
But negative space is not merely empty space. It’s a spatial interval in which there are infinite possibilities for imagination, emotion, reflection, and much more. This is a key concept in Zen Buddhism, hence its importance within minimalism. For Zen Buddhists, it allows your mind to stop and think, as opposed to the constant frantic state we live in. And this silence and perceived emptiness allow us to search and assess the meaning of our experiences and ultimately grow as persons.
Minimalism in photography relies on negative space to create a contrast between the subject and the background. As mentioned before, the subject must be the central piece of minimalist photography. The rest must be minimal and composed in a way that subject stands out. That is what negative space helps achieve. The viewer will go about the photograph fluidly and will focus on a striking subject without feeling overwhelmed by other elements in the image.
The photographer has the freedom to choose which and how much negative space there will be in the photograph according to the impact they’re trying to make.
Color and Texture
Color can make a beautiful, vivid but still simple image that awes the viewer, but you can also achieve the same level of beauty – or even more – just with black and white. Many minimalist photographers stick to black and white photographs because they want their work devoid of anything unnecessary, even color.
Textures, on the other hand, can be very useful in creating a striking image. They appeal to our senses – touch, specifically – and may add depth to a photo without being a distraction.
Powerful composition is paramount in minimalist photography. How you choose to position objects in your image is going to impact the viewer’s perception far more deeply than you might believe. Creativity and the ability to challenge oneself can create a unique work, as long as the photographer is capable of conveying meaning through the image.
Establish firstly what it is that you want to convey and then make your choices accordingly. Some minimalist photographers seek symmetry, whereas others explore the rule of thirds to create a unique piece.
More often than not, the composition of minimalist photographs relies on geometric forms and patterns – hence the symmetry some artists seek. A geometric image is almost naturally free from clutter and excessive details since everything is so visually organized. Also, can we agree on how much more satisfying it is for the eyes?
Using perfect lines and shapes not only to helps achieve the cleanliness and tranquility minimalism requires but also creates a sense of distance in the image. Sometimes, the lines can also convey a message. Although the lines will likely guide the viewer’s eyes to the subject – that is the point – they can also play a particular role. For example, they might represent division, balance, animosity, and more.
And, of course, keeping, things simple. One subject, negative space, and textures are enough to create a fantastic work of art. And don’t forget to tell a story. Capture a moment in a way that captivates those who may come to observe it.
Who Are the Most Important Minimalist Photographers?
Kenna is a well-known British minimalist landscape photographer. His work consists of black and white photos taken at odd hours of the day, usually at dawn or dusk. The photographer justifies this choice of time by saying that “you can’t always see what’s otherwise noticeable during the day”. The reason behind the choice of black and white is equally interesting. As color is part of our daily existence, Kenna finds a unique and appealing mystery and silence in the absence of color.
Coincidentally, this minimalist photographer has shared how he is inspired by the landscapes of Japan, a country that has been the subject of his work many times.
Michael Kenna’s work has been shown across the world and is featured in permanent collections, such as The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, Prague’s The Museum of Decorative Arts, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Sugimoto is a Japanese photographer whose unique work got worldwide recognition. From eerie images of seascapes to vivid photographs and dioramas of inside natural history museums to collections of movie theatres and drive-ins images, Sugimoto managed to give minimalism a fantastic name.
His photographs are on exhibition in prominent museums all over the world, such as the Tate Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Madoz sees in objects the possibility to create narratives through photographs, and that alone makes it worth it to take a look at his work. Born in Spain, this minimalist photographer uses objects of our day-to-day lives and transforms them in a way that accentuates their characteristics on camera.
Madoz has exhibited his work in many countries, such as Argentina, Spain, and Russia.
Tekla Evelina Severin
And because minimalism in photography appreciates some contrast, here is a photographer who says a loud yes to color in her work. Tekla Evelina Severin is a colorist and it shows in her photographers. She is also a designer with a BA in interior architecture and furniture design who finds artistic value in lines, shapes, and, of course, colors.
Téber’s professional goal is to convey optimism, joy, and enlightenment through his photographs. To achieve so, he uses mainly bright colors “creating a sense of eternal sunshine with pastel shades, clean lines, and a hyper-real sheen, rejecting the current situation in his native country”, Venezuela.
After sharing his work on social media, Téber caught the attention of big brands who find value in cheerful and minimal compositions for advertising purposes. Some of the brands with which Téber has collaborated are Google, Adidas USA, Uniqlo, and Ajax.
Hiltermann is a minimalist portrait photographer. He found in the unaltered image of the human face the simplicity he sought. This artist’s portraits are hyper-realistic and minimal: the subject – the person – is stripped down t is as emotionless as possible, looking directly at the camera, without any make-up, hairdos, or flamboyant accessories. The result is a subject – the person – stripped down o its most natural state, to its essence.
Examples of Minimalism in Photography