Artistic Minimalism dates back to the 1960s (at least), when a group of primarily New York-based painters, interior designers, and sculptors began turning away from the more subjective abstract impressionism in vogue at the time. Instead of producing more complicated, busy, and subjective works, the artists instead sought to simplify and reduce their pieces. The phrase “Less is more” commonly applies to this kind of work.
Some photographers have followed this trend, though landscape photography is perhaps the most challenging genre for would-be minimalists. While a photographer working in a studio has more or less complete control of what he or she shoots, the landscape photographer contends with nature, unruly and messy as she often is. Inconveniently placed boulders, trees, bushes, mountains, or clouds can make for some interesting challenges. It is also rarely possible for a landscape photographer to find geometric shapes, which is considered a tenet of minimalism. So in real ways minimalist landscape photography departs from the strict definitions.
I quickly discovered how difficult it is to find isolated subjects when I began shooting landscape photography in the deserts of New Mexico. We don’t have much in the way of “clean” deserts like you might find in parts of Arizona, Utah, California, and Nevada. Finding an interesting subject that I could isolate from everything around it proved nearly impossible. But in a very real way this challenged me to get more creative and look at places I had not considered.
My first truly minimalist photo was a lone hummingbird on a telephone line, taken as I walked my neighborhood practicing with my camera. I was surprised at how aggressively this tiny emperor drove off any bird that dared to enter his kingdom. He chased away not only hummingbirds, but even birds many times his size. At some point I began to realize he must be lonely, despite “owning” all that space. The negative space in the photo suggests this.
If you look long enough in New Mexico there are ways to isolate a subject and minimize the distractions around it. At Tent Rocks National Monument I captured a small pine tree resolutely growing out of the side of a steep wall. I wondered how that seed found its way into that unusual spot, and how the tree it produced managed to cling to life. I also like the relative “cleanliness” of the rock, and the absence of other distractions.
This lone tree at El Malpais National Monument is also suggestive of a minimalist style.
Sand dunes can be a source of powerful minimalist images. Often, these can blur into abstract minimalism, as can be seen in some of my photos from White Sands and The Great Sand Dunes in Colorado.
Winter, of course, provides some of the richest environments for minimalism in photography. A heavy blanket of pure snow erases virtually all of the distractions below it. The bitter cold of winter also reduces the color palette significantly, removing saturated hues and replacing them with darker, understated tones. In the image of the lone tree on the Sandia Summit ridge (below) the combination of snow and heavy clouds behind the tree almost completely isolates the tree from its environment. (Incidentally, I did almost no processing on this photo; it is as close to a RAW file as I’ve ever published). I had hiked by this tree a couple dozen times prior to the day I photographed it; it was only when the conditions were ideal that the image worked.
While I have felt the sometimes-strong temptation to pack a landscape image full of everything I can get into the frame, it is becoming increasingly challenging and fun to do the opposite. It takes genuine restraint to pass up the grand vista and instead find a single subject and isolate it as much as possible. It can also entail much more work.
In the case of the photo series of small streams cutting through snow in Alaska, I spent several days hiking in winter, looking for just the right streams. During those hikes I passed up many shots of mountains and of much more impressive rivers. When I finally found the right area I hiked up and down the streams for hours, looking for virgin snow and interesting angles. Far from happenstance, these were some of the most labor intensive photos I have taken yet. I took hundreds of photos of these streams, working with different heights, angles, filters, exposure settings, cloud cover, sun light, and more, and ultimately ended up keeping four shots. (That is a good return on investment, given how many photos I generally discard).
There are also some rules or esthetics that I adhere to when striving for minimalism. The most significant (by far) is to use as little post processing as I can to faithfully reproduce what I saw or felt. By extension, that implies that I must do majority of the work in the field, finding clean shots, and not relying on a computer to remove mistakes later. I use very minimal processing in general, but certainly no more so than when I am producing minimalist shots.
Properly done, a good minimalist landscape photo looks simple and clean, and is readily accessible to the viewer. The images can bring a sense of peace and serenity to a home, while inviting the viewer to linger a while and study them. I like that these photos compliment virtually any decorative style. It’s hard to go wrong. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I enjoyed finding and capturing them.