The Bare Minimum

I have always found minimalism attractive. The stripping away of anything extraneous to what you are trying to say, leaving only what is needed. There’s a nobility, a pureness to it, something right. You feel the person made an effort on your behalf, that they cared. The French all round genius Blaise Pascale  made the point succinctly in a letter.  “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a shorter one”.

Working in the media, as I did, your pictures are not for other photographers to admire but to tell or illustrate a story.  Journalists are taught to make their writing direct and unflowery.  In principle the first sentence of a news story should set the scene and give you the who, what, where, why of it.

The picture with the story should be equally direct. Here’s an example. Years ago, London had the longest drought and hottest summer in memory. The facts and figures, the stories of water shortages were all there but somehow distant, hard to relate to day to day life. I was asked to shoot a picture to illustrate the story. I remembered driving across Blackheath, a London suburb and often seeing children playing with boats in the pond there. I wondered if there was any water left for them and drove down to see.

It was the start of the school holidays. The pond was sun baked and arid, bone dry. I saw some young boys playing near the pond and had an idea. One of the boys told me he would normally be sailing his toy yacht there. I went and spoke to his mother and we went and fetched his boat.

The boat aground in  heat crack and its fed up owner gazing miserably at it humanized the heat wave and won me a prize in a press pictures competition.


This was on a Nikon F with 24mm f2.8. The wide-angle was perfect for making the pond look bigger but especially, it reduced the scale of the trees in the background so that they could be a part of the composition rather than a distraction.

This is what I mean by a minimalist  picture, boat, boy, baked. It’s all there. However..

I recently made a video on composition and mentioned my minimalist credentials there. Then a few days ago, a comment on the video appeared from Soren Morenson

“Hi David, I like the video. Just a comment: at 3:30 you show some statues and say don’t add anything unless it tells something about the motiv. You may add…like people to show size or proportions”

Talk about hoisted by my own petard! One of the first things a trainee press photographer learns is to give scale to things in a picture. That’s why when you see pictures in the papers of objects up for auction at the big auction houses, they invariably show them being held up or looked at by a person (more precisely, an attractive female one). Here I’d photographed a statue in some sand dunes in Belgium. It was definitely minimalist, just statue and dunes – good! But I had given no sense of scale whatsoever – bad!

Did I do that? Minimalism is great but like everything else, if you become a slave to a rule it will turn round and bite you at some point. I remember reading how a musician had asked Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash, if he could use a certain chord after another one and Nash had replied that there aren’t any rules. The musician noted how that simple remark had liberated his song writing.

 I had embraced minimalism so fully that it was in danger of it blinkering me. The picture of the statue wasn’t so much minimalist as lacking something.  I felt slightly miffed when I read Soren’s remark but a glance at the pic said I was wrong and he was right.

Minimalism doesn’t mean bare, It means unembellished. Information is not embellishment.

Thanks Soren!

2 thoughts on “The Bare Minimum

  1. Rob

    I have been following your blog for about 6 months and wanted to let you know that I appreciate your topics and perspective. This introspection on minimalism is case in point. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Post author

      It makes me very happy to read a comment like that and thanks for it, Rob. Happy new year!


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