A Whole Lotta Nothin'

“There is no 'there' there.” Gertrude Stein

In 2010 I watched a film titled ”Salt“ on the PBS program “POV.” Murray Fredericks, an Australian photographer, created the film to document 16 solo trips he made to his country's Lake Eyre, a usually dry salt pan in Australia's Outback. Fredericks loaded many pounds of photo gear, including a large-format film camera, onto a bicycle and its towed trailer and headed into the Outback to make photos of beautiful simplicity, stunning images often of almost nothing at all. I've often thought about that film, and those pictures, and my reaction to them (blown away). If I had to define “minimal photography,” I'd point to the pictures in Fredericks's Salt project as perfect examples. I could never make such a journey, but one can make minimal photos (or, photos of minimal subjects) without going to such physical extremes. Looking through my archives I've found a small number to which I could apply the term. I'm not one to take on photographic projects, although I've found myself in the middle of a few. I've made photographic series one might call projects; perhaps it's just semantics. In any case I've been seeing things and places I think would make effective minimal photos, as defined below, so I've decided to have a go at capturing some of those to see what I can do. I've already started, finally making a picture of something I've been seeing for weeks but didn't have my photo gear with me.

Pictures About Nothing

What makes an impactful minimal photo? If there's not much there, what's the appeal, and why would anyone stop to look at such a photo? There are probably accepted, official definitions of minimal photography, but I don't know of any, and I've decided to just make it up as I go rather than research it. Keep an open mind, for lack of a better approach, and photograph images that appeal to me and feel minimal. But I'll go with simple, lacking of great definition and detail (which isn't to say “unsharp”), and very likely color rather than black & white, because sometimes color may be all there is.

Format, or rather, aspect ratio, may be something to play with, too. Fredericks's images are square, and the symmetry plays a significant role in the appeal of his photos. Panoramas (either wide or tall) may merit consideration. As always, the scene will determine the appropriate format.

Less is More, Maybe

Two trees and a cloud

Two trees and a cloud.

After 17 years in our present house, Pat and I are having a one built just a few miles away. Although it's close, the environment is quite different. Instead of a woods of Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and various deciduous trees and shrubs, the new house is surrounded by open farmland and offers unimpeded views of western Montana's Mission Mountains and Flathead Lake. Each time I've visited the construction site I've stopped to admire two small trees perched on a ridge. In a composition with minimal foreground (cultivated field) and maximum sky, this fits neatly into my definition of “minimal,” and is what kicked off the idea to make a series of such images. As mentioned, after putting it off all summer (weeks of smoke-filled sky is my excuse), I recently took my photo gear, set up shortly after the sun cleared the mountains. That's about 8:00 am in late September. The field had been harvested, leaving the stubble a bit busier than I liked, and while the summer's wildfire smoke had largely cleared, a thin haze softened the morning light, leaving a pale sky. After working on a number of compositions, wandering left and right some distance, and climbing higher and back down again, I began to feel things weren't working for me. Minimal may have been the goal, but the scene lacked something, and just wasn't satisfying my vision for the photo.

There are other things there to photograph. I occupied myself for a while photographing patterns in the stubble fields. The hazy sky did nothing for those scenes, so I used a long lens to make compositions that excluded the sky. The resulting pictures are interesting abstracts. Not what I came for, but any excuse to be out behind the camera, especially on a lovely cool fall morning, will do.

Saved By Clouds

Time to pack up and head home, I thought. Then I noticed a small cloud quite high and west of my scene, moving in the right direction. Faint in the hazy sky, I wondered if there'd be sufficient contrast to show up well in the picture, but I had nothing to lose by waiting. In just a few minutes the cloud positioned itself perfectly, and I got a keeper photo.

I think I can do more with this scene. The area doesn't get a lot of snow, but one can hope; the scene would be very interesting with snow covering the foreground. We also often have dramatic skies around sunrise and sunset. That would completely change the character of the scene. Once we move into the new house I can walk to good shooting locations, so what's not to like? It'll be fun.

Below are a couple more photos pulled from my archives that fall within my definition of minimal. I'm the first to admit these can't compare to Murray Fredericks's stunning images, but it's not a competition. I'm happy to be inspired by his work, and to go my own way in my own environment to make more of less.

Foggy morning, Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park

Foggy morning, Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park.

Ice on a rock in western Montana's Flathead Lake

Ice on a rock in western Montana's Flathead Lake.

September, 2021

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