I abhor clutter.

That’s not to say I’m one of those austere minimalists who lives in a stark, white-walled condo — empty save for a single white chair. I have “stuff” and, like many people, have probably accumulated more of it than I actually need. Clutter is not a result of how much you have, but how you organize it. If you have only three or four books, but they’re scattered haphazardly around a room, you’ve got “clutter.” If, however, you have a thousand books, but they’re sorted and arranged on a series of purpose-built shelves, you’re clutter-free.

Since photography is a visual endeavor, my natural aversion to clutter follows me behind the camera. This fact, alone, doesn’t make me unique amongst photographers. Many of us — either by instinct or training — understand that a cluttered photograph is an unappealing photograph. Instead, what separates one photographer from another is how they choose to address the clutter.

The easiest and most common method to eliminate clutter is through subject isolation. There are many different ways that a photographer can isolate his subject. One popular technique is to place a single subject in front of a simple backdrop — perhaps a rusty bicycle leaning against a wall, or a beautiful model posed in front of a muslin backdrop. Another technique, currently in vogue (and illustrated in this photo of “Elvis,”) is to shoot wide open with a long, fast lens. This creates a photograph with very limited depth of field — the result of which is that your subject is in-focus, but everything else is obliterated by blur. This technique is so wildly popular that, in the past decade, photographers have invented a term to describe the out-of-focus area of a photo — “bokeh.” Internet forums are awash in arguments over which lenses produce the “smoothest” or “creamiest” bokeh, and software developers even create programs designed to create this look artificially.

Although these subject-isolating techniques are effective, they approach clutter reduction via “austere minimalism” rather than “organization.” Continuing with the example given earlier, these methods are comparable to eliminating a room’s book clutter by throwing out all the books, rather than by finding a way to organize them. But what if those books are needed within the context of the room? If the room is a library, you can’t very well reduce the clutter by tossing out the books. Similarly, in photographs, you can’t always throw away everything that’s not the primary subject. For example, if you’re vacationing with your wife and you take her photograph, she is the subject. But if the “context” of that subject is that you’re vacationing in Paris, do you really want to be isolating your wife from her surroundings? Are you going to take a picture of her in front of a blank wall instead of “cluttering up” your shot with the Eiffel Tower? Are you going to use a fast lens so the Arc de Triomphe, positioned a block behind your wife, disappears into the bokeh?

In these situations, photographers must learn to deal with clutter in another way — not by eliminating the secondary subjects, but by organizing and placing them within the frame. As an avid street photographer, I’ve always been very aware of composition. Successful street photography relies on placing your subjects within the context of their environment, not isolating them from it. Streets, by nature, are visually busy and highly cluttered photographic environments. Composition and geometry are essential to a photograph’s success — they provide a way to ‘organize’ the visual confusion of the streets.

No matter what subject I photograph, I am acutely aware of geometry and composition. It is the direct result of my clutter-loathing personality. By finding order in chaos, I can instinctually capture street photos that, while full of “stuff,” don’t feel overly cluttered…

… unless I shoot in color.

In my own photographs, color is the #1 source of visual clutter. When I’m shooting, I see geometry, composition, expression, and juxtaposition. But I see these elements as shapes, objects, and luminosity — not colors. The end result is that my photographs may be geometrically tidy, but they’re sometimes a tangled mess of competing hues. If my primary subject is wearing a navy blue shirt, but some insignificant geometric element happens to be bright red, the image falls apart — the viewer’s eye travels to the red object when it should be on the navy blue object. This is precisely the reason why I (and many other street photographers) prefer to work in black and white. We can direct a viewer’s eye with geometry, light, and shadow. Color has a tendency to clutter and confuse an image. Those of you who frequent this blog will remember that I addressed this issue specifically in an earlier post titled, “What Color is Happy?”

It’s now been twenty years since I was first infected by the photography “bug” and, in those early salad years, I did the same as most photographers from that era — I bought color negative film, and had it processed and printed at a local lab. I could count, on one hand, the number of compelling photographs I took those first years — and I could do it without extending a single finger on that hand. Eventually my inner cheapskate took over, and I began to work in black and white so I could easily (and inexpensively) perform my own processing and printing. Suddenly, I was producing a spate of captivating images. By eliminating color from my photographs, I was able to eliminate the clutter, which allowed my geometric and compositional skills to develop.

By the early-to-mid 1990′s I had pretty much replaced wet-printing with computer-based processing. I would scan negatives with a first generation Nikon Coolscan — a process so slow and cumbersome that it would take me hours to get a decent scan of a single exposure. Such tedium required that I select, very carefully, those photos I wished to scan. But, since I was no longer wet printing, I was no longer making contact prints of my negatives. This made it nearly impossible to decide which exposures were worthy of my scanning struggles. So I switched to shooting color slide film. Not only was it much easier to pick and choose the images I wanted to scan, but the Coolscan was much less persnickety with mounted slides than with film strips. Once again, I was shooting and printing in color. And, once again, my images became boring and pedestrian.

Over the years, and throughout my transition to a fully digital workflow, I became painfully aware of two conflicting forces working against my photographic success:

1) When I photograph, I “see” geometry and light, but do not instinctually “see” or respond to color. As a result, I am an infinitely better black and white photographer.

2) Very few people in this, the early 21st century, care to view black and white photographs. If I wanted to work, I had to give the public what they wanted — color photographs.

This dilemma continued for a decade: Should I shoot to my strengths, or should I shoot what the public wants? For years, I opted to shoot what the public wanted. We do, after all, live in a cash-based economy. But in 2008, a wonderful thing happened — the economy tanked. OK,’wonderful’ might not be the right word. But the resulting decrease in photography assignments meant I was free to explore my photographic strengths. And, for me, many of those strengths lay in black and white. As I began to re-explore the world in black and white, I became re-energized, re-engaged, and re-connected to my photographs. And now, 20 years after I first started down this path, I came to a startling conclusion:

“If you take the photographs you take best, you’ll take better photographs.”

It’s an incredibly obvious realization, which makes it all the crazier that it just occurred to me. Some people are fabulous color photographers. They see color everywhere, and they compose their photos around their natural instincts. These people see color the way I see geometry. So why do I ignore my own instinctual advantages and replace them with disadvantages? Obviously, if I know a photo will work better in color, I’ll take it. But, if a photo works better in black and white, why shouldn’t I render it that way? Isn’t it more to my advantage that a small group of people see an exemplary photo, than if a larger group sees a mediocre one?

And it’s not just photography. It’s everything. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all played to our strengths, rather than succumbing to the mediocrity of style and fashion?

Sometimes its not just our homes and our photographs that are cluttered — it’s our thinking.

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©2010 grEGORy simpson

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