Photography is the art of subtraction. Unlike painters, who begin with a blank canvas and build images stroke-by-stroke, photographers select their images from a sphere of visual information — a sphere centred around the photographer, and which follows their every movement through space and time. But since 4-dimensional objects don’t adhere to the impositions of a standard IKEA picture frame, substantive eliminations are needed to extract optically manageable wafers from within.
The first thing most photographers flush is the time dimension — extracting individual slices from its ever-advancing trajectory. Using a shutter speed of only 1/60s, a photographer has 3,600 potentially different time slices available every minute — 5.2 million options per day.
Having selected the most significant centisecond, photographers must next decide both how large a bite to take out of that big, bulbous visual sphere, and where exactly to take that bite. For example, a 50mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera takes a bite that’s 39.6 degrees wide by 27 degrees tall. When you point that lens in one direction, you immediately exclude 99.2% of the area surrounding you. Since your 50mm lens is at the centre of a 360 degree sphere, this means you actually have a choice of 121 different views every 1/60s — none of which will contain a single duplicate element. That increases your number of unique daily photo possibilities to 630 million.
Within each of these 630 million options, photographers must then decide how best to flatten their wedge’s depth dimension, and render it onto a 2-dimensional plane. Focus is the most common means of achieving this, so for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that each bite-sized wedge offers only four different focus options: close-up; near; mid; and infinite. That quadruples the total number of photographic possibilities to over 2.5 billion per day. Which is precisely why I tend to roll my eyes every time someone tells me there’s nothing to photograph.
Now if you’re the least bit normal, 2.5 billion daily potential photographs might seem like a reasonable enough number. But if you’re like me, then you know there are billions more options available if you just keep on eliminating things.
For example, I long ago chose to eliminate color from my work — further distilling the number of elements contained within my own four-dimensional space.
So, too, have I jettisoned the need for fidelity or the notion that a photograph needs to render anything more substantial than a vague suggestion. Half-frame film cameras; grossly over- or under-exposed shots; long-shutter speeds; aggressive development and extreme cropping — these are all ways to eliminate any bourgeois ideas of what constitutes ‘quality.’ Eliminating detail through blown highlights or blocked shadows further refines an image through subtraction.
Any why must the subject of a photo define an object? Can’t we eliminate that old trope and simply photograph a mood?
Similarly, once you eliminate the idea that photography must provide an answer, you allow it to become the question.
Even after all this — after all the elimination, removals and deductions required to even take a photo — there comes further distillation through the process of photo selection and curation.
Photography requires absolutely no skill beyond the ability to choose. Photography is abstraction through subtraction. The more you subtract, the more your photo is likely to say something. Paradoxically — and this is the hardest thing for most photographers to accept — the more your photos have something to say, the fewer people will hear. Should this matter, you can always resort to using one of those nifty little Ricoh Theta spherical video cameras. Me? I’m still working out how best to eliminate both light and shadow.
©2019 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE PHOTOS:
Those of a certain age may recognize this post is named after what I consider to be one of Bow Wow Wow’s lesser songs. Having given exactly zero thought to this song in over 35 years, it would be easy to dismiss this as a coincidence. But if you’re one of those people who believes there’s no such thing as coincidence, then perhaps my id was subconsciously aware this may well be one of my lesser articles, and leapt across the decades to make the connection.
All photos in this article are from November’s two week Tokyo walkathon/shootathon, and were shot with either my trusty Ricoh GR; an Olympus OM-D EM1 with a 17mm f/1.2 Pro lens; a Leitz Minolta CL with a 40mm f/2 Rokkor lens; or a half-frame, point-and-shoot Ricoh Auto Half. I’ll leave it to you to guess which photos came from which camera. Ideally, if I do my job correctly, it shouldn’t matter one bit.
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