Economy of Means

The Avenues, photograph

“Instead their work is usually marked by an economy of means, an apparently everyday sort of relationship with their subject matter.”

Robert Adams

John Barclay’s blog mini-series on simplicity has gotten me thinking about the the apparent simplicity of much great photography. I use the word apparent because we all know that the appearance of simplicity in most good art belies the difficulty of achieving it.

Sometimes it seems easier to make things more complicated – how’s that for a paradox? In painting, for example, I sometimes had a tendency to put in much more detail than was needed in the work. It was almost as if I was trying to distract the viewer from  my lack of design, technique and vision with trivial and unimportant … stuff.

In photography, I can be seduced by crazy lenses, powerful software post-processing and weird lighting and angles. I’m of two minds about this – on the one hand, I love to play with new ideas and approaches and often have felt that “straight” photography was a little boring. On the other hand, I’m aware of the power of a simple, straightforward photograph and how a lot of image trickery can end up feeling gimmicky. I’m sure there is a balance to be pursued in this area.

I like Adams’ phrase “economy of means” – it’s a reminder that you don’t need exotic equipment or technique to create a great picture and that an “everyday sort of relationship” with the subject, while not flashy, can be every bit as potent.

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8 responses to “Economy of Means

  1. Excellent post that would make a fascinating panel discussion.

    I’m drawn to the great pictures captured through “economy of means” for the same reason I’m drawn to poetry and in particular to a form such as haiku, where a dreamscape can be created in just 17 syllables. The best haiku is devilishly difficult to achieve. I think the most moving of photos can be, too; the eye has to know what to look for and how to frame it.

    • Thanks, Maureen. Funny you should mention poetry, I’ve been getting back into reading some recently. I, too, love haiku – it’s a great example of how challenging it is to pare anything down to it’s bare essence.

  2. all very true– you are so astute and on the mark all the time.
    I am always trying to simplify and love minimal works– but have a tendency to put to much and clutter my stuff too– but I keep trying.

    • Donna,

      I think it’s a constant struggle to manage the complexity in our art as well as our lives. It’s all relative, too – one person’s clutter may be another’s minimalism.

  3. I tend to agree with the paradox. Simplicity can be so difficult, most likely because our experience of the moment seems so complex to portray from all of our sense acting at once.

    I often look back to some of my photographs of leaf piles. On a casual observation, they look like utter messes. But with a little contemplation about the shapes and interactions before you, you can begin to assemble smaller compositions that create some order from that chaos.

    • Good point, Mark. Our experience often is full of complexity which needs to be simplified. In fact, much of our cognitive and perceptual systems actually are structured to reduce the complexity of what we experience – otherwise we’d be overwhelmed.

      I guess our aesthetic system takes over next and works to simplify even further so we can communicate even more effectively.

  4. This is the kind of image that really makes me think, which is a good thing. It is simplicity, it is symmetry. But it’s also about new, young life, surrounded by gracious aging. Everything else in the image has seen better days. It’s not decayed, mind you, but the concrete, the stucco, the wood, they are showing their age.

    And then upstart youth, oblivious to it all.

    For those of us not born with an eye to see these compositions “in every day life” its a real challenge and fun aspiration.

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