Minimalism: Creative Design or a Bad Excuse?
By Janis Petzinger
When is the last time you cleaned out your bedroom closet? When did you last touch your stuffed animals? There are old ingredients in your fridge. There are lights in your home that never turn on. There are school papers you haven’t read for years. Pitch it all. Burn it if you have to. Your life will be a breath of fresh air.
This is the minimalist philosophy—a way of living that I’ve never embraced because I’m naturally a messy person and attached to unimportant relics of my past. I’ve been forced to embrace a “less is more” lifestyle when traveling between home in America and St Andrews. But, wherever I remain for more than three weeks, mounds grow. I will not throw away that empty bottle of Prosecco (or the other three) because it symbolizes some significant night at university.
I’m not a hoarder. I’m nostalgic. I know this because organized clutter is a style of design that illustrates honesty and humility to me. I find something comforting in stuffed book shelves, restaurants covered in posters, and museums where art—literally—fills the walls from top to bottom, like the National Gallery in Edinburgh. Abundance is filling. Empty, plain space, rather, reminds me of doctors’ offices, motel bathrooms, and horror films involving outer space.
Occasionally, I can reconcile my minimalist anxiety with painting; though there really isn’t much going on, up close, Rothko’s use of red can drown me in passion if I let it. The lines of Gene Davis amaze me because any time there is a challenging construction process, I am impressed. For me, emptiness in painting can be a calculated success.
But when it comes to fine art photography—which I define as a creative, conceptual enterprise rather than photojournalism—minimalism and I do not get along. There is frankly no place for it. And I think the best way to explain this is to use my favorite and least favorite fine art photographers.
There is David Graham, an American photographer who captures the US’ corners of weird exuberance. His colors are vibrant and his subjects always suggest something. I appreciate that he takes lots of pictures in my home state, Pennsylvania, and manages to capture the small, isolated towns that offer an interesting and peculiar personality unique in nature to an urban counterpart. Rooms are cluttered, the figures seem complicated, and the narrative is layered. The shots aren’t in particularly high definition. There is not a single focal point or clean, sleek design that creates a unified mood (very much #nofilter). Rather, Graham’s photos demand your attention by showing a harmony between the figures and their surroundings which evokes a visually complicated and stimulating story.
And then to Terry Richardson. Richardson frequently photographs for Rolling Stone and Vogue, but you most likely know him for directing Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” music video (another great example of awful Minimalism—Miley strutting without clothes on, Miley’s face crying in front of a white background, Miley on a lone Wrecking ball. Brilliant.) He is praised. And to me, his work undermines photography all together. His employs the “white-wall-big-flash” look. His sharp focus, high resolution, and two-thirds framing of the subject’s body makes his photos seem “high fashion,” which is probably why he has had so many commissions. He gets away with this because there is nothing wrong with the pictures. How wrong could he go wrong with a person standing in front of a white wall? The photos scream to me “there is nothing really happening here, which creates an air of mystery around the person I’m photographing.” I’m bored. Hopefully you are too.
There are high-fashion photographers who manage to be wildly creative with what they are given. Annie Lebowitz, for example, has shot models, actors, and public figures in interesting (sometimes fantastical and strange) settings that still capture the subject’s exclusive qualities. She recently did a Vanity Fair shoot of the new Star Wars film (figure 8 and 9) in which she showed two stories—one of the fictional Star Wars world, and another about actors navigating their field. For me, this is great fine art photography. However, Richardson is the same photographer he was fifteen years ago— a man with his expensive camera set to “Automatic,” taking lit photos that lack narrative but always allude to sex (and more specifically, his own mysogonistic sexual desires).
[Disclaimer: photos involving nudity or sexuality have a great place in the art world, like that of Robert Mathalope. Richardson, however, objectifies women in his photos. (image link) This, along with the fact that he has been accused of being a sexual predator, brought to light by a New York Magazine article, doesn’t help his already boring photographs.]
Hiroshi Sugimoto is another yawn of an artist. He’s less of a bad person than Richardson (as far as I know), but his photos are even simpler. He usually photographs sea or forest landscapes and center-frames the scene. Sometimes he does monochrome photographs of simple house hold objects showered in a dramatic shadow. I can see someone saying at a show, Oh yes, this close up of a metal crank is sooooo art. But he has people fooled. Sugimoto ‘s photos are just another transaction. He said in an interview, “The final result is very important. Work has to be sellable as merchandise. Art became merchandise these days in the late capitalist world. Process… once I conceive images in my noodle the realization is very important, the technical process.” To me, this screams that minimalist photography is inherently sellable rather than creative—good for travel brochures and pictures you see inside your newly-bought frame. Like Richardson, Sugimoto takes no risks.
But there is still hope. Duane Michals balances the technical and creative aspects of photography better than most. He has gotten a lot of slander for not “actually being a photographer” because he sets images up like frames in a movie with written captions, rather than creating one cohesive shot that suggests a narrative all together. Isn’t he really creating comic-book stories illustrated with film? People frequently use his work “Things Are Queer” to support this idea, because the story would be nothing without each photo featured.
I don’t care if Michals uses ten pictures, just one, or a paragraph explanation to create a narrative. I just care that there is one at all, unlike Richardson or Sugimoto’s photos, whose success is based on obvious aesthetics. Michals takes themes we all struggle with, like death, love, and fear and tells a story that we have all lived or have imagined living before. I was a teenager going through that “existential crisis right of passage” when I saw his series called, The Human Condition, which connects a man on the subway to a photo of the universe. I remember thinking the man on the subway was me, and the photo of the universe was someone else’s view. I was convinced of it. Managing this is the true challenge of fine art photography—not mastering the shutter speed or aperture, but manipulating what’s in front of you so your viewer can identify with it through emotional or sensory experience (no matter how cliché.)
I also find his humility in his work, “Sidney Sherman.” He uses non-sensical explanations to describe a fictional photographer to point fun at how an art critic’s language is often too flowery and full of hot air to understand. When well-developed artists like himself shake a head at art-talk babble, I feel relief, since I constantly shift through the art world, read reviews, and think What the hell does that even mean? In this way, I enjoy the lack of pretention I have found in Michal’s photographs, while I feel like Sugimoto’s photos take themselves very seriously.
Don’t get me wrong—minimalism has its place in certain creative areas. My dad, reminiscing on his glory days as a former editor of the Wall Street Journal, always said to me “I didn’t have time to write a short letter.” I can even admit that some Led Zepplin Songs should be two minutes shorter. Maybe Jerry Saltz was right when he said in Seeing Out Loud that “Theory and positions are important but they often lead to dogmatic thinking, obscure writing, and rigid taste.” Perhaps I need to learn from Jerry, open my mind, and appreciate photographs that are simple yet beautiful. But I feel the technological nature of photography has the power to change the world when a photo suggests an image or story that exists beyond the frame. In excess, we find captivating visuals and a broader narrative. That’s a good picture.