We live in a chaotic world. Natural or man-made, there is a constant whirl of colour, shape and decoration around us that can be exhausting in its complexity. Amidst the chaos I am drawn to simplify, reducing the visual cacophony to find a calm centre in the storm. Such minimal images can offer a moment of peaceful reflection in the midst of the frenzy that is everyday life.
My favourite way to achieve this is working in monochrome. Simplifying colours to tones and shapes helps me make sense of what is before me. My other go-to technique, is to get up close and personal. Working at close range helps me to see the simplicity within the complex design. Sometimes indeed it reveals a whole new microcosm of beauty that would have otherwise been ignored.
Sometimes the weather offers a solution. A blanket of snow is perfect for obliterating unwanted details and reducing a scene to its basic elements. Fog or mist can have a similar effect, removing distant eyesores and creating a sometimes eerie glow to a scene. Both of these also help to simplify the colours in a scene by creating a muted, peaceful palette of hues.
Whilst the weather can offer a seasonal solution, in Birmingham we are generally blessed with a mild and benign climate that limits its uses. And so for the final solution; shallow depth of field. Working with an aperture of f/4 wider, depending on the subject, can reduce the background to an attractive blur that directs the viewer’s attention to our intended subject. I have used this technique to successfully eliminate all manner of undesirable objects from otherwise attractive scenes by turning them instead into blurry colour swatches that emphasise my focal point. It might not be quite what I actually saw, but it certainly ensures the viewer sees what drew my attention.
A trip to the Wolverhampton camera fair is invariably likely to end in a few purchases, planned or otherwise. Sometimes it seems that going to the fair without a shopping list leads to worse excesses than when I plan my extravagances beforehand. Last weekend was no exception. There was absolutely nothing I needed to look out for, and so I went along with an open mind and a (unwisely) restocked wallet.
Faced with a dazzling display of photographic paraphernalia, my receptive mind reached down into its subconsciously creative recesses in a determined effort to justify one purchase or another. This time I homed in on a Clack.
A what? I hear you say? An Agfa Clack. But why? I think what appealed to me is the sheer simplicity of this camera.
The Clack is neither collectable (as defined by its price!) nor particularly rare. They were produced in serious quantities in the period 1954 to 1965 by Agfa Camera-Werk AG in Munich. Initially made with a metal body, and later a plastic one (mine is plastic), the Clack is essentially a smallish black box designed to hold 120 roll film.
You can choose one of 2 apertures to suit the prevailing weather conditions. I believe these are f/11 and f/12.5. Bokeh should be perfectly shaped, as the aperture disks are just circles in a plastic component which moves into position for each selection. Mine also has the close up filter, for subjects between 3m and 10m away. The shutter offers bulb or ‘M’, which I understand to be 1/30 second. So, the only real control you have over the exposure is in choice of the ISO rating of your film. I can see I shall be spending the summer checking my light meter, in my efforts to seek out conditions that suit my new camera!
The most exciting aspect of the Clack is of course the focussing mechanism. Err, there isn’t one.
I have plans for my Clack (watch this space!) but I can’t resist putting a roll of film through it first. How much simpler can it get?
Over the summer I teach fewer classes and my mind turns to tasks that don’t usually get a look in at more hectic times of year. Over the last couple of weeks of ruthlessly deleting unwanted image files from my hard drive I have found it interesting to reflect on the ways in which my photography has changed over the last couple of years. One aspect that really stands out is that I no longer take as many images. On a photowalk, I spend much more time considering my subject before I press the shutter. What was it that attracted me, caused me to pause and look more closely? On a more careful look, is this attraction something I want to record? Perhaps when I frame the image in the viewfinder I am unable to represent the aspect of it that stopped me – so I will move on. I hope I am more mindful as I create my pictures. Working indoors or in the garden, I also take fewer shots. Perhaps this is due to my increasing confidence in my ability to recreate the scene in front of me. It is also, I think, a result of an increasing rejection of the worship of image sharpness above all else. I am most definitely not a ‘pixel peeper’ and the message conveyed by the image is more important to me than razor sharpness. To this end I find myself working more and more with my Lensbaby Composer, to create images that are more about nuance and tones than cutting edge pixel by pixel definition. Perhaps for the same reasons, I am finding that colour is increasingly becoming a distraction and I am very much in a monochrome phase. This is what I see, what startles me out of the everyday, the aspects of the world that speak to me.
My urge to refresh has extended to this website in the last week or so and I have changed the look to a simpler, quieter theme. Armed with the spoils of my hard drive excavations I have completely updated the galleries. I have found that the old galleries no longer reflected my interests and so now, after a great deal of deliberation, we have new groupings and a whole new set of images. I hope you like it.
I love the idea of simplicity. As a concept I associate it with a carefree existence, without possessions to tie me down. I find I am frequently attracted to simplicity which seeking subjects for my photographs, as well as elsewhere in my life. I seem to have spent many years aspiring to simplify, and to have less clutter in particular. Sadly, when I go out I am the quintessential bag-lady, always taking loads of stuff with me yet rarely needing or using it. This applies as much to the spare woolly and waterproof or umbrella (just in case!) as it does to taking a rucksack full of camera gear I may possibly need. At home my cupboards are crammed with things I may at some point have a use for or wear again, despite regular attempts to have a clear-out. I have managed to simplify my lifestyle in many other ways but this one eludes me. I like the approach suggested by Karen Kingston, that you should let things go in order to allow something new to come into your life. It makes it much easier to let once-treasured possessions go to a new home, making room in mine for new acquisitions.
Now I wonder if my images are becoming electronic clutter too. In my first year of owning a decent DSLR I managed to amass almost 10,000 image files. By any stretch of the imagination that’s a lot of pictures! This week I have been going back over my photo files and deleting images quite ruthlessly to reduce the number to a more manageable level before I install a new backup drive. I have found that I tend to take multiple copies of the same subject or setup. These might show a slight tweak to the lighting or focussing, but are all essentially the same. Delete! I also spent a lot of time that year photographing water droplets, generating many, many images that I really could improve on now. Delete! Out and about with nature I also find I come home with plenty of images, especially when photographing flowers or insects (or both!) handheld, as getting the focussing right is challenging to say the least. Delete!
In the days of using film, I certainly took far fewer images. Maybe I only had a set number of films with me, or had to think carefully about the cost of developing them. I might only take 2 rolls with me on a week-long holiday, giving a possible 72 frames, or 10 pictures a day. Compare this to a typical 16GB memory card, which on my 5DmarkII can store over 500 images and on my infrared-converted 400D, over 1000. That’s quite a difference…and it’s not surprising that it can be easy to become snap-happy with a digital camera. Taking so many images in a short space of time can be a ‘busyness’ in itself, cluttering up the experience with little thought for the moment other than the need to record it. So, connected to this desire for simplicity, I am working hard to take a more measured approach to creating these images in the first place and making every moment I preserve worthwhile.
I tend to associate the summer with strong, bright colours. Bluer than blue skies, verdant green grass and a spectrum of flowers encourage me to dig out my gaudiest summer clothes and revel in the long, warm days. So why, then, this year, am I increasingly drawn to creating images in monochrome? Sometimes the full-on-ness of summer can become a bit much and July has been just that. The heat and brightness can become overpowering and hide the subtlety of tones and shades that can be seen in monochrome. Although black and white are strong colours in themselves, the many shades of grey reveal details of the world that colour can mask. In the midst of summer’s brashness, I seek the cool peacefulness of a simpler palette, to see beyond the distraction of hue to the reality of form.
Images full of contrasting colours make an effective metaphor for a busy life. They are lively and full of interest, jumping off the page or screen and demanding your attention. Although interesting, they can be quite wearing too. For me, working in monochrome is a more restful way of connecting with my subject. The simplicity of the colour scheme parallels the simplicity I am seeking elsewhere in my life. Removing the colour from my images is like clearing the clutter from my cupboards. Both provide a sense of space, a restful environment in which to exist. And it’s way too hot for clearing cupboards!
I have been interested in photography in one form or another since childhood, when the unforgettable smells of black and white film processing emanated from my father’s makeshift darkroom in our spare bedroom. I enjoy digital photography but I’m a technophobe at heart, preferring to create images in camera rather than spend hours at the computer. I have a growing collection of film cameras and love the simplicity of old folding cameras. Modern digital equipment has such complexity that it can take over the whole experience of capturing images. Working with an old film camera really is like going back to basics as there is so little to do. Instead of a whole menu to control 61 autofocus points my Bessa has 3 options; ‘people’, ‘groups’ or ‘landscapes’. There are 2 shutter speeds (unless you want bulb or timer) and 4 apertures. And as for ISOs expanding to 126,800, your choice is fixed when you load the film. Simplifying the choices for how to operate the camera leaves far more mental space to be dedicated to my subject and creating my image. And if you dont like the results, the camera itself makes a great photographic subject in itself!