Professional Definition

Our description of minimalism on the definition page is intended for amateur photographers. However minimalism is professionally described by one of the group administrators. Nathan Griffith is an art historian from Seattle, WA. He holds a PhD of History of Art from University of Michigan. Below is his article that was published in minimalist issue of the fotografica

Minimalism. The word says it all. In art, the term was coined to describe the objects of a number of American sculptors working in the 60’s and 70’s. Their art appeared mostly simple in form and rather mundane in appearance. In this case, the mirrored cube of Robert Morris (a cube each side of which is a mirror) and metal plates of Carl Andre (a grid of copper and zinc plates arranged checkerboard style on the floor) come to mind. Analytically speaking, the power of these objects is not in their ability to evoke an aesthetic response. It lies in their tendency to facilitate a dynamic perceptual relationship between the audience, the object and the space in which they both reside. It is a philosophical approach to art designed to make the viewer aware of his/her relationship to the space they inhabit and the things within it.

Lets push that aside. Like many other terms in the art lexicon (surrealism is a fine example) the rigidity of its historical meaning has given way to a reinvention of the term; more general, more appropriate to an understanding of the root word itself.

Minimalism. A work, be it art, photography, music or architecture, the strength of which is measured by how it can be stripped to the bare essentials leaving what remains to generate a most powerful visual impact.

As our story is about photography lets us take that as a jumping off point. I’m going to say that “Minimalism” in this case is a form of abstraction. Remove the context of subject, the what it is. It’s not really about that.

The abstract crux of two-dimensional art can be boiled down to a series of design elements. And while much art exists to challenge that simple iteration it always does so through the very elements it seeks to displace.

Anyway, lets talk design elements. Simply put (and I use simply intentionally) in the image you have multiple parts which come together to make the whole. The list could go something like this:
  • Light
  • Shadow
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Line
  • Form
  • Space
  • surface
These are the design properties; the sum total of which make up the aesthetic of the two dimensional image. Again, I say lets forget the subject as it is not an element like the others. It is what might be pictured in the image in a purely contextual sense. Often in the case of minimal photography the subject (what’s being seen) is either unknown or else relegated to a less important aspect of the work.

So what about the elements? Here is where we get to the crux of minimal identity. Start by assuming and rightfully so that minimal is both simple and almost nothing. It is only the essentials. It is the bare bones; the less to it’s more. It is the stripped down image left to its basic elements: light, color and so on. In this endeavor one or two elements rise to the fore to dominate the design of the image and conversely the others become less visually and philosophically important.

The easiest way to describe it is by example. Picture this, an image black and white, high in contrast. The spokes and hub of a bicycle wheel set before a white background. Intellectually, you might recognize this as bicycle spokes and a hub. But the intensity of the design keeps pulling you in the direction of its elements, the abstract quality of the work. What you register is line, light and dark, form and shape. Color, surface, and space are negligible in this analysis. The hub and its parts are round. The spokes are lines projecting from the hub in a sweeping fan. Those few elements stripped of the baggage of their counterparts or a need to define the object become the minimal that will maximize the visual impact of the image. And if that weren’t enough, tip the hub only a little. Change the perfect symmetry of the parts to an ever-so-slight variation where the hub is not quite round and the fan of the spokes no longer creates a perfect rhythm. Now picture the result. The image is still stripped to its essentials. But the difference is that what’s left, the slight asymmetry of the elements fights with a perception that wants to believe that all is perfect. The tension of this difference defines the image. The inherent reduction, this elegant simplicity pictures an image of great intensity.

One more example. A painted concrete wall flat in finish, evenly lit and photographed from a distance of ten feet. The dynamic of the image is again reduced to a few core elements: color and surface. Some might even argue for shape but I see that as a null property in this case. Everything else just falls away. The actual color is important because your eye reacts to different colors in different ways. Saturation, lightness, darkness, tonality and wavelength all add up to make what seems so simple (color) incredibly complex. So for now accept that different combinations of these variables will cause the eye and the mind to react differently. However, for the sake of argument what we have here is a combination of these qualities which we will call its color. For all intents and purposes we have a field of flat color. But what about the surface? We have photographed the wall from a particular distance, ten feet. At this range the pock marks and seams that run across the surface of the wall are visible, but just barely. This is our wake up moment. We read the wall as flat color but the slight surface irritant of these tiny irregularities will always leave us unsettled. Again, the interplay of but only two basic elements brings a visual power to the image that can only be seen in the absence of all the rest.

I would argue that this is what gives rise to the best of minimal art (photography). However, rarely do we have the opportunity to push our images to this theoretical limit. We must settle with the fact that nothing is perfect. We only have so much control. And try as we might it can be argued that what’s left, the almost perfect is really greater than the ultimate reduction. Less can only be more when what remains can incite the most profound of aesthetic moments. The minimal to its maximal.