Minimalism in Photography and Life

Often new photographers will write to me and ask me to have a look at their photo galleries and give them some feedback. In doing so I have noticed a recurring theme. People try to include too much in their images. They have tried to capture the grand scene, everything they see in front of them, all in one frame. It is visually confusing without one distinct subject.

One technique I have found useful is to isolate each thing in the scene that draws my attention and photograph it alone. Make each subject is own image and when you put them together they will tell a story. In essence, practice minimalism.

When I visited White Sands National Monument in New Mexico it seemed the perfect opportunity to practice minimalism in my own photography.

The Monument is great white dunes made of gypsum, the same stuff they make drywall with although it looks like sand. If you haven’t been here it might seem like minimalism is the only option, but really there are all sorts of little grasses and dead trees (or at least they were in their winter state), plants, trails marked with sticks, footprints leading everywhere and all kinds of other things to distract one’s attention.

I tried to make the images simple by focusing on one thing alone, such as the line made by the crest of a dune, without any distractions at all. I even removed the colour from this image.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Please click on any of the images to view larger versions.

Another image focussed only on shape and colour.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

I have always been drawn to minimalist photographs. It is beauty in the simplicity that gives them a sense of peace.

This image included only the lines the wind carved in the dunes.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Sitting on the top of a dune waiting for sunset, it occurred to me that there is an analogy to be made with life in general. In “traditional society” people tend to fill their lives up with too much stuff. Before you know it you have a job, a car, a house, a lawn, a garden, a mortgage, a boat, tons of clothes, some pets, a family, some volunteer work, a membership at the gym and all sorts of other things. We spend all of our waking hours maintaining and taking care of all of these things and then in the blink of an eye our lives are over, each day indistinguishable from the previous one.

Perhaps, similar to photography, to have a life with meaning requires simplicity and minimalism. Own less stuff, do fewer things, but what you do you do with passion.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

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  1. says

    Great post Anne and the images are outstanding. I love the leading lines in the first and forth image and the abstract qualities of the the 2nd and 3rd.
    Edith Levy recently posted..YetiMy Profile

  2. says

    My mother, a self-trained naturalist, and father, wilderness photographer Philip Hyde, lived a similar philosophy all their lives. Dad made a choice early in his career to live simply in the mountains, rather than in the San Francisco Bay Area where he would have earned more income, but lived a much more complex and stressful life. They took joy in the simple pleasures, the shape of a leaf, the change of seasons, observing a bird’s nest with newly hatched young. They each said from time to time that the secret to happiness is to want less. I tried going in the opposite direction from them a number of times, but always have found myself much more centered and grounded when I came back to my roots and simple ways of life closer to nature.

    • says

      Hi David, thank you very much for sharing your story. You must have learned so much about the environment and wilderness being brought up by a naturalist and a photographer! I think all kids rebel and try to do the opposite of their parents, but it is interesting that you came back full circle. Thanks again for leaving your comments.

  3. Maryden25 says

    Simplicity is beauty indeed.. I love the photos here. And I am very grateful and I appreciate minimalist photographers in doing their awesome job! Thanks Anne for this post!

  4. says

    Outstanding images Anne. Great advice too. I used to include too much, but to correct this, I now ask myself this question when composing an image. What is the subject of the image and what else is distracting from the subject in my composition?
    Len Saltiel recently posted..Looking UpMy Profile

    • says

      Hi Len, excellent advice! It is too easy to think that the general landscape is the subject without focussing the viewer’s attention on one thing in particular. It doesn’t even have to be an object, it can be shape, texture or colour too. Thank you very much for your comments.

  5. says

    A well written post, Anne. You have illuminated an essential truth. Life can be so hectic that we end up being (to quote what may be a British saying): ‘A jack of all trades, but master of none’. In those situations we never spend enough time on any one thing to make it a success. If you have Passion for something, then that focus can make all the difference and snuff out those other unimportant distractions. An imaginative set of images too.
    LensScaper recently posted..A Liebster AwardMy Profile

    • says

      Hi Andy, thank you so much for your very kind comments. You are so right about life being so hectic that we spend all our time catching up and not enough time thinking about why we are doing what we are doing and whether what we are doing is really just a distraction.

  6. Born27 says

    Well said. I’m planning to attend a photography class after this summer and I think you just gave me a good start.

    • says

      Hi John! Thank you very much for the compliment. I do the same thing, I think everyone does. I just try to work my way from wide to excluding more and more things until I have a simple composition.

    • Elizabeth says

      I love the last dune photo with tthe simplicity and the pale colours . Less is certainly more.thanks Anne

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