My last blog post The Art of Subtraction proposed the thesis that photographers start with a complex canvas and then subtract from it to create compelling work. It occurred to me after posting this that I am, in fact, wrong. Portrait photography, product photography and perhaps other forms of photography start with a blank canvas and fill it (at least to an extent). So my premise that photography is different from other 'additive' arts is not entirely true, although I'd argue that it remains a truism.
The question that arises is then: does subtraction produce simplicity? Can a complex image really be considered subtractive in the sense that it is reduced to its most essential elements? Well, I thought I'd post a few photographs from my Urbanicity project to see whether I could further elucidate the idea of photography as subtractive art.
My Urbanicity project is, in essence, a way of forcing myself to shoot images with a theme or concept in mind. I love cityscapes, and the default way to explore the notion of city for me would be to pull out my wide angle lens and start capturing the grandeur of the city skyline. But I've been reading and studying the photography of artists who excel at (amongst other things) miniature landscapes. Good examples include Guy Tal, Len Metcalf and Ben Horne. And not so long ago, I read an interesting interview with Nicki Gwynn-Jones, who uses a really long lens for landscapes and produces amazing work. All this made me wonder whether I could explore and expose a city through miniatures using a long(ish) lens and a wide aperture.
And so my little project was born.
My thinking was this: a long lens means I'll need to find a subject or other point of focus within a very complex and almost overwhelming canvas. This is one form of subtraction. Decluttering using photoshop will be harder, because the city really is a dense visual environment, but I can really look for tonal gradations (light and shade), strong geometric elements and almost graphical approaches to simplify each shot. A wide aperture might help (after all, it drops the depth of field, providing a more planar image), and I want to shoot in the hour around sunrise and sunset, because tone and contrast matter, and so I'll need the wide aperture anyway just to get enough light. No tripod: hand held, fast shutter speeds (mostly) and strong framing. No blur of water or traffic to remove clutter, but I can use the natural complexity of the city to actually simplify, relying on it to create patterns or textures that can 'hide' things that aren't part of my subject or what I want to say about it.
Let's start with Urbanicity I.
This was taken where the train line from Southern Cross Station to Flinders Street Station passes over the intersection of Flinders St and Spencer Street. The buildings behind provide a cool backdrop. Yes, they're visually detailed, but the consistent tone and a subtle treatment in Photoshop transforms them into a textured canvas. The golden light of the train is the central feature, the heavy shadows in the foreground (enhanced with some contrast) reducing the visual distractions to make the train pop even more. The pronounced verticality of the buildings (which pushes the eyes down), the strong shape of the train and its matching referential line on the building, and the splash of reflected light from the train onto the wall all function to create a dialogue between the elements. To me at least, this cluttered image is graphic in nature, with this 'simplicity' enphasised by the temperature difference between foreground and background.
Urbanicity II is a sunrise image, but I wasn't interested in the (almost clichéd) representation of beautifully lit clouds over a skyline. Instead, I wanted to reference the sunrise without quoting it explicitly. With a 200mm telephoto, I made the scullers my focus. They were coming towards me on the Yarra River. The water was reflecting the strong pink hues from the clouds overhead, and this was enough to create a monochrome image in which the scullers become the only discernible feature in what remains a complex photograph. Because the scullers were approaching me, I placed them high in the frame to give them some room to move into. I used the darker water created by the shadow of the bridge they were passing under and the brighter reflections nearer to me as bookends and to give a sense of depth. And then I applied a slight blur to soften the scene using Photoshop.
Cities are full of contrasting character. The old vies with the new, tradition with revolution. One of my favourite places in Melbourne is actually Southern Cross Station --a masterpiece of modern architecture that will, I believe, become as iconic as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, despite being not quite as spectacular. But there are plenty of shots of this modernist work. I wanted to show how such modernism might capture the tradition of architecture. The station itself has a wide glass facade. At the right time of day when the light is crisp and the glass is clean it reflects the facing buildings along Spencer Street. I've used this to frame two buildings from Melbourne's glorious past. The image can be divided into these two elements, but the two reflected buildings themselves also work in contrast because one is deep brick red, the other clean white. The result: a three element image that almost spans three eras through a display of architecture. It is a complex image, but it is rendered simple through careful framing to exclude the street, pedestrians and all the interior elements behind the glass, and through the tension between the formality of the old and the fluidity of the new.
Perhaps reflection is becoming a theme in itself. Urbanicity IV is a photograph in which I've made use of architecture reduced to its essence (lines and surface) in way that almost makes it negative space to provide a counterpoint to the organic shape of the clouds and the twisted reflections of another building. I framed this to carefully exclude any surrounding features. For me, the distorted reflection is almost Dali-like in its organicity (is that a word?). Plenty going on here, but by zooming until I was inside the edges of the scene, I'm left with something that I think is organic and yet reductive. Subtractive without being simplistic.
So that's it for these added thoughts on photography as a subtractive art. I've used everything from focal length to colour contrast to texture contrast to graphical emphasis to reduce the clutter in these images. In each case, my mission has been to find the subject and what I want to say about it, and to remove anything that distracts, but not always by exclusion.
Anyway, thanks for listening to my ongoing monologue about how I think about photography. As a beginner, this helps me to understand my motivations and the way I think about taking photos, and so appreciate your time if you've made it this far. I hope it helps you understand what I'm doing in some small way too.