The Urge to Simplify in Street Photography

Can you resist it? Should you resist it? I’m talking about the urge to simplify your street photos in order to make them more striking, giving them more instant appeal.

The compulsion to simplify is universal in the accepted canons of good photography, whether portraiture, landscape or fashion. Very few subjects look good against a busy background — yet photography, in reducing the world from three to two dimensions, turns depth into flatness whatever the background. It squeezes space together so that objects in the distance collide with those closer to the camera. Our eyes don’t really like this effect. It creates too much ambiguity.

If you browse the sort of photos that often win prizes you’ll find plenty of good work that observes the canons of good photographic taste. People have taken to heart the exhortation to simplify their images — to such an extent that many photographers have embraced abstraction as a natural culmination of this line of thought.

I can’t bring myself to say they’re totally wrong. Abstraction is indeed the end to which all photography tends — but I think we should resist it. In the photographic arts, abstraction is like entropy in reverse. Instead of being “a gradual decline into disorder” (one of the definitions of entropy) it’s a gradual decline into order – a superficial kind of order which the photographer imposes on the world by studiously ignoring ninety-nine percent of it.

It you listen to the advice photographers are giving to each other, you’ll find that “Simplify! Simplify!” is the universal cry. Once they’ve made this point, their next advice is usually: “Get closer! Get closer!”

Here, for example, is photographer Ron Craig writing on “In most cases, the power of a photo is inversely proportional to how many different elements it has. A close crop on a quarterback is much more powerful than a wide angle shot of the full field of players…an isolated tree is more compelling than a busy forest view.” And what is the photographer meant to do about it? Craig says: “The first way to simplify an image is to…get closer to your subject.”

Begging the Question
Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the above, except to say that it begs a lot of questions. Are people who look at photos incapable of “reading” an image by enjoying detail and seeing how it contributes to the composition? What’s the real subject? Is it the landscape/cityscape or an object within it, or both? Why must the photographer make everything so easy for the eye of the beholder? After all, as mobile beings we can see 360 degrees by moving our heads, taking in all around us.

For too long, so-called photography experts have been fobbing off their readers by calling for greater simplicity as if it’s the only true way to forge a photographic style. Surely, the notorious Ken Rockwell, with whom I rarely agree, goes miles too far in saying: “Simplicity is the most important concept in photography… Simple ideas are stronger. Expressing them more simply makes them clearer.”

Ken, you sound like a meerkat: “Simples!”

If we reduce every idea to its most simple form we end up with slogans, propaganda, sound-bites, and all the other snippets of nonsense that serve as substitutes for thought, communication, art, and understanding. Complex ideas that have been reduced to a point at which they become nonsensical clichés include: “A picture is worth a thousand words,” “Shoot from your heart,” “Zoom with your feet,” “The camera is only a tool.”

“A picture is worth a thousand words?” Really? Which thousand words? Would a photograph have been better than the 272-word Gettysburg Address?

“Shoot from your heart.” Are you kidding? Your emotions on their own will not automatically enable you to take a great or even a competent photograph.

“Zoom with your feet.” Impossible! If you walk towards the subject you’re changing the whole perspective, not just the focal length.

“The camera is only a tool.” What!! You mean like a chisel? Or maybe a hammer? To say that the camera is only a tool is a bit like saying the Palace of Versailles is only a house.

All of the examples, above, are the result of reductive thinking where the thought has become so cryptically expressed it’s now essentially meaningless. I suppose it’s happened because we’ve had a century or more of advertising slogans which encapsulate a sales message to make it memorable.

“Good to the last drop.” (Maxwell House, 1915)
“The pause that refreshes.” (Coca-Cola, 1929)
“Look, Ma, no cavities!” (Crest, 1958)

Flick, and Move On
On the Internet, most photography is normally presented for instant appreciation and consumption. Users of Instagram, WhatsApp or Line are accustomed to flicking through images, spending about a second on each one before either moving on to the next or becoming “engaged” by clicking through to related content.

Did I say one second? That’s how long users seem to take when I look over their shoulders on the train. But photos have captions, don’t they? According to AdWeek, writing about Instagram: “Brief copy is popular. The average caption is 138 characters long, but Simply Measured [social analytics solution] found no significant correlation between text length and engagement rate.” I’m not surprised. I doubt if anyone pauses to read the captions.

The trend is towards ever-shorter expression of ideas and towards photography that can be appreciated in a single glance.

The very fact that still photography survives in a world where movies are every bit as easy to create should give us pause for thought. Movies require more than a single glance. They chew up time whereas a photo “embalms time” and makes it instantaneous.

I’d love to reverse this trend in my own street photography. I’m working on it. It may be a quixotic enterprise that’s doomed to failure, but I think it’s possible — just possible — to grab viewers’ attention on one level and encourage them to linger for a minute or two or longer in order to reach a deeper level of understanding.

If you can’t keep the viewer’s attention for more than a second, what’s the point of street photography? It would simply be another meaningless activity in a throwaway world where everyone seems to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

My images tend, therefore, to be quite detailed, a bit cluttered but certainly never disordered. Sometimes I isolate a subject, such as the Woman In Red (the featured image, at top). Sometimes I take a subject that’s partially concealed (The Hidden Chef, above). You can take in these images at a single glance, but even these images — among my most simple — contain essential details which I think add to their meaning.

Fortunately, street photography is an art form that can accommodate complexity with relative ease in comparison to most other forms of photography. Elsewhere on this blog I discuss the use of layers and other techniques that bring complexity under control. We expect there to be complexity on the street and we miss it if the photographer consistently excludes it. You can’t show people interacting in an urban environment if you’re always cutting out the detail and replacing it with blank walls and negative space.

A virtue in life, simplicity can be an encumbrance in art.


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