In this new series photographer and analogue enthusiast Simeon Smith talks about the use of minimalism in photography and how he applied this method to his own work using the LC-A+ camera.
Some choose minimalism, others have it thrust upon them. A year or so ago my better half started on her own journey into minimalism and at first I dismissed it as faddish and obsessive. Slowly but surely though, minimalism has won me over in almost every aspect of my life.
It’s easy to see why minimalist philosophies are growing in popularity. In a culture that is geared towards consuming, we’ve quickly found that for the most part buying more things and lining them up on Swedish flatpack shelves doesn’t make us happy. There’s also a real lack of emotional connection to physical objects in a world in which almost every book you’ve read, every song you’ve ever danced to, every movie that’s made you cry is available instantly online. And yet as artists we still find ourselves often turning to consumerism. For most of us, over 35 hours of our week is spent in the pursuit of money, even though we know that money cannot buy inspiration. So we trick ourselves into buying our latest fads hoping that somehow our pointless endeavours in employment will be linked to our artistic output.
That’s one thing that I love about film photography: In a world of system updates, of iPhone launch parties, of planned obsolescence, making photographs with limited, purposeful and enduring gear, focusing on community and excellent artistic output is insurrectionist.
But minimalism isn’t just about kicking against consumerism, there are also real positive pulls. I’ve always loved simplicity and clear, bold ideas in art. The first time I visited the Tate Modern in London I stood in front of a Rothko for what seemed like forever, wanting to take in every brush stroke, every perfect imperfection. The first time I listened to the Boards of Canada’s Campfire Headphase, an album in which gloriously little happens, I was just transfixed by the simplicity and clarity of it all. Stand at the foot of the Walkie Talkie in London and it’s impossible not to be taken in by the repeating pattern running up the single shape of the curved face of the building.
So wanting to approach minimalism in my photography I felt pretty well-versed when it came to the artistic side of things, but when it came to gear, my minimalism fell flat on it’s face. I may have got rid of plenty of unnecessary possessions over the last year, halved my wardrobe, decimated my CD collection, and thoroughly de-cluttered my living space to help me to de-clutter my headspace, but I’m still a massive film camera hoarder. I have everything from Holga’s to Leica’s, and while I love shooting with all kinds of cameras and lenses I’m always making silly mistakes because I haven’t spent enough time with each piece of gear. Each camera has just a few rolls of film put through it before my attention turns to another piece of kit.
I was inspired to take my minimalism with gear more seriously when I saw an interview with legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. He was asked about his gear, and I was surprised to find that for almost all his work he used one camera, a Leica, and one lens, a 50mm prime. Looking at Cartier-Bresson’s composition you can instantly see that he knew his field of vision through that set up so well, and I’d like to suggest it might be because he spent decades with the same set-up.
A street photographer that takes this gear minimalism even further is Daidō Moriyama. For much of his street photography he uses a Ricoh compact camera. He’s been quoted as saying “Any camera is fine. It is only the means of taking a photo.” He praised compact film cameras for putting his subjects at ease, and it’s easy to see in his photography how the simplicity of use of his camera helped him on his singular vision taking stunning shots of scenes other people would have walked past without a second thought.
With Moriyama, Rothko, Cartier-Bresson and Boards of Canada resonating around my mind, I took to the streets with Lomography’s own inspirational compact camera, the LC-A+, and a few rolls of Lady Grey film.
Sometimes the minimalism came out naturally. A beautiful geometric wall on a busy street. A lock on a newly-painted door. Other times it was a conscious decision. Walking past subject until her face was obscured. Taking a photo of a bike, then taking the same photo of just the bike’s wheel. Other times still my desire for minimalism was resolutely ignored in pursuit of great subjects. Pirates at a music festival. Men on a mission with a cart full of instruments.
The LC-A+ was a joy to use and I got to know it well in no time. With automatic exposure, and a really simple focusing tab, all I had to do was frame my subjects. The small black compact was largely ignored by my subjects, and the 32mm lens was beautifully diverse, performing well from close-ups to rooftops with minimal lens distortion. The vignetting typical of the camera really draws the viewer into simple scenes.
Please let me know in the comments what you think about minimalism in art and in gear, especially if you disagree with anything I’ve said. I’m hoping to explore minimalism in other areas of photography in future articles, so I’ll respond to your comments then.