In this 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. In this article he uses the Voigtlander Bessa L camera and a roll of Black and White film.
I’m a pretty rubbish minimalist. Minimalism isn’t just about aesthetics and I’m so bad at getting rid of stuff I don’t need. I do enjoy setting myself creative boundaries though. In photography, an art where creators seem ever more dependent on technology, creative boundaries are often set around the gear we use. I’ve written before about photographers that use really simple gear, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Daido Moriyama being two excellent examples, but this month I wanted to explore an even more subtractive approach to gear.
Photography is such a broad church that there are photographers that don’t even use cameras. Cyanotype and other similar processes can create amazing results with just some chemicals and the sun. That’s subtractive as hell. Then there are the Pinhole photographers, making amazing images without a lens. I’m pretty impatient so the long
exposure times of pinhole photography have never really excited me, plus my pinhole experiments in the past have yielded some dreadful results that I sure won’t be uploading to the web. I have some pride, you know! Recently though, I found myself in possession of a camera that is unintentionally subtractive and minimalist, while also being a technical masterpiece. The Voigtlander Bessa L has all the hallmarks of a rangefinder camera.
Compact and discrete? Check.
LTM / M39 lens mount? Check.
German design? Check.
High shutter speeds? Check.
Rangefinder for focusing? Nope.
This camera doesn’t even have a viewfinder. Just imagine the pitch to a room full of executives. An excitable product designer gesticulates in front of a Powerpoint presentation. “It’s a rangefinder camera, yeah? BUT WITH NO RANGEFINDER! Mind… Blown.” The Bessa L was originally sold alongside Voigtlander’s range of ultra-wide-angle lenses, lenses which needed little in the way of focusing, hence the absent rangefinder, and came with their own hotshoe-mounted viewfinders, hence the absence of any framing mechanism on the camera. While the lenses have remained popular and sought-after, the camera bodies can now be found very cheaply. I shoot an awful lot with a 50mm lens, so how hard, I thought to myself, would it be to guesstimate focusing and framing? I fantasised that this would free me to be more “in the moment” as I shot. Less distractions, less technical, harder, better, faster, stronger. I loaded the camera with film and headed out to shoot feeling invincible. Setting the lens to f16, I felt like the depth of field would meant that I couldn’t get the focusing wrong. And who needs framing? Just shove the camera somewhere in the vicinity of a subject and click!
I got home after finishing the roll and got it into the development tank as soon as I could. These photos were going to be amazing. The best I’d ever taken. It had all been so simple. The 15 minutes it takes me to run the chemicals through the tank were full of elation. I pulled the film from the reel and as I put it through though the rubber squeegee I looked at the results.
There were some nice images there, don’t get me wrong, but there were so many frames with half of the subject appearing in the corner of a frame. And everything was SO FAR AWAY. I’m not one for getting super close to my subjects, but not having a viewfinder had meant I was imagining shots rather than framing them. Scanning the negatives also gave me more unwanted feedback. The focusing was, well, fine. It was alright. But who wants to make “alright” art? Undeterred by but the less-than-stunning results, I loaded up another film and headed out again. A little more cautious. A little more hesitant. But also a little more mindful, and still feeling very present and connected to my surroundings. This time I had a lot higher success rate, just from a very small change in mindset. The fearlessness and freedom I found shooting without a viewfinder or focus aid really made me consider why it is that I love making photographs. Sometimes it’s about producing a technically flawless and perfectly framed image, but sometimes it’s about the rush of raising the camera and tripping the shutter, about noticing the small things around us, about engaging with our fellow humans, about reckless abandon.
To see more of Simeon Smith’s work visit his website awonderfulkindofimpossible