Google famous minimalist photographers and the results are pretty thin. The name of Harry Callahan may appear but other than that very little that has escaped the walls of academia. I think that there are photographers out there who are temperamentally minimalists but I think that art history has yet to catch up.
Ralph Gibson is one I’d put in this category. He is definitely a reductionist and his own words in the video bear this out. He sees photography as having different levels of abstraction. The first two levels are the compressing of three dimensions into two and the scaling down. This leaves us at color photography and then he sees the desaturation i.e. black and white as a further abstraction.
He takes this a stage further though with a style that is sparse due to a heavy use of contrast. This in itself is a further abstraction as it reduces the total number of tones used – more information being deliberately lost in the process.
He states as major influences photographers such as Edward Weston and others who I would regard as minimalsit photographers. One name that he doesn’t mention but whom I see as a definite influence on Gibson is Imogen Cunningham. This is hardly surprising though as Cunningham and Weston were great friends and their respective styles have a lot in common. He trained under Dorothea Lange and mentions Walker Evans in the video. These were great documentary photographers yet Gibson’s aesthetic has far more in common with the likes of Weston and Cunningham. The formalist influence of photographers such as Paul Strand and Arthur Stieglitz are also apparent.
Photography and Visual Art
Gibson makes the point that visual art has thousands of years to draw upon whereas photographer only has a very short history and so is soon exhausted. This is a fair point but photography should be seen as part of the visual art whole not as a separate entity. I think that many of the photographers he most admires would see this differently to him. The camera is a medium just as paint and canvas or even collage and card are. The major difference is of course, that photography is a reductive, i.e. the whole scene is already in front of the photographer and he or she has to decide what to leave out. There is no blank piece of paper moment. It is no accident that many of the most well known photographers started out as painters or at least studied drawing and painting. This is especially true of the modernist photographers such as the aforementioned Edward Weston.
Digital vs Film – Yawn
Another artificial distinction that Gibson makes is between digital and film photography having very little time for latter. His argument is that despite the fact that many more digital images are produced he hasn’t seen any masterpieces yet therefore digital must be inferior. Photographers may argue about the merits of one over the other as if it is a matter of life or death but it seems pretty obvious that a great film photographer would get to grips with digital with few problems and vice versa. Here are my thoughts on the digital photography revolution which provide a counterpoint to Gibson’s.
Advice and Black and White Photography
These are minor criticisms though and Gibson says a lot more that I agree with than that I disagree with. His advice to people starting out in photography is excellent. Basically he tells people to follow their own muse and not to try to predict the market. He sees this as the way to develop a style.
His thoughts on why black and white photography is so powerful are absolutely spot on, how the extra level of abstraction makes for much more power in an an age where people have become to over-saturated color in advertising, magazines and just about everywhere else. He compares the way color is approached now against how it was much more muted in the 1950s. The reduced information in a monochrome image carries more power precisely because it can be more focused, more directed. This thinking is emphasized by Gibson’s use of high contrast.
there is a twenty five image slideshow on Ralph Gibson’s own web site that gives a good feel for his aesthetic, modernist, high contrast black and white with various subjects. An image search on Google will reveal the range of subjects tackled by the photographer. Hint – you may want to check the Google filter if you are at work and if there are kids in the room I’d probably save this search for later! Whatever the subject matter though, Gibson’s minimal, formal aesthetic underpins the image.
Another video where Gibson talks about his art. He is also an excellent guitarist and his music accompanies his thoughts here.
Over the next few weeks I’ll write, or at least ramble on, about other photographers who, like Ralph Gibson I think are minimalist photographers at heart.