How minimalist can you go and still represent a subject when the photograph appears to be almost abstract and of nothing at all?
I’ve been photographing the ground beneath our feet for a very long time. From pavements, to puddles, to litter and detritus, to leaves, drains and ditches.
Over the years I’ve self-published the odd photobook or two and for me, it’s a subject that keeps on giving, as I discovered when found myself using film more and more. I don’t know what triggered the switch, or tipped me over the edge, but at some point, three or so years go when I was immersed in this puddle/minimalist project, I abandoned digital and sold all the gear.
This is to put some sort of context around these minimalist images of puddles and flooded fields. They are part of an evolutionary journey of thought, technique and location.
Walking Mollie the springer every day with my camera in rural Oxfordshire, here in the UK, I became known in the village as the mud photographer.
The more I immersed myself in it (the project, not the puddles), the more I started to see my subject matter in a minimalist way. Much more importantly though, I started to see the subject in terms of how I was photographing it. I was looking for subjects that would look good on film. I don’t think I mean that – what I mean is the more I started looking at the puddles and flooded fields, the more I was looking for subject matter that reflected the way the project was going and that could only be executed with film. And that’s sort of why I went back to film after many years of digital. I found I was starting to try and process digital to a grainy film look and I just thought… what on earth am I doing!? So this part of the project ended up being one that was only possible on film and that part of it happened by accident.
I love how grainy film renders relatively uniform expanses of monotone subject matter.
The rendering of water, the sort I had to navigate (literally) as I walked the dog – those flooded fields and leaf filled puddles – was a perfect realisation of this aesthetic back in the autumn of 2019. That is was an evolution of my ongoing ‘the ground beneath my feet’ project was simply how it came to be.
These are not minimalist photographs, as in, that’s not their intention. They are however, photographs of subjects that are somewhat sparse. Hence my question at the beginning of this article.
As a series, I hope it’s obvious what these are photographs of. Some of them, individually, are maybe just too minimalist to communicate anything about the subject. What does that mean though? And does it matter. Are the aesthetics enough – do they stand up as abstracts? I think they do. In fact, I really ‘get off’ on using grain in this way. I can stare at these images (yes really) and get something of the experience of being there, looking at the subject, capturing the experience of being in the flooded field, and taking away the memory of it all.
I hope that these images do in fact communicate the reality of the water, the leaves, the mud, the tyre tracks and the changing seasons out there in the countryside.
As I said earlier, these are all part of a wider project of mine that documents a small part of the environment that I walk the dog in. Yes, that’s when I do a lot of my photography – same walk, same paths, same fields, trees and so on… but different seasons, different weather, different activities undertaken by the farmer, the impact of my fellow walkers.
It’s endlessly fascinating. But you have to get your eye in!
I do despair though of minimalist photography that’s just for the sake of it. You know, the minimalist photo comps that are ‘shapes, contrast, lines…’. I hope these images transcend that and communicate something about the world that is both tangible and engaging.
There’s a photobook on the way for this Flooded Fields project. More about this soon, right here.
All images taken with Nikon FM2n and 50/1.8. Most Tri-X in Xtol. Some in Rodinal. All digitised with Sony A7r and Nikkor 55/2.8 macro [a real pain to focus] and a few with the Sigma 70/2.8 Macro ART lens [a dream to focus].
I have a website and I’m on Instagram.
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16 thoughts on “How Minimal Can You Go? How Minimal Is Too Far? – By Nik Stanbridge”
Very interesting. I do most of my photography on rural walks (I’m in Oxon too) and my kids always ask me why I’m taking more photographs of the same walk that I must have taken thousands of times before. And it’s for the similar reasons, the changing environment, weather through the seasons, changes to the land, the quality of the light etc. etc.
Thanks Mike. A kindred spirit!
I’ve always been fascinated with pebbles, rocks and boulders… in B&W and Color. I love the play of light, the shadows and the flashes of color that occur. Now – after reading your article and seeing your photos – I’ll be looking at puddles and flood waters with a whole new perspective and appreciation
Thanks Dan. The more this project evolves, I realise that it’s the surface of the puddles that hold it for me – as you say, the play of light…
I love this Nik! Great idea, beautiful execution. Inspiring and lovely, thank you : )
Thanks Christopher. As this series evolves, I’m always reminded that the idea evolved from constantly looking at the subject – those muddy puddles…
I think this s a cool project (my fave here is #91). For me it works because it is a series, and as well as the subject it’s tied together by tone and contrast, as well as the surface grain. Having a series puts each individual work in context and helps make sense of it. To answer the question – none of these are too minimal; I think you could go further. How far? Well, to work that out see if you can more and more minimal til these is nothing there. (or you think nothing is there – you won’t know until you see the shots) Then get these shots and put them away for a few weeks, and reintroduce them with the others, and pick your favourite five or six. If the really minimal ones are in there then try and go even more minimal. If none of them are in there, you’ve probably gone too far. But even in this case don’t stop taking the really minimal ones, as the fact that you’re asking the question means that it’s something you should explore. Only stop when you feel you’ve worked it out. With luck you may never work it out, which would be good because then it will always be interesting.
That’s right. I think you summed it all up very well – it’s an evolving series and the future of it is seeing how far it can go while remaining coherent. I’m glad you like 91 it is in fact the next part of the evolution where the images get more minimalist and where the surface of the water, without any real embellishments, other than what is below the surface becomes the focus. In fact that’s what gives 91 its off world feel – the underwater features are exactly where the interest comes from.
I definitely like these!
Do you ever take “conventional” pictures of the area you are studying?
Hi Marc. I did, yes, but at the beginning of the project when my focus was less detailed and much more about the wider aspect of the landscape (without actually being landscape photographs… as in, with a horizon). These ended up in a book called “earth”. The evolution of the project drilled down into this and ended up with the images you see here.
Thanks for sharing, Nik! I think these are fantastic. For me the most successful images in this set are those that are most detached from a discernible referent. Because photography is a indexical medium, one used on government IDs and in Amazon product pages selling forehead thermometers, it’s always interesting to see someone pushing the medium into less “useful” directions. I have myself been delving into more “abstract” realms of photography, where the surface of the image itself becomes the point of the work rather than the work being a representation of something that exists outside the work itself. I don’t think your images need to represent a subject that’s obvious absent content. I think presented as a series with a simple description that these were all taken in a flooded field, can give you the freedom to go as abstract as you want. I would love to see these printed.
Thanks Taylor! Glad you like the images. I agree with what you say about abstract images of non-abstract subject matter. This is indeed where I’m going with the project.
I have printed some of these images and these will form the basis of an open studio event (Oxfordshire Artweeks) next May, where I’ll be exhibiting at home. I’ll also produce some sort of Zine or photobook to accompany the prints. Even though I say so myself, the printed images are quite stunning 😉