I just read this article this New York Times opinion piece that really struck a chord with me. It’s not particularly interesting or insightful. In fact, it’s really not that good. But the author sure does use some fancy words, so he’s clearly very smart, and he must make some great points, right?
This seems to be the thinking in education today. In fact, I’m a perfect example of it. I went to an exclusive private school for Kindergarten through 8th grade that placed a heavy emphasis on building vocabulary and strong writing skills. This was great, as building vocabulary and writing skills is important if you want to express yourself on paper or be able to read a classic book without a dictionary by your side. I moved on to the local public school high school, which at the time was ranked well inside the top 100 schools in the nation, public or private.
There, in the “college level” classes, is where it started to happen: writing became less of a way to concisely express your ideas and more of a way to hide what you didn’t really know. I had a large vocabulary, much larger than any teacher I ever had, so I did very well without much effort. I was rewarded for being shallow but “educated”. I graduated and went to UCLA, one of the top public universities in the nation, with one of the top philosophy departments. I was sure I was smarter than everyone else, because I got good grades and nearly everything I wrote was an impenetrable fog of language, much like the NY Times article above.
Of course it didn’t take me long to realize that all the best thinkers came right out and said what they meant. You don’t need to hide great thoughts in bad language. If you don’t have great thoughts, you better be even more concise: after I took the extra time to actually wade through that NY Times article, I was pissed when I realized the author wasn’t saying anything new or interesting, and in fact made several logical errors. I was even more pissed that I had to look up autochthonous.
The point, as Thoreau said, is to “simplify, simplify”. This applies to photography just as much as writing. The entire point of photography is to convey emotion, whether that emotion is fear, love, pain, empathy, joy, or just “aww, that’s pretty”. There are things in the frame that add to the emotion you’re trying to convey, and things that distract. The secret to making great art of any type is to eliminate everything that distracts.
Impressionism is perhaps the easiest example to look to first. Artists like Monet stripped away almost all details, leaving only the most basic shapes and colors, which conveyed emotion pretty damn well. You may think more modern artists break this rule of simplicity, but look at Picasso: he’s most famous for his cubist works, in which he shows objects and people from many different angles all at the same time. This could get messy, but Picasso usually employs simple backgrounds, and simple scenes. He strips away everything but what he’s trying to expose. Jackson Pollack, took a different approach, swirling, dripping, and splattering paint all over the canvas from above, creating chaotic scenes. But at the most basic level, it was just lines and dots. You can’t get simpler than that.
Some types of photography make this much harder, but it’s still very possible to simplify scenes. Zooming in very close to create abstract or macro views is often effective, but by no means the only option. When physical space doesn’t allow you to use your feet to change the composition, Photoshop can. This doesn’t mean you need to go wild with the clone tool though: you can easily “eliminate” areas just by darkening them, or by brightening the areas you want the eye to go to instead.
All of this is not to say that complexity doesn’t have its place. Take Picasso’s Guernica.
You know it’s about war the first time you see it, even though there isn’t a soldier or a gun in sight. It’s a chaotic mass of bodies. There is a ton of stuff going on. But it’s about war and war is chaotic. The piece would be saying something entirely different if it was just one guy with a gun.
The point is to be deliberate. Act with clarity. If your message requires being noisy or messy, be noisy or messy. Most of the time though, the shorter your message, the more easily you can communicate it, the more easily you can share it with others and the more powerful that message will be.