The last week has been crazy, and I was settling down a few days ago to create the final podcast episode for this month I found out about a problem with one of my bank accounts that took almost three days to correct. Thanks to the remarkably flexible bank clerk that helped me, we were able to get everything sorted, but it took two trips to the bank and a total of over five hours of filling out paperwork.
Then while I was at the bank in the gaps between paperwork, I was communicating with my friend Brian Wood and we decided to get together for a chat to talk about Brian’s recent work and help me out as I ran out of time to prepare for an episode. We decided to talk about Wabi-sabi and photography, Ensouling the inanimate through photography, Polaroids, and Brian’s Photo-walking tours. All of which you can find on Brian’s website.
Brian sent me a stash of images to illustrate our conversation, and you can find them below, and I have embedded the relevant ones into the audio so if you are listening with Outcast or the iOS Podcasts app, you will be able to follow along with the photos there too. Click on an image to open it in the lightbox, and you can then navigate back and forth with the arrow keys or your mouse.
A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had plans to at some point photograph some of the cups and bowls that my wife and I have collected over the years. A number of you mentioned that you’d like to see them, so yesterday afternoon I took my camera, a few lenses, and my tripod downstairs, along with a medium-sized collapsable reflector, and spent a few hours making those photographs. I used only ambient light and occasionally popped in a little bit of golden light from a gold reflector, but at ISO 100 most of the exposures were between half a second to just over a second. It was late afternoon on an overcast day, and we had our lace curtains drawn. As I think you’ll see from the photographs though, this does produce quite a soft light that I’m quite happy with.
I didn’t go over the top on positioning the pieces. I will talk about my thought process as we go through these but keep in mind that my main goal was to show the pieces beautifully, but I didn’t run off to get a bottle of sake to pour into them or anything like that. That would have resulted in my drinking the sake and the rest of my working day would have gone down the toilet.
I experimented with both my RF mount 50mm ƒ/1.2 lens and the EF mount 100mm Macro lens. I ended up though using only the Macro lens because of the narrower angle of view. I wanted to use shallow depth of field so that you could see the color of the wood on our dining table and the wood on our kitchen cabinet which houses most of the crockery we own. Some of it is boxed up and stored away, and occasionally gets rotated, but the majority of what we use regularly in the cabinet next to our dining table.
Anyway, I have selected 15 images, though not all of them will have anything special to add, so I’ll break my usual 10 photos per episode rule and we’ll blast through all fifteen today. Here is the first photo that I shot of three of my favorite sake cups, otherwise known as “Guinomi”. Guinomi is usually used to describe a slightly larger sake cup, and the name is related to a hearty drinking style. “Ochoko” is another word for a sake cup that you may have heard, but they are usually slightly smaller, and used to drink sake in a more refined and gentle manner. It’s kind of like the difference between guzzling and sipping the drink. Personally, I prefer the former drinking style, and that’s why I have these Guinomi.
You’ll notice that there is a slightly lighter area in the wood that forms a kind of halo around the top of the center and left cups. That’s actually the back of my chair just visible over the surface of the table. I left it there to provide a little variation, and although it’s very blurred, I think it adds to the domestic situation slightly. This is the only shot in which I included that base from what I think is the “Tokoname” kilns which we bought from the Tokyo Tableware Festival at Tokyo Dome a number of years ago.
After that, I switched between three placemats that I bought from a department store here in Tokyo, purely for photography purposes. We’ve never actually used these when setting the table. Here is the almost black one with the same three cups. I’m afraid we can’t remember where the center Guinomi was made. We bought it at the Tableware Festival too, but the name escapes us. The black cup on the left is Kuro-Oribe. Oribe is a famous group of kilns and the vessels from there are usually the signature green of the Oribe cup on the right. Kuro just means black and added to the name when the Oribe is not green.
I should also mention the concept of Wabi-Sabi, which is what put me on to the topic of shooting these cups and bowls in the first place. In Japanese aesthetics Wabi-Sabi basically means beauty in imperfection. These cups are intentionally rough, not straight, and as you see, in this case downright gnarly, but that, right there, is what makes them so beautiful. You’ll notice this in pretty much all of the pieces that I’ll share with you today.
I won’t mention the shooting data for all of these images, as you can see that by clicking or tapping on the images and opening them up in the Lightbox, but just to get us started, I was using my 100mm Macro lens at ƒ/2.8 with a 0.8-second shutter speed, so you can tell there was very little light. With a well-chosen shutter speed though, essentially just exposing to the right of the histogram as I always do, it is nice soft light, which I enjoy shooting in. Note too that while using these mats with lines on them I was relatively careful to ensure that they were in line with the lens axis so that the whole thing didn’t look skewed.
This next cup is for drinking Shochu, which is a clear alcohol that comes in various grades from pain-stripper cheap to incredibly expensive. Shochu can be made from just about anything, though wheat and rice based Shochu is common, and I’ve also seen it made with corn, potatoes and many other ingredients. My favorite, and a drink that I easily drink more than Sake is called Imo-jochu. Imo means potato but in this instance it’s actually sweat potato, and creates a type of Shochu that is much more of an acquired taste. When I first tried Imo-jochu around 17 or 18 years ago, the first glass I tried was horrible. Fortunately the alcoholic content kicked in, and the second glass was much better. By the time I’d finished my third glass that evening I was a convert.
I bought this cup directly from the person that made it at a department store here in Tokyo. I fell in love with this instantly, and although it was a little over $50 I couldn’t prevent myself from buying it. One of the setting points was that single red dot that you see in this photo, but I like the overall design, and when I peered into the cup, I found the white base mesmerizing. I was both surprised and completely not surprised when the person that made it told me that his kiln was Taisetsugama, right by the Taisetsu mountain range in Hokkaido.
This next cup is made of a section of bamboo, treated with the lacquer also used for lacquerware, but here they’ve left the organic feel of the bamboo, and the lacquer almost has almost a matte feel to it. I use this one more often than not when I want to drink Sake, as in Japanese rice wine, from a larger cup than my Guinomi that we looked at earlier. I generally use the Guinomi when I sit with the bottle so that I can fill it up more often, but when I’m drinking something chilled or maybe relatively cheap sake from a carton, I will just pour it into this larger cup, and then I don’t have to sit with the bottle or carton.
This cup is very light, and you have to wash and dry it after use. You can’t, for example, as we often do with the cups used at the end of the day, just fill this with water and leave it to soak, then wash it in the morning. When I use this cup I have to wash it as soon as I’ve finished using it, then I dry it with a paper towel and put it back into our cabinet. One of things that I fell in love with with this cup is the base, which I included in this photo.
As you can see, the craftsman that makes these simply leaves the natural segments that form inside the bamboo to form the base of the cup. You can generally see where these sections are from the lines seen from the outside, so they must be cutting them at just the right point to make use of this base and leave the top open.
Very long time listeners might recall a commercial shoot that I did around 12 years ago when I drove all the way up to one of the northern-most prefectures of Japan and spent two days photographing a man that farmed trees to scrape lines in their bark and collect the sap, which was then used to make the traditional Japanese lacquerware. The town was called “Joboji” and is famous for high-quality lacquer and lacquerware. While on that job I visited one of the craftsman workshops where the lacquerware is made and spent over $200 on these two lacquerware bowls. Luckily my wife loves these as much as I do, so I got away with the hefty purchase, but these have become one of our household treasures.
I love how there is a little bit of black lacquer showing through in areas in the red bowl, but that deep rich black and the texture of the black bowl is simply beautiful to me. In English when we want to describe very deep black, we might say pitch black, or black and pitch. In Japan, the word for very dark black is “Shikkoku” which literally means this very dark lacquerware black that you see here. I should also note that although the red bowl might be considered slightly Wabi-Sabi, with the black showing through, the black bowl is perfect in every way. To get that dark black the bowl would have been carefully milled, then sanded smooth, then the lacquer applied then allowed to dry, then polished and lacquered again up to 30 times to get it that perfect.
By contrast, these three bowls that you see in this next photograph were bought by my wife and are relatively inexpensive, but also some of our favorite pieces. They’re just fun to use for small items that we put on the table, such as for example, a bowl of sugared black beans that might end up as our dessert after a meal.
So that I could shoot these from above, I put the placemat on the floor and just pointed my camera down at them. This is one of the shots where I used the gold reflector to the right to bounce a little bit of warm light back in to what would have otherwise been pretty dark shadows.
Here also is the same three bowls but back up on the table, so that you can see their shape from the side, and that they are actually tripods. They have three little feet, which I think is quite cute. Thinking about it, these are from Okinawa, when we visited around ten years ago now to do a workshop. My wife went out with a friend’s wife and picked these up while I was teaching my Pixels to Pigment workshop. A good find that we both enjoy a lot.
These next two bowls are also lacquerware, from the city of Aizu in Fukushima. These were about half the price as the Joboji bowls, and have a more down-to-earth feel about them. You might not be surprised to hear that we have actually never eaten from the Joboji bowls, but we use these two pretty regularly. After cooking most of our meals for the last 25 years my wife is frankly tired of cooking. She also doesn’t really like me to get into the kitchen, so I don’t get permission to cook for us very often either, which means that we sometimes rely on take-outs and convenience store bentos, but it’s a good way to keep stress levels down. When she does cook though, she always does a really good job of selecting the best bowls to serve each dish in, and it’s always a pleasure to see what she’s selected.
The three little bowls that you see in this next image are inexpensive again, but we really like the simple design, and how the smaller bowls fit away nicely, nested inside the larger ones. These are often used to serve some “Shichimi” or seven spices to put into noodles, another favorite dish.
You’ll notice that the painted lines aren’t perfect, but again, even in these regular kitchen bowls, we get a sense of the Japanese Wabi-Sabi that I mentioned earlier. It’s that beauty in imperfection that we enjoy so much.
I also shot my three Guinomi individually, but as I’ve already talked about these, I’ll just drop them in here in a gallery for you to look at.
To finish with, here are two Soba-Choko, again, from the Oribe kiln, hence that signature green color. You’ll see that they’ve broken up the monotony a little with those amoeba-like forms in the design, which we found quite appealing. The word Soba means buckwheat noodles, and Choko is the cup, the same as “Ochoko” which is just adding the honorific “O” to the word for a small cup. These are what you put the dip for the noodles into, often with some thinly sliced onions and broken up nori, the dried seaweed that you often see wrapped around rice balls, or Onigiri.
OK, so we’ll wrap it up there. We have heaps more crockery, and we only concentrated on Japanese vessels. If I start on our western-style crockery I’d need another few episodes, but it’s not as interesting as this Japanese stuff, which I hope you enjoyed seeing. I think I’ve captured the warmth of our home in these images to a degree too, so I hope that comes across. I’m incredibly thankful for the life we have, and my wife makes it all so very special. I’m lucky to have her in my life to make it richer and so much more fun!
Minimalism—I almost made the title of this post just “Minimalism” but that’s a little bit open to interpretation, as it has a place in all visual arts, design, architecture and music, as well as a way of life in some cases. So, I added “in Photography” and this is still probably the shortest episode title I’ve given a podcast so far, so we’re off to a good start.
One of my popular mantras as I teach and do my own photography, is that a photograph is often more about what you take out, than what you leave in the frame. I’m not necessarily talking about physically adding or removing elements, although that might be the case in studio and still life work. I’m talking more about what we choose to photograph, the conditions in which we photograph, and how we choose to frame our subject.
Less is More
The phrase “Less is More” is used a lot here in Japan, where minimalism can be found in many of the arts, but also interwoven into every day life. Unchecked, I often used to try to include as much as I can into a photo or design, and even today I find myself whispering “less is more” as I frame up a scene.
I’ve mentioned before that quite often, as we approach a scene, there is usually just one or two elements that really excite us, attracting our attention. Finding ways to exclude or minimalize other distractions is often a challenge, although generally results in more pleasing photographs.
Today, I’m going to walk you through a series of example images, and discuss my thoughts on minimalism in photography as we view each image.
My Minimalist Awakening
I had a look through my image library, and although I can see traces of minimalism starting many years ago, as I recall my reactions to my work, I think I’d have to say that I first started to become aware of the beauty of minimalism as I made this photograph (below) of the tree that we visit in my Hokkaido Landscape tour. This was from 2009, when the landscape tour was just a part of my Hokkaido tours, not a dedicated tour as it is now.
Lone Tree on a Hill
I remember standing out in a driving snow storm as I shot this, but I fell instantly in love with the effect that the snow had on the scene. The background was gone, the foreground reduced to a series of lines and texture, and the tree itself seems barely visible through my viewfinder. I put the tree on the far right of the frame, to emphasize the emptiness to the left, and also show the curves in the hill as it raises slightly, then drops off again towards the left edge of the frame.
All I did to this image in post was reduce the Blacks slider in Lightroom to -5, and I removed a red and white pole that was stuck in the snow to the right of the tree, to mark the edge of the road that runs in front of the tree, although you can’t see it from this angle, thankfully. I reduced the blacks slightly to bring out the form of the tree just a little, but I didn’t want to be able to see it any more than this, or the feeling would have been loss.
The Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi, has in my opinion, strong connections to minimalism. Wabi-sabi in art essentially means “flawed beauty”. Japanese art is often based on the idea that nothing is permanent, perfect or complete, so if we flip that, wabi-sabi is about impermanence, imperfection and incompleteness.
To me, snow scenes are very much a part of my minimalist work, and as I think about this, it’s possible partly due to the impermanence, imperfection and incompleteness of the scene. The snow falls as the wind dictates, changes every time fresh snow falls, and then it’s gone come spring, giving way to a very different scene.
Tanchou Study #7
Since I first started to travel to Hokkaido in the winter in 2004, I found attempts at minimizing the beautiful form of the red-crowned cranes against their white background, but probably the first time I pulled this off the way I wanted to, was with this photo (right), that you might recognize the cover of my Making the Print ebook.
In this photograph, the head is totally pronounced, with that splash of red, but that and the brownish beak is really the only color in the photograph. The line along the back of the crane is much more defined than the front, which almost merges into the background, and this is another element that appeals to the minimalist in me.
The important thing in making this photograph of course, was ensuring that there was nothing else in the frame. I used a long 600mm lens, and luckily as the crane cranked its neck around like this, there were no other cranes in the frame.
Also, the decision to rotate the lens around in the lens collar for a vertical orientation helped, as the main lines of the subject are vertical too.
Of course, keeping the exposure nice and bright was also essential, and part of what makes all of the white tones very similar, and allows us to only see a certain amount of texture in the bird’s feathers.
Long Exposures in Minimalism
Although we’ll come back to some snow scenes, let’s look at a few examples from other seasons as well, like this one from Okinawa in the summer time. This little island made for a great minimalist subject when placed on the left side of the frame, because there’s nothing to its right, except the outcrop of land that you can see faintly in the distance coming into the frame from the right edge (below).
Tree, Rock, Sea
I actually find that little bit of land quite appealing, again, because it’s so faint it’s almost not there. I like it when you have to work to see some of the elements of a scene. The main reason that I consider this to be a minimalist photograph though, is the smooth water caused by using neutral density filters. I used an ND 400 and an ND8 neutral density filter to get a 64 second exposure, making the water smooth over in this way.
This is something that I find I do a lot when I’m in minimalist mode, especially in seasons other than winter. It just helps to reduce the scene down to its barest elements, in this case, the tiny island, its tree, and the distant promontory. I also recall just after this realizing that my wallet was still in my pocket as I waded out into the ocean for this shot, so at the next stop we had to spend some time drying my bank notes.
Minimalism in Color
My minimalist is excited by any scene that can be reduced down to not only the minimal amount of elements, but to a low number of colors, either just black and white, or like the crane shot that we looked at earlier, where we had mainly black and white, with a splash of red.
In Namibia last year, I noticed a sun bleached skull of an animal out on the edge of a sand dune, so I used my 100-400mm lens and zoomed right in to 400mm for this photograph (below). I was interested in the large expanse of deep orange sand, with these two white specks at first glance. Despite the size of the skull and the bit of bone above it, our eyes go instantly to these, because of their difference in color and lightness.
Skull on Dune
We then of course notice the comet trails that the wind has made in the sand, and then start to explore the texture in the surface of the dune, with the wind ripples, and for me at least, after that, my brain starts to recognize that the left third of the frame is in shadow, and I can jump in and notice some different texture over there.
In a photograph like this, our eyes and brains seem to zoom right in on the small detail first, then gradually work back out to the larger scene. This might not be the case if you are viewing the small web sized image, but try clicking on it and viewing the larger image. Also, with a large print, you can bet that people would walk up close and try to see what the white object is, before trying to appreciate the image as a whole.
In fact, you could say that there really is no image as a whole if it was just the ripples in the sand and the line of shadow. It might work, but I think the skull is the added element that we need to hold attention and give the image a reason to delve into the details. This to me is what minimalism is all about.
Himba People Fetching Water
Another example from Namibia is this photo of a group of Himba people walking across the desert to fetch water (right).
Of course, this has a minimalist aspect because the people are so small in the frame, yet recognizable. Again, in a large print, I can image people walking right up to this and noticing how the boy and girl at the front of the group are looking up at us as we photograph them from the top of a nearby hill.
It also though symbolizes minimalism for me, as these people have to walk a few miles each day to fetch their water. This is something that we take so much for granted in many countries and yet water is life-threatening scarce for these people.
I purposefully placed the group towards the end of the vehicle trails that they were walking along, hoping to put them symbolically closer to their water supply. If I’d framed this with the group towards the top of the frame, it could have told a different story, making them seem much further away from their water.
By the way, if you’d like to join me in Namibia in June 2017, check out our Namibia tour page.
Darken to Simplify
Another technique that I like to use to reduce the detail and minimalize my images is to darken down shadows and certain colors during the black and white conversion. Here you can see two photos of the Seljalandsfoss waterfall in Iceland. It is of course the same photo, but the one on the right is the original image, before I converted to black a white (below).
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall – Both Versions
Notice how I’ve used the green and yellow color channel information to darken just the greens in Silver Efex Pro, which makes the cliff side very dark. It also makes the two patches of grass at the bottom of the frame less noticeable as I they’re the same dark gray as the water in my final image.
The resulting photograph stops being about the greens that we see across most of Iceland, but simply about the tender shape that the streams of water make as they fall into the basin, some of them caught and blown off course by the wind. I’ve left some textures in the cliff side, but I’m sure you’ll agree it’s much more about the shape and form of the waterfall in my black and white version. Removing or making elements look less obvious can often be all that’s required to minimalize a scene.
Mist as an Aid to Minimalism
You might recall from my Winter Wonderland Tour travelogues a few months ago, that I’m particularly partial to a bit of mist, because it allows us to reduce the scene down to literally just the bare essentials. In this shot of three whooper swans flying towards us, we were out at dawn and treated with some beautiful early morning mist over the frozen Lake Kussharo in Hokkaido (below).
Three Swans in Mist
Without this mist, it’s still a beautiful scene, with the frozen lake and mountains in the distance, but it’s not minimalist. The mist takes away everything but the birds, and I love this. It’s like having wild swans with 2.5 meter wingspan flying for us in a studio space, in front of a giant roll of seamless with huge soft boxes providing the most beautiful soft light imaginable.
Background is King
To keep a scene to its most minimal, with only the necessary elements, I am forever conscious of the background. For this next photograph, I recall struggling to exclude some distracting elements in the distant background, that would have been a bit of an eyesore had I left them in. Of course, we can consider removing them in post, and with a white scene like this, that’s easy to do, even for an impatience post-processor like me, but when I can get a clean background in the field, I much prefer to do it in camera.
Had I simply zoomed in more, there would have been less white space around dried plant, but I think that space is necessary to maintain the solitude and loneliness that I feel from this image. Without at least a certain amount of space around the subject, I feel as though it’s more just a still life photograph. Especially when it’s a dark subject against a light background, or visa versa. The crane photo that we looked at earlier works OK I think, because the majority of the crane is white, against the white background, maintaining the minimalism.
The point is though, that you can make or break a minimalist photo by not paying attention to the background. For any kind of photography, it is necessary to scene the edges of the frame, and ensure that nothing distracting is creeping in. If you have a textured or multicolored but out of focus background, experiment with the balls of bokeh and how you place them in relation to your main subject.
Open Your Mind to Nothingness
I saw the tree in this next photograph (below) as we drove through the hills in Hokkaido on my Landscape Tour there this year. We were already running late for our lunch, and the group was getting hungry, so we stopped on the way back, and I’m glad that we did. I ended up shooting this scene at 400mm, but even then it was a little too small in the frame for many of the group members to appreciate. I recall getting really excited about this tree as most of the group walked off down the road to shoot the closer trees.
Tree in Hollow
The thing is that I believe we have to let go of the idea of the subject needing to take up so much of the frame sometimes. For me, this image works because of the large expanse of nothingness. The lines along the horizon and the gray sky above it break up the scene nicely. Also, because we can see the line of snow in front of the tree, defined by the shadow of the tree itself, we mentally extend that line out much further.
There is really nothing in the bottom two thirds of the frame, except snow, but we know that it’s snow and that it’s there as an extension of what we can see in the top third. It’s like we mentally fill in the gaps that are suggested by the detail that is included in the image, and this to me is one of the reasons that I love shooting winter snow scenes like this.
Again, the weather is crucial for this. Not only do we obviously need a good covering of snow, but without low cloud or mist in the background, there are hills, farmhouses, other trees and mountains in the background, all of which would make this scene not worth photographing in my opinion.
Three Million Dollar Minimalism
I was in two minds as to whether or not to include this last example photo, but let’s go ahead and look at it anyway. Shortly after photographing the tree that we just looked at, we were walking through the hills, back towards where I’d asked our bus driver to park the bus, and I couldn’t resist this photograph. I recall joking with some of the members of the group that this was my three million dollar photo (below).
Brow of Snow Covered Hill
I was referring to the photo Rhein II which sold for 4.3 million dollars a few years back, causing quite a stir. I said that I was going to print it at three meters wide and put it up for auction, all tongue in cheek of course. Deep down though, I’m actually really attracted to this photo. I thought it would remain a joke piece, but I’ve continued to like it, and come back to it every now and again, wondering what I should eventually do with it.
If we think about the actual elements of the frame, it’s one curved line, slightly above center. I was actually careful to get that line sharply focussed, so if you zoom in on this, there is a tiny line of texture across the crest of the hill. There are few other things that this could be though, so with one simple line, we can understand that we are looking at the crest of a snow covered hill, and the gray sky above it. Call me what you will, but I actually think that’s quite profound.
If there’s anyone out there with $3m to spare that feels the same way, drop me a line. I’m sure I could figure out some fancy printing process for you to brag about, and I’ll even through in free shipping! 🙂
Minimalist Ideals Improve Our Photography
As you’ve seen, much of my minimalist work seems to be centered around snow scenes, although I find it creeping into much of my work. I’ve selected these example images because they can mostly be considered minimalist photographs, but I think the idea behind minimalism can help us to improve all of our photography, not just minimalist work.
Although this might not be the case if your image might be about mayhem and confusion, generally, photographs benefit from only including the elements that are contributing to the image, or supporting the elements of interest by providing contrast or context. If something isn’t contributing to the photograph, the chances are it’s detracting from it. The fewer distractions you include, the more the viewer will be able to enjoy the beauty of the elements that you do include.
See our Tours & Workshops section for details of the tours on which I made all of these photographs.