Yesterday NPR and Jazz24.org released their Jazz 100, “the 100 quintessential jazz songs of all time.” Topping the list was one of my jazz favorites, the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five.” Listening to “Take Five” this morning I was particularly struck by the simplicity of its sound, and it occurred to me that simplicity is an essential and often overlooked element in photography.
Spend a little time on photography websites and it’s easy to come away feeling visually assaulted. Saturated sunsets, crashing waterfalls, and swirling clouds can make wonderful photographs, but some of nature’s most divine beauty is best revealed by subtracting elements we’ve been brainwashed into thinking are necessary. Just as many of the pieces on the Jazz 100 are quite complex, simplicity is certainly not necessary for a successful image. But it seems many photographers have forgotten how effective a simple image can be. As my parents used to advise (shout), louder is not necessarily better. And neither is a lot of activity in a frame. To be effective, a scene’s elements (shape, color, lines, texture) need to work together; if they can’t, it’s better to isolate the most compelling aspect and remove distractions, no matter how beautiful they are.
Case in point: A poppy-covered hillside is a beautiful thing, but so are the graceful curves and translucent gold of a single poppy. The poppy in the foreground of this image was just one of thousands blanketing a hidden hillside in the Merced River Canyon just west of Yosemite Valley. After photographing the entire scene I gradually moved closer until I found myself sprawled on my stomach beneath this one poppy. Conveying its simple elegance was all about removing distractions: rocks, weeds, and yes, even the thousands of other beautiful poppies in the background. In this case I used selective focus, attaching an extension tube and dialing up a wide aperture to limit the depth of field. Focusing on the poppy’s leading edge turned everything else in the frame to a smear of color.
Did I achieve Brubeck’s mastery of my world? I think not—but it’s nice to have something to aspire to.