Simplify To Amplify; What You Don’t Show In The Frame Is As Important As What You Choose To Include

All Photos © 2004, Jack Hollingsworth, All Rights Reserved

I don't take pictures in order to have a topic for this column, but what often happens is that I'm looking over photos from a recent trip or assignment and the idea is right there in front of me. Which is what happened this time. I'd just returned from Japan and was looking at some of the photos when I thought it might be a good idea to talk about the trend in stock photography--actually, in professional photography in general--toward simplicity in pictures. I call it a Zen-like simplicity, and to me that means finding out what the key to the picture is--the key subject, element, content, or meaning--and eliminating pretty much everything else.

I've heard a writer friend say, only half-kidding, that writing is deciding what to leave out. In a sense, that's what I mean by simplicity in an image. It's as much about deciding what not to include in the frame as it is about what you decide to show. When you simplify, you get to the essence of what it is you want to portray and what you want to say about the subject. You emphasize its importance and its meaning. None of this happens by accident, of course. It's a science as well as an art, and you have to have a plan about what you're doing and why.

Apart from the people pictures, the photographs you see here were among a dozen or so I shot in about an hour's time in a colorful, old part of Tokyo. All were taken with one of my walking-around, one-camera, one-lens outfits--an EOS-1Ds and EF 50mm f/1.4 lens. From those pictures, I picked these because they clearly show what I mean by simplifying a photograph and capturing the essentials of a scene. I didn't have an elaborate plan. I only knew that I was looking for iconic representations of the culture. That's pretty much always my plan: to shoot the food, the clothing, the accessories of the culture, whatever represents the people, the country, even the history of the place--and do it as simply as I possibly can.

Which doesn't mean that I have to take things exactly as I find them. I want to keep things simple, but I feel free to do a little arranging now and then, here and there. So when I saw some colorful sandals and a red mat nearby, I arranged a little still life. Did I need to show all of the sandal? Of course not. Once we see a portion, we know the rest. So I cropped for simplicity--simply to have less in the frame. Note that there's more than one crop in this picture: I cropped out the surroundings to zero in on the subject, and then I cropped the subject to zero in on its essence.