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Bringing Order to Chaos

Michael Pilkington

As land­scape pho­tog­ra­phers, we seem to work hard at sim­pli­fy­ing our and in doing so we pay a lot of atten­tion to what needs to be exclud­ed from a com­po­si­tion. We strive to achieve clean and obvi­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tions of what is before us.

To this end we employ the many rules of good com­po­si­tion such as rule of thirds, lead­ing lines and the 8020 rule. All of these make it eas­i­er for the view­er to digest and appre­ci­ate the pho­to­graph before them and make it equal­ly eas­i­er for the pho­tog­ra­ph­er to con­struct a com­po­si­tion. So why do we do this? Sim­ply, because it works. Artists have been doing this for cen­turies and we are con­tin­u­ing to fol­low their lead. 

In pur­suit of sim­pli­fy­ing images, we as pho­tog­ra­phers, can employ many tech­niques. Long expo­sures can reduce the con­fu­sion of rough waters in seas, lakes, rivers and clouds in skies into areas of sim­ple tex­tures and tones. Pho­tograph­ing in snow, deserts or mono-cul­ture fields will achieve the same goal. Con­vert­ing an image to black and white reduces the mosa­ic of colours in an image to one of tones of grey.

The extreme of this pur­suit is min­i­mal­ism. It is very pop­u­lar amongst ama­teur and pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­phers alike. Exclude every­thing from the image except the main sub­ject. Michael Ken­na in his land­mark work in Hokkai­do, Japan pio­neered this move­ment. It is with­out argu­ment an aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing style of photography.

It is impor­tant to acknowl­edge that min­i­mal­ism is not nec­es­sar­i­ly an easy form of pho­tog­ra­phy. Reduc­ing a com­po­si­tion to a sin­gle sub­ject requires a lot of skill. Find­ing suit­able sub­jects in famil­iar sur­round­ings is not easy or obvi­ous. Sim­ply walk through the coun­try­side, across farm­land and in woods. Just look out of your win­dow and you are con­front­ed with the chaos and com­plex­i­ty of nature all around you. To some extent, if you are striv­ing for sim­plic­i­ty, this con­strains your pho­tog­ra­phy and it is where the chal­lenge lies. I have found it frus­trat­ing and often an imped­i­ment to my pho­tog­ra­phy, which in turn can imbue frus­tra­tion. So much land­scape and so lit­tle to photograph.

I have a great fond­ness for pho­tograph­ing wood­lands. They are chaot­ic and dis­or­gan­ised and seem to object to any attempts to cre­ate a good com­po­si­tion, to con­vey what you are see­ing and feel­ing. A com­mon approach to pho­tograph­ing wood­lands is to use a tele­pho­to lens and dis­til it down to its com­po­nent parts. This approach to com­po­si­tion, abstrac­tion, can be used in many dif­fer­ent types of envi­ron­ment, yet for me, it excludes the absolute char­ac­ter of nature sur­round­ing me. It is with this in mind that I have been try­ing to embrace this chaos and bring some sense of order to it in my photography.

Friston Forest Sussex Michael Pilkington aspect2i

I have a num­ber of favourite walks near to where I live. As I ven­ture along the path­ways I always look for poten­tial com­po­si­tions. The chang­ing sea­sons and light will offer new oppor­tu­ni­ties in dif­fer­ent ways dur­ing the many times I explore the same route. How­ev­er, liv­ing in Kent, does not bring the wealth of options I encounter when trav­el­ling to more pic­turesque parts of the world. Explor­ing the Yel­low Moun­tains in Chi­na brings a wealth of oppor­tu­ni­ties with its trees cling­ing to the ridges and sheer rock faces. The ebbing and flow­ing of mist in the val­leys offers yet fur­ther increased dra­ma. Ice locked Fjords and moun­tains erupt­ing from the seas in Lofoten, Nor­way present an excit­ing back­drop to the beach­es at their feet.

As I have said, this is a source of frus­tra­tion. On one of my walks, there is a loca­tion that I have passed many times and always appre­ci­at­ed the way the light illu­mi­nates it. Resid­ing under a huge canopy of leaves, the only illu­mi­na­tion is from the late after­noon sum­mer sun that brings low slant­i­ng light which creeps under the umbrel­la of leaves. The scene is beau­ti­ful­ly intri­cate with the knurled tree trunks and grass­es at their base. On one occa­sion, I decid­ed to pho­to­graph it. I chose infra-red as this would give sep­a­ra­tion to the dim­ly lit foliage and grass­es from the background.

For me, this is an image that you can explore and is not some­thing that you can with a glance. Tak­ing this pho­to­graph helped open me up, embrace and allow myself to explore the dis­or­gan­i­sa­tion of nature around me with­out shoul­der­ing the doubt that it would not work, or more like­ly, would ulti­mate­ly fail as a pho­to­graph. Whilst there is a lot in this pho­to­graph, there is still a sense of order. The tree trunks give struc­ture and bal­ance and the mul­ti­ple tones and tex­tures pro­vide a rhythm through­out the com­po­si­tion. Cap­tur­ing this image helped me open my eyes and to see more. I would even say it has cre­at­ed a sense of excite­ment and re-invig­o­ra­tion of my pho­tog­ra­phy, a new­ly found freedom.