The minimalist images of professional photographer Steve Johnson turn everyday objects into works of photographic art. He explains all to Debbi Allen.
IF YOU’VE ever found yourself struggling to find inspiration to pick up your camera, Steve Johnson’s minimalist work proves that beauty can be found almost anywhere His photographs are simple portraits of mostly everyday items, with all but the essentials stripped out of the frame. ‘Minimalism is something that can be applied to most subjects,’ says Steve. ‘It is simply a matter of finding the uncluttered shot, and there is always one to be had. Sometimes it means photographing a detail rather than a whole object or losing detail in the editing — by reducing all dark tones to black, for example.’
Having first picked up his mother’s Kodak Brownie 127 in his youth, Steve started to take his photography more seriously in the mid-1980s. He invested in a couple of basic, fixed-focal-length, point-and-shoot film cameras before a friend gave him an old Zenit SLR. This camera was completely manual with no built-in light metering, so I had to learn about exposure and how to use a lightmeter,’ he says. ‘I acquired a 300mm prime lens to go with the 50mm that I was given with the camera. This 300mm was a beast — at least 12in long and probably stopped down to about f/8 or similar — great for cricket matches on sunny days, but little else, to be honest. My second film SLR was a Praktica that came with a zoom lens and had TTL light metering — a real step up.’
From these beginnings, Steve has carved a niche for himself within the sometimes-overcrowded world of professional photographers, after his wife pointed out his unique viewpoint. ‘Meg, my wife, saw something in my photography that she thought was different,’ he says. 1 asked her what was different and she said that it was very pared down — everything that wasn’t essential was stripped away, but she didn’t find the images over-simplistic. This intrigued me and, to be honest, I’ve been exploring this paring things down to the absolute essentials ever since’.
WHAT ТО SHOOT
Looking at the images on these pages, Steve has proven that just about anything can make a great photograph. ‘Often it is the light that I find interesting and then it is a matter of finding an object that the light works with/ he explains. With this in mind, Steve is keen to advocate the use of a notebook, where he writes down any interesting subject, light or shadow he finds. Typical entries include: ‘Dining room chairs shadows on wall — very formal, minimal stark, no post-processing’.
So just how do you go about discovering minimalist subjects in your own home? Simplicity is key, as Steve explains: ‘I struggle with anything that is very decorative. I would find it difficult to take an interesting photograph of a very ornate picture frame or an extremely cluttered room, for example. I suspect that in both cases I would have to select a small detail and focus on that.’
Instead, he suggests looking out for shapes such as cubes, spheres, cones, pyramids and so on. ‘This is why I am drawn to objects such as dice, marbles and game pieces,’ says Steve. To be honest, the object is relatively unimportant — it is the object’s properties, or to be a little more precise, what the object’s properties are and how those properties interact with light, that interest me.
Take a marble, for instance. This is a sphere, which makes for pleasing compositions, and it is also transparent with things going on within the volume.
This provides almost endless avenues for experimentation and will almost always yield an interesting photograph.’
‘I also like shooting shadows and using shadows to define volumes. Almost any object becomes interesting when it has interesting shadows cast on it. An obvious example would be a large ball, say, shot in front of a window with blinds half open. With this type of shot I expose for the highlights, thereby causing all shadow detail to be lost. The defining of a basic volume by shadows and creating as much contrast between the shadow and non-shadow regions really adds impact to an image. Film noir makes great use of this approach.’
When it comes to kit and technique, Steve is also an advocate of a ‘less is more’ philosophy. If I didn’t have any other camera, I’d happily use my iPod touch camera,’ he says. He does, however, have a plethora of kit to choose from, including a Nikon D3100 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ18. The big plus with the TZ18 is that the wide end of the zoom is 24mm and has very little distortion/ says Steve. ‘I have been thinking about getting a mirrorless micro four thirds camera for some time now and suspect that this will happen in the near future — the combination of small body and decent-sized sensor is becoming hard to resist.’
To set up shots such as Steve’s at home, a well-lit spot by a window is his first choice. ‘I tend to work ambient wherever possible, but that is not an excuse to avoid extra lighting,’ he explains. ‘I have a Nikon SB-600 Speedlight that will either sit on the camera if I am bouncing flash or will be attached with a sync cord on a bracket or in a spare hand, depending upon the situation.
I use various modifiers and reflectors, with both natural and artificial light. A lot of photography revolves around problem solving and a lot of the things that I use to shape light are basically DIY projects involving anything from shower curtains to plastic storage boxes.’
EXPERIMENT WITH IT
Now you may be forgiven for thinking that the only things you can photograph in a minimalist way are small objects, but Steve is keen to point out that he applies this simplicity theory to all manner of photographic subjects. ‘My approach is not really subject-based,’ he says. ‘The minimalism thing is something that can be applied to just about anything. One of my favourite things to photograph is a beach and I have arranged to spend a week about 20 yards from a beach on Lake Michigan [in the USA] at the beginning of autumn.
I usually go to the same beach during the winter when the lake is completely frozen over as the light and bleak landscape really make for some interesting shots. Of course, it is also extremely cold. I have been out shooting when the temperature was down to -15 С with a 20mph wind, but the results are worth it.’
So, the next time you find yourself wondering what to point your lens at, the answer could be a lot closer to home than you’d ever imagined. Even if you’ve never thought about minimalist photography as an option before, it’s never too late to learn how to tune out the distractions and focus on the simple. As Steve says, ‘I am a great believer in stepping outside of my comfort zone as this is how I improve as a photographer.’