Perfection in Simplicity

Woman with Broom, Front Porch, Greenwood, Mississippi

Get a terminal diagnosis and you tend to reflect on things, ultimate things of meaning in your life – people, places, things done and experienced. It’s actually a marvelous byproduct of having a limited amount of time left. Everything, even those most simple things, shine with new meaning. I’m now three months into a “go home and let nature take its course” diagnosis – when asked I was told “maybe six months…we just don’t know.” Last week again it was nearer – this week, feeling a bit well again.

One thing I am doing is a lot of negative scanning and photo printing. My family has encouraged me to do at least that and, frankly, I’m amazed at the amount of good work I’ve produced in 52 years of actively photographing. Certainly looking back over it now I can see my progression both aesthetically and philosophically. If I could characterize that progression it would be as a progressive movement toward simplicity of both thought, design and presentation. Photography as an expressive medium need not be complicated to be effective. Simple works just fine.

Simple photos, profound in their simplicity. The emotional and aesthetic payoff is the power conferred by an ostensibly “simple” visual creation. Simplicity allows space for the viewer’s creative input. Complexity turns an aesthetic event into an intellectual event. Art isn’t intellectual. Art is an intuitive, right brain response. Intellectualization corrupts it with left brain logic.

But simplicity itself isn’t a guarantee of aesthetic worth. Sometimes a simple photo can be badly framed, awkwardly composed, dull. What makes simplicity aesthetic?

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This Guy Played on 50% of the Iconic music of the 60’s, Usually Without Credit. Why? Because He Made it Simple. To the Point and Done.

I’ve been doing a lot of music listening as I’ve sat at my computer, and it’s become obvious to me that my tastes incline to the early to mid-60’s in both Jazz and Rock and Rock. In Jazz, Dexter Gordan, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins were still melodically and harmonically linked to the blues structurally, unlike the unfortunate era of “freer jazz” that followed it with Fusion and Free Jazz. Likewise, Rock and Roll. The Kinks, the Beatles, The Who, The Stones, CCR, the Byrds all made remarkably simple yet incredible powerful stuff through the 60’s. Throw on the Kink’s 1964 single “You Really Got Me” and if that doesn’t make you want to get up and move, there’s clearly something wrong with you. Its powerfully simplicity almost requires you do.

To me, the greatest single rock and roll song is the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” (1965) , with the Beatle’s “Rain” and the Byrd’s “Turn, Turn Turn” close behind. What makes “I Can’t Explain” such a perfect encapsulation of what rock and roll should be is 1) its brevity; and 2) Jimmy Page’s seeringly simple guitar lick at 1:33″-1:47″ that caps his progressive counterpoint surf of the melody up to that point and builds the song to the perfect two minute climax. (And, yes, that’s Page playing, not Pete Townsend, although Townsend has insinuated it was actually him; it wasn’t, Jimmy Page says it’s Jimmy Page; that’s enough for me). Apparently done in one take and then off to the next song. Remarkable. 2 minutes, get to the point. Done. It still brings the hairs up on the back of my neck after 55 years,

And then came the 70’s and the era of the extended instrumental rock and roll song, partly, no doubt, fueled indirectly by Page himself with Led Zep. However, one must make the distinction between the more extended blues work of latter Led Zep and their inferior 70’s era hair band camp followers. Even the latter day Led Zep is inherently simple, based as it is on blues harmonic and rhythmic structures. The skill-less imitators took the worst excesses and tried to make them virtues. They hid lack of simple vision behind faux-intellectualization They were bad bands unable to state the point and move on, false complexity as a mark of nothing to say.

What does this all mean for your photography? It’s simple. Find one thing to say. You don’t need to travel far or engage in constant novelty. Everywhere around you there are subjects for your study. You need not be covering a war in Bosnia or walking the streets of Paris or New York. Wherever you are is fine. Bring a simple eye to what’s around you. One thing at a time. Don’t overthink it and don’t overdo it. And when it looks right to you, stop and move on.

10 thoughts on “Perfection in Simplicity

  1. Rob Campbell

    Interesting that you lay so much credit at the feet of British musos/ bands. I felt them to be rather diluted versions of the original American rock ‘n’ roll music that came out of the mid-fifties, itself a more pop-oriented, more widely marketable take on R&B, as the Stones were amongst the first to admit.

    For my money, the best of the bunch was Chuck Berry, with Little Richard and Fats Domino also heading that wave. Today, thanks to the Internet and Spotify, I hear much more material from folks like the late Chuck Willis (who got very little UK airplay) and Cookie and the Cupcakes, who I think got none. We were so insular back in the day… maybe that accounts for Brexit: tiny, limited vision. I bet that’s also part of the problem within US politics too. I guess that it’s the penalty of English language speaker hubris: natural assumption of superiority. If you can access nothing else, how can you measure comparative worth?

    Jazz? I never did go very much for modern jazz, preferring the old New Orleans kind of thing. The best Brit jazz band, for me, was that of Chris Barber who, along with Ottilie Patterson on vocals, rang all my bells. They were a magical pair.

    In photographic terms, I think nothing led to simplicity and focussed vision better than did 6×6. Put a 150mm on a Hasselblad 500 Series and the snaps pretty much took themselves. Okay, my subject matter back in those golden years was different, but it seems to work even in landscape, as both Charlie Waite and Michael Kenna would testify.

    Wonderful stormy weather today; just what I was waiting for… snaps? Nope, I found something else to do: I made soup enough for four meals. ;-(

    I guess I’m beyond photographic redemption. Still enjoying my photo monographs, though!

    Reply
  2. Rob Campbell

    A problem with trying to make any musical distinctions with rock and roll music comes with rockabilly: sometimes what I hear I think is rock and roll, at other times rockabilly. Maybe sometimes something can be both genres. Bill Haley had a rockabilly band, but when I first heard Rock Around The Clock I was convinced that was rock and roll. For most Brits at the time it was the very definition of rock and roll; we had heard nothing else. Regarding the late, great Killer: I loved his country and western stuff best of all; white blues, I guess it was. Teardrops music can make you feel so bloody good sometimes. His uptempo stuff felt too frantic for me. As he got older, his songs reflected some of the problems of male ageing, such as trying to prove one still can. Solar plexus kinda stuff.

    For me, music is the most powerful of all the arts.

    Genres cause enough dispute within photography; I guess nothing that’s part of an artistic medium is ever quite cut and dried enough to suit everyone’s idea of classification. Perhaps attempting to put thing into boxes causes more confusion than it clarifies. Well, it can be done roughly enough, but dig too deeply and battle lines become drawn!

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    1. Dan Newell

      Being in the States at the time was an embarrassment of riches. On Friday night I could go see Carl Perkins and the next night see Muddy Waters. Mid-week I could go see Milt Jackson or Art Pepper….and on and on.

      Some kind of wonderland thing but tempered by the ride home on a R60 Beemer that more often than not led to frozen testicles….so it’s a zen type good/bad memory.

      Reply
  3. Ron Himebaugh

    A parallel devolution lies in the Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubbs, Hank Snow Nashville greats of the fifties and now we have–still out of Nashville– what Tom Petty called “bad rock with a fiddle.”

    Reply
  4. Dan Newell

    I’ve been going through the Blue Note catalog and I’m up to Kenny Dorham. First time going through alphabetically. I did skip the later ‘Trane albums. I’ve tried to listen to it over the years, repeatedly, and I just can’t get it. Evidently I’m not cleared for a trip to the planet Remulac.

    Every once in a while I just stop and think about the amount of talent that was around from the mid fifties to the seventies and it just is mind blowing.

    Having grown up in San Francisco and gone through the whole Haight thing I’d say Janis Joplin singing just about anything. The most powerful band I ever saw outside of Otis Redding was The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. English R&B was really good if it included early Savoy Brown with Kim Simmonds and Fleetwood Mac when Peter Green was in.

    But…to your point, I think that’s right. I’ve wandered around some pretty poor candidates for a shot and have been surprised many times. Or, as the saying goes back in the City…”May the baby Lord Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind”.

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  5. JamesP

    Talent in art really is the ability to remove things – removing everything that can be removed while still getting the point across and then no more. As you have alluded to many times, that is remarkably difficult.

    As a professional musician who plays rock and blues, I have to agree that the three songs you mentioned are brilliant.

    As an avid listener of everything, I think the most beautiful music to have ever graced the ears of Mankind is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor (K466) for much the same reason. Between the first and third movements of brilliant fireworks is the Romance. The theme here is extraordinary. It is as if Mozart wished to show the world that he could write something sublime, yet so technically easy a child could play it. After a stormy middle section the theme is reprised, and the way he brings in the woodwinds to signal the close is so bloody sublime it almost makes this confirmed heathen believe in God. And a child could play it.

    Of course, therein lies another devilish detail: A child *could* play it, but to perform a piece where every single note says so much requires exceptional skill and experience.

    The quest is neverending.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      “Talent in art really is the ability to remove things – removing everything that can be removed while still getting the point across and then no more. As you have alluded to many times, that is remarkably difficult.”

      Apocryphal, I know, but someone asked Praxiteles how he sculpted: He said he just removed all the stone that wasn’t supposed to be there and left the rest, Easier said than done.

      Reply
  6. Dogman

    A quote, attributed to Lou Reed but who knows: “One chord is fine, two chords are pushing it, three chords and you’re into jazz.”

    Reply

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