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A Lesson on Simplicity from the Great Portrait Photographer Platon

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Keith Dotson's foggy landscape photograph relies on simplicity and minimalism

Episode 31 of the Fine Art Photography Podcast

Full transcript of Episode 31

In this episode: A lesson on simplicity in photography the brilliant portrait photographer Platon

The first time I remember seeing a photograph by British / Greek photographer Platon, it was his famous black and white portrait of Willie Nelson hugging his guitar. I was still living in Texas and saw it on the cover of Texas Monthly. The raw but refined starkness and beauty of that portrait took my breath away.

In April of this year, Netflix published a fascinating video about Platon to YouTube, and I sat for nearly 45 minutes totally transfixed as Platon reveals his working methods, his background, and his philosophies.

As someone who constantly struggles to find simplicity, and an almost minimalist focus in my own work, I was taken by what Platon said about the topic of simplicity in his photography.

Platon’s advice for finding simplicity in a photographic composition

My father used to do these beautiful drawings in pen and ink. And I grew up with this sort of black and white aesthetic in my head. It was so bold. I spent most of my adult life in the dark, with a small red light on, trying to find that visual language. [Pointing to one of his father’s drawings] If it’s necessary, it’s in there. If it’s not necessary, it’s not there. So, strip it down, simplify it. Just go . . . for the core.

— QUOTED FROM ABSTRACT: THE ART OF DESIGN | PLATON: PHOTOGRAPHY ON NETFLIX

Skip ahead to 11:39 to see the quote, but be sure to watch the entire video. It’s full of golden nuggets.

I have a section of my website called Minimalist Compositions. It holds some of my favorite photographs that I’ve ever made. I tend to think most photographs are improved when they are kept simple.

Landscape photographs in particular can become extremely busy with all the natural textures, details, light and shadows going on within the frame — and I think that’s particularly true when the landscape is shot in black and white.

I photographed this landscape scene recently. Notice how the fog dramatically simplifies the composition, in addition to adding mood and atmosphere.
I photographed this landscape scene recently. Notice how the fog dramatically simplifies the composition, in addition to adding mood and atmosphere.

Studio photographs like the ones Platon makes are much easier to control. He almost always shoots against a plain white backdrop. Landscapes are much harder to control from a simplicity point of view.

This is why fog photography is so perpetually popular — of course it creates a powerful mood, but also fog makes a landscape photograph intrinsically more simplified and easier to process visually.

Another way to simplify a photograph is through depth of field. I love to photograph intimate details of landscapes like flowers, thistles, and rain drops on tree branches, with an open aperture to throw the background out of focus, thereby adding emphasis to the main subject and making the background a soft blur.

I try to watch for things in the background that can create uncomfortable visual noise, for example a stray branch crossing the visual plane that can become a big blurry stripe, or clusters of light or dark flower blossoms that can turn into unrecognizable distracting blobs.

Anyways, this is just a short episode, but I wanted to highly recommend the video about Platon. It’s free to watch on YouTube and inspirational to watch.

As always, there are related links and sources in the description. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you again real soon.

Sources and Links

YouTube — Abstract: The Art of Design | Platon: Photography | FULL EPISODE | Netflix
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDpqt-haLLM&feature=emb_logo&ab_channel=Netflix

Hosted by
Keith Dotson

Keith Dotson is a professional fine art photographer who specializes in black and white landscapes, cityscapes, and abstractions from nature.

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