China's Yangtze: Ancient Heritage, River Rising by Bill Zorn
Normally speaking, the two primary characteristics of photography that we all worked so diligently to control are cropping and the rendition of detail. That is to say, our first and most fundamental act in making photograph is choosing what to include and what to exclude by careful camera placement and lens selection. We then take measures to render the detail with sufficient clarity by focusing critically and selecting a shutter speed appropriate for the necessary camera stabilization. Said more succinctly, we point, we shoot.
There are exceptions and this image by Bill Zorn is an example. Careful camera placement does give us an appropriate frame, but he's used an additional technique to eliminate unnecessary elements from the photograph — he's buried them in the shadows. Like more traditional cropping, he's chosen what to include and exclude in this photograph with meticulous aesthetic precision, but using exposure as a sort of cropping equivalent in the elimination of the unessential. That he has so creatively used the black shadows to focus our attention is a wonderful photographic technique.
Notice the way he's presented exactly what we need in order to understand the scene — and not one superfluous element. The book stand, the text, the folded hands, the shaved head and garments of a monk, and the lattice window to provide a sense of place. We don't see this person's face; we don't see the walls; we don't even see his/her arms — but we don't need to. Everything we need is here. That distillation makes the photograph more powerful.
As long as we're on the subject, here's another image from the same portfolio using shallow depth of field rather than dark shadows to focus our attention on the subject. Similarly, there is a simplification of elements which create a distillation of content. Beautifully done. Minimalism without the simplification of graphic spaces. There is plenty of details in this image, but they are sufficiently out of focus as to be rendered to a supporting role without being distracting.
Whether it's through cropping, through exposure, through depth of field, or any other technique, the key is to concentrate the content of the photograph through one of these distillation techniques. It's not always easy to do, but as we can see in these examples from Bill Zorn, when we can, the resulting photographs are amazingly powerful. Zorn is a master at this, as a quick scan through any of his work will immediately demonstrate.
The portfolio can be seen in its entirety in our back issues — print (while still available) and our PDFs for computer, iPad, Android, and other devices. Plus, bonus audio commentary about this image is available to full-access members of LensWork Online.
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