Landscape Photography Composition: Minimalism

Steve Ripple studied landscape photography composition with the Mojave National Preserve Workshop and, like all his fellow students, experienced a land of sensory overload.

It is a Gobi like desert in places, with hard dunes, harsh sunlight, prickly Cholla cactus, tumbleweeds, and wind-twisted dust devils; in other places, thin grasslands lie between high peaks of thunder rock and twisted Joshua Tree Forests throw long shadows. At times the desert silence is so severe your smallest footstep will echo off a distant canyon wall; at other times the winds rip through narrow ravines and down the creosote plains with a freight train rumble so loud that one cannot hear one’s own conscience.

Skies can be glass blue and generally are, but there are times when soft lumps of mashed potato like clouds invite you to lay on your back and imagine characters passing through the atmosphere. In the short monsoon season, gray-black storm clouds gather to spit a hard rain, and in the brief winter, layers of overcast gray can drop an intense rainfall (and sometimes snow) to nourish future spring blooms.

 

The Mojave Desert is an open-ended visual opportunity.

 

Cinder Cone in Mojave National Preserve

‘Cinder Cone Quartet’ by Steve Ripple, Mojave National Preserve, February 2017 Workshop

For Master Class Photographer Steve Ripple and other students, the Mojave Desert presents an endless litany of subjects and themes, but it is also a land of high-frequency confusion, structural chaos, thematic incoherence and compositional challenges at every turn. Creating a personal thematic in a 5-day National Park Photography Expedition Workshop may be the ultimate learning experience for the landscape photographer, and the ultimate challenge, one that Steve Ripple successfully met.

In NPPE Master Classes, landscape photographers learn to isolate the subject first, clarify their emotions second, and then apply a limited compositional focus to create landscape art. Students couple these composition methods with previsualization techniques for their post-production workflow which allows them to foresee a completed image with an extended emotional range.

 

Ninety Percent Sky

Steve is a tall, thin man, who moves quickly across lava beds, sand dunes and through Joshua Forests alike, traveling lightly with a mirrorless Sony a7RII and key lenses that vary his visual reach. He has a minimalist design persona which is critical to successful landscape compositions, and his approach to the Mojave Desert resulted in a personal thematic that he defined on the last day of the Master Class as Ninety Percent Sky.

narrow hill skyline in Mojave National Preserve

“Morning di Minuetto – Pianissimo” by Steve Ripple, Mojave National Preserve, February 2017 Workshop

His visual narration is sparse, understated in style with an ethereal but detached quality that invites us to explore our emotions as we are drawn into these compelling relationships of sky and ground planes. As a teacher, I see work that is crisp and beyond documentation with a thematic connectivity in his emerging growth portfolio that deserves recognition and review.

For example, Cinder Cone Quartet wrangles together the bowls and domes of the Cinder Cone Landmark within Mojave National Preserve. There is a rhythm to this sky dominate image that has a purity that allows us to navigate the cones unencumbered by photographic conventions that are often visual gibberish.

In Morning di Minuetto – pianissimo we see and feel an extension of these rhythms, but we also detect an underlying and more important theme that explores repetitive shapes with a contemporary sense of isolation. This feeling of isolation and perhaps loneliness resonates with substantial strength in Striped Mountain Sonata.

The dead, wind-fatigued Juniper has a metaphoric quality, representing the last miners to occupy this area of the Mojave Ivanpah Range. In this ground dominant image, we are treated to a strong, balanced composition and as viewers we are navigating the visual story and not relying on the photographer’s narration. There is a certain deadpan quality about this work and in others as Steve’s minimalist aesthetics present a degree of detachment without the emotional emptiness typical to this indifferent style.

 

Minimalism

 

Single tree on a rock hill in the Mojave National Preserve

‘Striped Mountain Sonata’ by Steve Ripple, Mojave National Preserve, February 2017 Workshop

I’ve mentioned the term Minimalism a number of times in this blog, as it is an important compositional aesthetic. Beginning Landscape photographers, including professionals from other genres, often assume that landscapes require wide angle lenses and that every image must be a joint venture with the earth itself including that brilliant sky.

That is where many landscape photographers go wrong because they lack confidence in their work, and thus they think that an image must include as much of the scene as possible. A dramatic sky may produce a ‘nice’ postcard image, but that is a far cry from landscape art. Creative and thoughtful compositions with key perspectives create exceptional work, and minimalism designs bring focus to the emotions in our story, a methodology employed by great painters of the past who created breath-taking masterpieces that have stood the test of time.

 

Minimalism works because less is more.

Minimalist compositions allow our brains to concentrate on the subject and, of course, the subjects should be easy to comprehend. Steve’s images from our Mojave National Preserve Master Class illustrate my belief in visual brevity.

So where does Steve Ripple go from here? Like all photographers with a desire to create compelling landscape art, he will continue to shoot, and shoot some more. As he nurtures his creative juices, I believe further study in advanced post-production methods will expand his emotional range and deliver great themes and masterpiece images from his camera.

In the meantime, I am enjoying his work while listening to Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite in my studio.

 

All the Best Light,
Bob

About the author