On Reductionism and Photography

Reductionism, as per definition, is the attempt to reduce subjects to their parts in an attempt to simplify the understanding of the whole. The opposite of holism. There is reductionism in cooking. Food reductionism, right, is a kind of puritanism. Cooking ingredients down, slowly, to get the essence of it. And that is what this post is about. Reductionism and photography. Capturing only what is essential with only the tools that are essential. Doing away with the decorative and incidental, which in today’s world of abundance are synonyms for clutter, overloaded menus, filters, presets and endless functions, stuff you actually never need.

It’s increasingly difficult in today’s world to focus on the essential. We’re bombarded with information and stimuli of all sorts. Around the clock we’re fed breaking news and podcasts and whatever. We’re hooked to Facebook, Line, WhatsApp, email and the never-switched-off mobile phone, being constantly bombarded with stuff that actually has little or no effect on our lives. It’s just to fill in the empty space in our existences.

Fiona Hefti, Miss Switzerland 2004 and and contestant in the 2005 Miss Universe Pageant | Daniel Kestenholz
Fiona Hefti, Miss Switzerland 2004 and and contestant in the 2005 Miss Universe Pageant | Daniel Kestenholz
In other words: we’re constantly distracted and forced to pay attention to stuff that actually has nothing to do with our lives, with stuff that doesn’t enhance self-determination and self-awareness in the least.

We’re told this and that will improve our lives. Why would it. One can only promise heaven and earth to the weak, to the indecisive and disbeliever. A balanced mind won’t be distracted.

Yet, we’re preoccupied with stuff that we’re fed like animals in a fattening unit. Over time, if not aware of the dangers, we’re all consuming the same stimuli and we all react to the same inputs.

We all listen to the same stuff, we all listen to the same tunes, no longer able to listen to ourselves; forgetting to listen to what really moves and drives us, what really matters to us and what’s really important to us.

Reductionist photography, that doesn’t mean to lead the life of a hermit. But it means to think twice before. Do I need this? Do I like this? Is this really what enhances my overall awareness and creativity?

We’re overwhelmed by intellectual rubbish these days. What counts is fastest, brightest, funniest, most ridiculous, most courageous and most stupid. But so bombarded with wow effects, confused by absolutely stunning special effects and, yes, masters of Photoshop techniques, let’s get some humility and modesty back in to our lives.

Which brings us back to reductionism and photography.

With reductionism being the theory that every complex phenomenon, every complex situation, can be explained by analyzing the simplest, most basic mechanisms that are in operation during the phenomenon. Reductionism in photography is the practice of simplifying a complex idea, issue, condition or the like, especially to the point of minimizing, obscuring or distorting it.

Reductionism in photography — being able to capture the essence of something. No clutter, no bombast. Just what is. The natural light. A lens. The camera. Any camera. The subject. The situation. Capturing what is. Getting rid of all the nonsense, maybe that is a key to creativity. Being a reductionist.




  • Dave

    Congrats! This is, why I come here! This one goes into my best-of-file.

    • Much appreciated, Dave!

      • Dave

        If you see it that way, then there is a certain contradiction in the concept of this site and you might be tempted to corrupt yourself (big words :-) ). You maybe underestimate the credibility you built up: How about a newsletter (or even a real journal) for paying subscribers with your educational contents plus an abstract from the rumors mill. On a monthly base or so this would bring the essence to the readers who’d prefer not to waste too much time on the net. Monthly journals are quite common for art, philosophy, politics etc. Such a medium would bear the opportunity to go a bit more in-depth and still be frequent enough to keep the reader up to date. This is just an idea. What I basically want to say is, that credibility goes hand in hand with e.g. education but not so good with high gear turn-over.

        • You certainly have my full attention Dave. Since some time I’m playing with the thought to take THEME into a new, slightly different direction. The layout and design seem a bit dated, I have so many new ideas since THEME’s inception two and a half years ago. Now it’s a wild potpourri of everything photography with hints of sarcasm, rants and philosophy.

          I’d also be willing to set aside a budget to pay for solid contributions; to pay writers, professionals and photographers who “deliver”. All for the purpose of: less is more.

          I doubt, however, that with the time available for this site I could produce the depth, profundity and uniqueness that would justify paid subscription. Dunno. The ideal case would be a THEME as a full-time “hobby” to pay the bills and a bit more…

          Also, this here is no Ming Thein and no Steve Huff.

          I have to give it some thought. Many things going on right now. If I’d know how to take THEME to a next level without sacrificing credibility and alienating the silent majority of visitors, well then I’d have tons of enthusiasm and dedication available.

          Feedback always appreciated! Such as, what would you want to read in a monthly photography newsletter. Seriously, isn’t everything already out there? Well THEME does try to make a difference…

          • Dave

            Thanks for the invitation. Yes, everything is already out there. Your service would be to find the substance:

            Create a monthly newsletter containing from a) mainly educational writings about photography (your strength), introduce guest writers, discuss photographic works or trends and b) add an easy entertaining readers digest about actual photography news, tech rumors and posts from popular bloggers. Link them and draw a commission. With such a newsletter we could learn and spare time without the feeling of missing something. You would find paying subscribers for such a service. Keep it simple, half an hour of substantial information about photography per month would suffice. If not, the links in your newsletter would be a good start for a long surf for those who want it. Publish parts of your newsletter one month later on your webpage and let it be discussed.

            This would correlate to your article in many ways.

  • “Do I need this?” was my mantra when I started to get rid of my g.a.s. Now I don’t need to repeat it anymore, since I know what I want. And for that reason I can focus on the essential. Great reading, thank you.

    • “Do I need this?” Exactly Marco. It applies to so many things in life. Yet being fed TV, news, emails, messages and all sorts of advertising around the clock, it takes some effort to not to lose focus…

  • Rich Owen

    Having never been a real fan of G.A.S., I could not agree more with what you say here, Dan. But more than being about the need to fulfill G.A.S. desires, your words here bring another conclusion – everyone seems to have this unquenchable desire for “15 minutes of fame” thinking that somehow their lives need to be watched by everyone. I have some members of my immediate family that are like this. Every little thing they do gets posted to facebook even though they may live in the same household!

    • Not only that there isn’t only too much of everything already (choices, choices, choices!), you’re saying there is even too much of ourselves!