Aaron has tinkered with old film cameras on and off over the years and always liked the simplistic nature of them; photography was pared down to the bare minimum, no bells or whistles attached. Aaron describes his interpretation of a minimalist aesthetic in the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.
White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is a fascinating place to photograph; pure white gypsum dunes gently undulating as far as the eye can see. Having come across a collection of images of them in a photographic competition a couple of years ago, they had been on my mind ever since as a place to visit. It took me until April of this year to finally make the trip, but as I look at my finished collection of images I’m glad that it took so long to get there; had I made the trip sooner, I don’t think I would have been ready to photograph them and be satisfied with the results.
A couple of years ago I made the conscious decision to use only film for all my professional work. Having used digital for over 15 years I was starting to feel weighed down by my equipment - too many lenses, camera bodies and all the trimmings that go with it; it was beginning to get in the way of my photography.
I had tinkered with old film cameras on and off over the years and always liked the simplistic nature of them; photography was pared down to the bare minimum, no bells or whistles attached.
I also liked the slow process involved – from developing my own film to working in a tiny dark room. The effort required to get just one good photo was often Herculean compared to the relative ease of digital, but it also felt incredibly rewarding.
With that in mind, I upgraded my clunky Bronica SQ-A medium format to a fancy Hasselblad 500cm (which is older than I am) and purchased 3 prime lenses, a light meter and burnt my bridges, selling all my digital gear. This ethos of going back to basics carried over into my work and I found myself re-learning landscape photography. Despite having been a keen enthusiast for many years, I began to realise how little I knew. Working with a manual film camera proved to be a steep learning curve, often punctuated with moments of self-doubt about my decision, but my gamble began to pay off.
Having to use a light meter taught me so much about understanding light and tones and the square format of the Hasselblad really made me think about my composition as it’s a tight frame to work with. My choice of film was Fuji Velvia 50 transparency which is a daylight film and with no auto white balance, you suddenly begin to see how much the colour of light changes with the weather and time of day.
As my photography progressed, I began to look at my images as less about the scenery and more about the shapes, lines and curves within it. I started to use soft textures such as sand and snow as a blank canvas, something to place a few elements on. I was also happy to leave large parts of my images almost blank, giving elements such as a headland or a rock the room they needed to exist in, rather than being hemmed in by more scenery.
By the time I arrived at White Sands I was clearly on a path to minimalism. As I walked amongst the dunes I felt much more comfortable with the scenery than I would have before. A couple of years ago I would not have seen the subtle curves and tonal changes. I would have been lost looking for an object to focus on or fallen victim to the dramatic skies at sunset, allowing the dunes to sink to the bottom of the frame.
I find a sense of serenity in being somewhere so minimalist. With dramatic mountains or coast, you are often at the edge of the scene looking in but, with no obvious focal point to gravitate towards, your mind is free to wander and become immersed in the land around you.
This becomes reflected in the final images – I often feel that the less obvious a photograph is, the more time you spend looking at it, being drawn in and clearing your mind of all other thoughts. This is what minimalism means to me; providing the space within which to clear your mind.
Aaron Dickson's article appeared in the RPS Landscape Group, Spring 2020 Magazine, read the full Magazine here