XVIII. Simplicity / Complexity

The nature of this aesthetic dimension is expressed as a continuum, determined by the number of visual elements within the frame. A photograph of the moon against a black sky with no stars counts as one element. If the light of an airplane is visible, or if there are stars, each is another element. Changes in color, texture, or contrast are not considered elements. A complex image has many elements, a simple one few.

On the one extreme is simplicity where there are very few visual elements. 

On the other end of the continuum, there can be an uncountable number of elements.


When constructing an image toward the accomplishment of an objective—

  • A complex image provides more information, a left brain appeal.
  • A simple image has a greater impact, which has right-brain appeal. 

When shooting candidly, on the fly, just be aware of how many elements are included in the frame. And have a sense of why you’re taking the picture. Is it to convey information? Or express a feeling? The wider the shot, the more elements. The closer-in you get—or zoom in—the fewer, and generally the greater impact. 


In a situation where elements are being placed, as they would be in a studio, a good approach for achieving simplicity is to position all the possible or desirable elements within the frame, then one at a time remove an element to see whether or not it’s really necessary relative to the communication objective. Keep removing elements until the “message,” the point of the image, is singular and powerful. One object in the frame with no visual modifiers is much more impactful than one where the viewer’s eye has to move from point-to-point to understand what the photographer is trying to say or express. The fewer the elements, the closer one comes to the expression of a subject’s essence—reaching the place where, if any one part or element is removed, the subject would no longer identifiable for what it is.

Contemplating Simplicity/Complexity in Personal and Social Contexts

In psychology, the Law of Simplicity states that the whole of an object or situation is more important than its parts. In systems theory, the equivalent is “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  Walking in the forest we observe a tangle of individual trees, bushes, and weeds—chaos. Seen from above, however, perhaps from the vantage of a drone, it reveals itself as a whole entity—a forest, a unified ecosystem that’s more complex than any of its trees. A painting or photograph is more—carries more potential for meaning and emotion—than its elements lined up on a table. Consider further, the frames in a movie, the pixels on a computer image, and a person relative to the cells of the body. 

In the area of perception, gestalt (“worldview”) theorists observe that “We don’t just see the world, we actively interpret what we see, depending on what we’re expecting to see.” The French author Anais Nin said: “We do not see the world as it is; we see it as we are.” In other words, our personal realities are constructs, seamless and continuous attempts to observe or create order and harmony out of chaos—the particulars in life where everything appears to be separate and disconnected. Another tenant of gestalt psychology states that the mind is always seeking the simplest interpretation of experience and unifying it. Acknowledging our tendency to simplify, create order and unify is the principle of Occam’s razor: Simpler explanations of observations should be preferred to more complex ones. 

In terms of practical, everyday living, I’m reminded of Michelangelo’s famous strategy for sculpting the statue of David—in order to maximize order and meaning, chip away the chaos, everything that’s not essentially David. Taking this to heart personally, we can work at chipping away everything within and without that’s not authentically us.

The Law of Simplicity is a top-down way of considering reality. The emphasis is on the whole. Equally valid, just the other side of the reality “coin,” is the Complexity Theory which is bottom-up, placing the emphasis on the parts. Atoms unite to form molecules, which unite to form cells, which unite to form organs, and so on all the way to the universe. Big things have small beginnings. Beyond mechanical systems, the significance of living systems, besides exhibiting the greatest complexity, is that their parts—more properly referred to as “members”—self-organize and emerge in unpredictable ways. This is because each member has a “mind” of its own and makes its own decisions factoring in the environment and relationship to its neighbors. 

Groups of members constitute a kind of “community,” and they self-organize into larger scale structures. Societies arise from and are supported by their members. There can be no elite or administrative head at the top, without cohesion at the bottom. A nation, being composed of a myriad of thinking and deciding units, is a living system. As such, it’s the collective decisions of the members that determine the health, well-being, and growth of social systems, despite top-down influences. Humanity as a whole, has yet to learn from the example of Mahatma Gandhi and a handful of others, that the power to affect relatively rapid and peaceful change at the top resides in the coordinated action of everyday people—for instance, no one going to work or attending school—basically shutting down commerce—until the offensive element(s) at the top step down. They have to because systemically they are no longer in power. Of course, the great challenge is to create mass coherence when it requires personal sacrifice—“skin in the game.” 

Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel Prize laureate in physics, observed that complex systems tend to build pressures within the system—especially understandable in a system divided by strategic philosophies. An example is mass demonstrations. He goes on to say that when the pressure reaches a level which can no longer be contained, change occurs to release it. At the global level, wars are a prime example. The stock market crash of 2008 is a national example. And at the personal level, we’re experiencing the release of pressure in the form of active shooters, individuals whose worldview is so negative and self-defeating the only change they can envision is violence or self-destruction.

What can be done? Systems management that’s bottom-up—promoting the health and well- being of individuals. Everyone has “skin in the game.” It begins with loving and socially responsible parenting at home, including student-parent-teacher-community engagement in schools, and an education that prepares students for happy, well-adjusted and meaningful lives as well as careers. And critically important, home life and educational systems that promote higher values and high aspirations with an emphasis on moral-ethical attainment. The result of a strong and meaningful foundation will be adults well-equipped to learn and grow and face the challenges of the future in ways that fulfill their lives and build the earth for at least seven generations out.  The lesson is simplicity: have concern for the whole. The lesson of complexity: be the best we can be.

For a living system to survive and thrive, from bottom to top, each member needs to feel needed and valued, aware of their contribution to the whole. And they need access to the goods, services, and information necessary to grow, achieve and relate appropriately to other members of the system.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Leonardo da Vinci

I welcome your comments at <smithdl@fuse.net>

My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

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