Nothing Left to Take Away

Perfection is not when there is nothing left to add,
but when there is nothing left to take away.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,
quoted in The Economist June 15, 1991

Painting, I’ve been told and have mentioned before, is said to be an additive art; photography, a subtractive one.

You’re responsible for everything in the frame.
– Typical composition advice for photographers

And so we learn to, ahem, choose a subject as well as a framing that, well, frames it. We learn to change our angle to eliminate detailed/active/messy backgrounds that would otherwise distract from the subject. We learn to blur said detailed/active/messy background when we can’t change our angle. We learn to watch for screwball conjunctions that the eye overlooks but the camera sees and records, dagnab it: the pole seeming to stick out of someone’s head, the branch seeming to bisect a bird, the decorative doodad atop a church spire a full 50 feet away but seeming to top a stone cross right in front of me. Just to give a few completely random examples.


And if we don’t always execute these learnings perfectly, we do usually perfectly execute the identification of the failing in the resulting photo.

Editing, too, is a subtractive art, at least in part: eliminating extra words might not be sufficient but it’s almost always necessary. I wonder how many other such arts there are, where less is more.

Sermonizing? Likely. Speechifying? Absolutely. Advicifying? I suspect so.

What do you think, Sheldon?

In the early 2000s, my father was happily working through his extra serving of ice cream, when the other male at the table appealed to him to say what *he* thought about the protracted wrangle at said table. At issue? Whether the tablemate should go to his granddaughter’s wedding, despite his dodgy health and tendency to fuss. The arguments put forth by the tablemate’s wife and by my father’s wife were extensive. Eloquent, even. Persuasive? Not quite.

It was my father who carried the day, without even looking up from his ice cream.


Perfect. I have nothing to take away from that.

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14 Responses to Nothing Left to Take Away

  1. Jim Taylor says:


  2. Lorna says:

    Good story Isabel. Thanks!

  3. barbara carlson says:

    Actually, painting is also subtractive in practice. The eye fills in 90% of what it sees. If you paint every detail in reproductive exactitude, it will look wrong, overworked. Look closely at a Rembrandt, for example, and the lace is a messy abstract — step back and it is perfectly “all there”. The eye is a painter’s best friend.

    Here endeth the lesson. 😀

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Well, there you go. Maybe everything is subtractive.

      • barbara carlson says:

        I think everything is concentration — get down the nugget of an idea; the rest will fall away.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Steven Pinker has argued that jargon is the biggest single reason people write badly, but I think it’s that we don’t know what we want to say. We could all use more concentration, in more ways that one.

  4. Coincidentally, I have spent hours today looking at photos of the art of artist and architect Maya Lin, whose buildings, sculptures, and installations take account of the art/architecture and its environment simultaneously. Her best-known work probably is the US Memorial to the Veterans of the War in Vietnam, where the visitor descends beneath the surface of the ground to view some of the names engraved in the granite surface, then ascends back to the level of common life after viewing the narrowing points of the triangular surface. The result of her awareness of environment is usually an artwork constructed with areas of fluidity, which allow the individual to experience her work interactively. She foresees the communication of her creation at that personal, individual level. In one way, her designs are Zen-like in their simplicity. In other ways, her designs are as complex and messy as everyone and all outdoors.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – The Vietnam Memorial is another of those pieces of art that must be seen/experienced in person to be appreciated, I think. Before I saw it, I wondered how it could have any impact. I didn’t wonder about that after I had walked its length and depth, feeling that wall of names loom over me.

      • I haven’t seen it in person, but that is the reaction I have heard from many who have. I would love to see it because many of my high school classmates’ names are on it. Lin, who was barely out of school when she won the competition, received tremendous opposition for her design. She bravely followed her artistic sense and has gradually received the plaudits she deserves.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Laurna – Well, maybe those more tuned to art would get it from a photo, but I needed the experience. I’m glad she’s doing well. More artists! Fewer politicians!

      • barbara carlson says:

        It brought me to tears — even a short time near it should make war unthinkable. And to see the men and women whose loved one’s name is on the wall, to see them move their fingers over the name… the private moment made public, universal in loss.

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