Negative Space as Subject

Hi Folks:

This is one of those posts that’s been percolating in the back of my head for a while… It’s not so much about making great art as it is about expanding your vision, learning to see in a new way.

Before we get started, we need to first define the term ‘negative space’. In visual arts like photography, drawing and painting, negative space is the space around the subject. In music negative space is the time between the beats. The question then is not whether or not one can make an image without a subject. Ansel Adams famously said,

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

so that’s not what we’re talking about here. On we go and I’ll try to explain.

First, some examples of negative space. In some images, negative space is easy to define:

Tulip Tree Leaf

Wanted: One GirlBut in other cases it’s not so defined:

Lonely Beach

Lift OffIs the reflection here subject or negative space?

One can take a camera and tripod down to the shore, set it up and make images of the waves coming into the shore, and they might look like this:

Waves, Chesterman BeachA moment later, it might look like this:

Waves, Chesterman BeachIs the whole frame subject, or none of it? And what would happen if one shot a sequence of 200 images of the same scene, capturing wave upon wave in turn, then stacked them together? Would this become only noise, or would it speak to you of the movement and depth of the ocean, that these molecules came to this place from thousands of miles of away? Would they sing to you, too?

200 Waves - Chesterman BeachIn the fall, under just the right conditions, leaves fall on concrete and the autumn rains leach the tannins from the leaves. The wind gathers the leaves into its basket and carries them away, leaving only their imprint as reminder of their presence.

Leaf ShadowsAnd in the following, do you see a puddle, or a crow?

CrowAs I said at the top, this isn’t necessarily about creating great art, but about discovering new perspectives, new ways of seeing and expressing your vision. And isn’t that what photography is really about?

Okay, that’s it. Now go out and make some photographs!


P.S. Another perspective: Negative Space in Photography

Also, I’ve long admired Andy Ilachinski’s vision in his photography and count him among my (unofficial) mentors.
Synesthetic Landscapes

Having said that, I think it’s vital to remember the adage, “I tried to teach you to be yourself, but I find that I cannot. I can only teach you to be me, for I am the only model that I have.” Don’t try to copy anyone else’s vision. You can’t for one thing, but you can take your perspective of someone else’s work, what it means – to you – in this moment – and begin to apply it in your own work.

P.S. II, the sequel: You can find more of our posts on photography and Lightroom tutorials here, and you can find links to over 200 other sites that have Lightroom tips, tutorials and videos here.

2 Replies to “Negative Space as Subject”

  1. John Hawkins

    Thoughtful post. ‘Negative space’, of course, is as full of life and details as positive space.

    Just for fun one day I decided to look at only black things. When I was scanning my surrounding as usual, instead of focusing on the positive space, I deliberately focused on anything black in the scene and there was ALWAYS something ‘negative’ to focus on, which was interesting.

    I could still see everything else with my peripheral vision and it didn’t make any difference in how I got around, but what was revealing was to make friends with all this ‘dark matter’ in my experience that I had been basically ignoring. Fun!

    1. wolfnowl Post author

      Thanks for the tip, John! And thanks for dropping by our little corner of the \’net! Here\’s to new ways of seeing!



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