Monday, September 16, 2013

Negative Space. A design component of every photograph and of the other visual arts.

Negative Space.
Zut! Is this something that the spaceship Enterprise will have to overcome? Or perhaps a psychological state? Possibly, we are able to take whatever slant we like of course, but lets assume 'negative space' refers to a visual design term whose companion is 'positive space' and together they monopolize the spacial characteristics of our photographic image.

But to take a step back before we go farther into design theory. When we take a photograph we actually take a piece of reality and make a two dimensional image from it, just as a story about a real event refers to reality but is no longer the event itself, but is rather an artificial construct with its own conventions and ideas. Art itself, as Joni Mitchell recently said in a CBC interview comes from the root artificial ( or artifice). The singer and her song are obviously not the original circumstance that may have suggested it. I'm beating this idea hard because it is the essential concept that must be grasped before the idea of designing or composing one's photograph can be built upon.

An image is made, whether drawn, painted, two or three dimensional or photographed, with the purpose of communication, just like a story, poem or a piece of music is made to transmit some idea or other, and good ones do this with some clarity and intent. There is nothing to be gained by jumbling and creating confusion (although we see and hear this technique used all the time by leaders of all stripes for their own propagandist ends). So, now we come to negative space and it role in visual communication.

A few years ago I took a lovely shot of my big traditional schooner but was annoyed to find it had an extra mast in the print. I had seen only the positive space, my ship, and had not checked in the background , the negative space, for that pesky mast of a yacht behind her. My binocular vision had created separation but the monocular camera and two dimensional print had not.

This summer I was photographing a poppy, picked it and held it up with one hand against the blue sky and snapped its photograph. I had thought ahead ( pre-visualized) and removed it from the clutter of the garden and placed it so the blue negative space around it added to rather than detracted from the effect in the final image.

I am photographing my granddaughter swinging on a branch over the waves foaming onto the beach. With all the rapid action, this is difficult to do, but I pause before beginning and select a very low camera angle facing out to sea, so the camera is at the surf line and my subject high above it. I have manipulated my photograph so the resulting image will separate the positive image cleanly from the negative space around it and coincidentally create a much more dynamic picture in the process.

The blurred forms of summertime dry ocean spray are still the subject, even thought the usual conventions of picture taking are reversed. The sharp background is the negative space in this case. Finding new ways of  designing is not just for the challenge; getting the viewer to take a fresh look is important if we are to communicate.

In many cases I find that a slight cropping will bring the positive space firmly to the edges of the frame and so organize the negative space around my main subject into varied shapes that help the design and avoids the problem of one large uninteresting background. One can blur the negative or positive space through manipulation of the depth of field or, in the computer, darken or lighten or soften or replace one colour with another. To suggest only a few possibilities.

And yet it is so hard to generalize, and formulas for successful pictures are not worth much in the end, just as rhyming in itself does not make a poem or 'painting in oils' guarantee a great picture. It is a very nuanced thing and only training ones eye to observe everything, positive and negative, and being willing to endlessly experiment will lead to picture making proficiency over time. That is the challenge for all of us.

Which is negative space, foreground or background? I have used a 'frame' to guide the eye towards the yacht, so is that the subject, the positive space? Or is the very interesting rock formation that fills half the space the positive? I like this image because of the interplay, the permanently unresolved space that " just keeps on going".

No comments: