Negative Space

The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
― Dorothea Lange

Figure 1. Still Life © Enrique Peláez

Negative space is a technique that has been used not just in photography, but in general in all kinds of arts such as painting and even sculpture for hundreds of years.

In simple words negative space is a composition approach that uses low impact elements in order to create contrast for the main subject — a.k.a. positive space.

For example, figure 1 shows a monochrome still life in which the solid black color surrounding the subject is the low impact element that isolates the subject from the rest of the “existing” context allowing the viewer to focus exclusively on the apple and fork.

Figure 2. The language of the soul © Enrique Peláez

Now, low impact elements can be not just solid colors — like the solid black space surrounding the subject in figure 1 — but also other elements like textures, bokeh, etc.  In figure 2 the background bokeh is a low impact element that provides certain context for the subject but it can also be considered negative space being the butterflies the positive space  (e.g. subject).

Marcel Duchamp by Irving Penn
Figure 3. Marcel Duchamp by Irvin Penn

In general terms there are three elements that should be considered when we work a photo: the frame (the available space), the negative space (the “empty” space) and the positive space (the subject) so, balancing these three elements will must surely result in a pleasant composition. In my experience — probably because of the type of work I do — negative space is one of the most critical element out the three mentioned above. 

If you know me or you follow my blog, you probably know that one of my favorite photographer and definitively an influence in my work is Irving Penn. The portrait of Marcel Duchamp by Penn in figure 3 is —  in my opinion — an excellent example of how negative space can be used to completely change the perception of an image. Probably the best known portraits of Penn are his early “corner portraits”  so, this is one of them that in my opinion shows how negative space doesn’t necessarily has to be conceived in traditional terms.

© Irving Penn’s image may be protected by copyright. This is posted in this site in accordance with fair use principles:

  1. it is a historically significant artwork
  2. the images are only being used for informational and educational purposes
  3. the image are readily available on the internet
  4. the image are a low resolution copy of the original artwork and is unsuitable for commercial use

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