My God people, stop – just stop – with the negative space. Yeah, I know I put this out there before, but I’m coming back around again. Because, you know, some things are worth repeating. And I hate having to say this more than any other thing I’ve cited in the past, because I love space. But as the momentum grows for this technique of choice for those in the know, it is getting out of hand.
First, there were the tiny people landscape shots. One like that? Cool. Two? Sure, why not. Three? Maybe. But I’ve have seen full-on shoots dedicated to showing tiny little people dropped into windows, walls, landscapes, strips of light, and one forest after the next. It used to piss me off (oh, hell, it still does), when portraits were all about how sexy you could make the bride. Now it’s pissing me off, when portraits are all about how cleverly you can shrink a couple down to tiny little dots. Sometimes, there are even the worst of all worlds. Little people looking really sexy.
And on top of it, we’re going further. Now, the question isn’t just how small you can make them in a portrait. It’s how small you can make people as they get ready, as they have their ceremony, as they have their reception. So you stuff everyone behind a door or in front of a blank wall or framed by the walls of a hallway. Anything to fill the picture with clean, empty space.
I get it about negative space. It’s a way to isolate and define. It’s part of the canon, and it’s a legitimate tool. And I’m not saying it shouldn’t be there. But there are two words I’m throwing out there: Too. Much.
Space may heighten mood, but it just as often calls attention away from an intriguing expression, a dynamic line, and certainly from implication and symbolism. Photography is not a contest to see how much room over people’s heads we can find. Nadav Kander’s pictures on the Yangtze? They work. But that’s not documentation. And, frankly, they make sense. They’re not portraiture. They’re a study. Of landscapes. And, of course, there’s Callahan. But he was from a different time, it said a different thing, and, frankly, he’s Callahan, and not many are.
I believe in personal expression. I believe in vision. But this is not a vision issue. It’s a tunnel vision issue. It’s not that we need to get rid of space. But as is always the case when something becomes the flavor of the day, we lose focus on looking for more. For every case where it works and makes sense, I see another dozen, where it’s just there to show that we can visualize. It’s skill and talent dwarfing subject and content.
Negative space may well be the single most important thing to understand about composition. But it is also one of the most conspicuous ways to show your chops. And, as we all know, wedding photography is an arms race of technique and pageantry, and nothing wins the day more than showing you can do it better than the next guy. But space is part of the palette, not the palette.
Have you seen Pari Dukovic’s pictures for Fashion Week? Bad ass. And most of his best in that series are tight. Great timing, great light. He makes the most out of small things. This is a guy who knows how to do what good photographers do best: Make the viewer feel something. Barbara Crane does the same in Private Views. Every shot is full of implication – it’s about psychology. She shows nothing, but she suggests everything.
I know this rant will do nothing. In fact, it will probably do the opposite. The probability is that those who don’t use space well will keep it at arm’s length, when they should learn to work with it, and those who love it will keep on going further. But I’m calling it.
I went to an exhibit at the Met some time back about extreme beauty, and I remember looking at those big, Elizabethan, ruffled collars. They started as normal, functional collars. But to fulfill the desire of the rich to show off their wealth, designers created increasingly ornate and outsized collars, until they reached absurd proportions.
It maybe be for style instead of wealth that we chase what we chase. But the effect is the same, and we are reaching absurd proportions.