Monday, December 20, 2010

Night as white space

"Motel MO" from my State Street project

So many photographers have inherited the zone-system anxiety about what constitutes "good" exposure that they begin to treat every photograph as if it were meant to be an Ansel Adams landscape. "Blown-out" highlights are evil! Details in the shadows are good! Have you heard that type of talk? Do you hear it in your head when you look at your own work? If so, it might be time to consider the graphic qualities of photography as opposed to its painterly qualities.

If I were to declare one absolute here, it would be that when people say there is only one right way to make art they are absolutely wrong. If you want to take hauntingly beautiful photos with seamlessly nuanced tones à la Michael Kenna —and who wouldn't? I adore Kenna—then you will definitely want to avoid blown out highlights or darkness with no detail. But if you want to try something more akin to graphic design, you might want to embrace darkness (that's right, come to the dark side!) as a design element: white space.

Another "Motel MO" shot with even more "white space"

An excellent little post about white space in graphic design explains that "white space does not hold content [...] and yet it gives meaning, through context, to both image and text." In its original printing press context, white space represents extravagance, luxury, or squandered space, depending on your attitude. If your top priority is cramming as much information on a page as possible due to the per-page cost of a publication, then white space is just a lost opportunity. If, on the other hand, you want to convey simplicity and elegance, then white space does the talking for you. A corollary in wedding album design is that the most timeless and elegant albums tend to have the fewest photos. But when you think about it, the aesthetic is grounded in economic realities of mass produced printing. Keith Robertson's post notes that clutter has come to represent the working class and that white space is associated with the upper class. "So," he posits, "the quality aesthetic has been hijacked by bourgeois ideology..." Fascinating. When was the last time you thought about the ideological implications of design?

"Copper Vu" from my State Street project

The argument gets more complicated in the domain of photography, however. I suspect that the white space as hi-brow/clutter as low-brow opposition holds true in the original printing context, but gets more complicated in painting, interior design, fashion, and photography. For example, can we say that Jacques Louis-David's neoclassical paintings are more highbrow than the rococo work of Antoine Watteau? Is a home luxuriously overflowing with antiques more low-brow than stark minimalism? Is Calvin Klein more hi-brow than Versace?

It all comes down to your frame of reference (I highly recommend the book Predictably Irrational for many examples of how the frame of reference guides our thinking) Imagine, for example, a painting, a very painterly photograph, and a photograph that looks like something you might see in a newspaper. In that context, people would be more likely to value the painterly photograph as superior. In other words, if tradition has encouraged us to value painting over graphic design, and if we subconsciously assess a photograph in that context, we will may end up thinking that pure black and stark white are inferior to subtle gradients.

I could go on and on, but instead, I will encourage you to think about white space in night photography. Personally, I have a much easier time embracing a black night sky than accepting a blown-out white sky. When I look at a photo like this one, however, I realize that I should play around more with completely white white space in photography.

If you are working on night photography this month, see what happens when you embrace the dark as a design element rather than fear it as a flaw.


Unknown said...

Oh wow. What a great way to look at it. Love this. Thanks as always.