Negative space is the “empty” part of an image where there’s nothing to attract attention, typically a solid color contrasting the subject, necessary to give the eyes a chance to rest and create balance within an image. Japanese use the word “Ma” for this concept, especially when applied to garden design. There’s only so much the eye can take in. We need rest.
By the end of the 19th century, the arts took a dramatic turn. Musically, Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune reminded our ears to listen for the subtleties in soft sounds. Monet’s impressionism gave us softer imagery void of hard lines and exact definition. Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic novel The Picture of Dorian Grey puts art at odds with real life. By 1910, nothing in the art world looked, sounded, or felt the same as it had a mere twenty years earlier. We began to understand that what we thought we saw, or heard, or read, wasn’t always what was real. By 1920, the arts frequently questioned reality itself.
I sometimes wonder if we are not experiencing the romantic period of information; we can’t escape it. We are inundated with every possible form, auditory, textual, visual, on an endless loop that fills every possible nook and cranny of our minds to the point of overload. Even while we sleep, our newsfeeds are compiling all new sets of information with which to overwhelm us the moment we awaken. What we experience is rich and immersive well beyond what we thought possible, or tolerable, a mere twenty years ago.
Even photography falls victim at times to trying to cram too much meaning into a single image. I occasionally drop into photography forums and see would-be critics going on at nauseating length about a picture’s “moral reach” or “personality development” as though those terms had some actual influence on how the normal person views a photograph. About 15 minutes of such clap trap is all my brain can handle before needed to run away.
I firmly believe this is why videos of children, kittens, and idiots doing something stupid are so popular: they are the negative space of the Internet. They hold no higher purpose than to give us a reason to smile, and maybe even laugh. They don’t try to teach us too much of a lesson. They don’t come with a ten-point list. They just are.
With so much going on in our lives, the need for negative space grows more important. We need to be able to step away, turn things off, accept what we see and hear at face value, and not have to constantly be on guard for ulterior motives, hidden agendas, and secret meanings. Read a trashy novel. Listen to music just because it makes you feel good. Enjoy a photograph because you like the subject, even if it’s just a kitten.
There are days when yelling, screaming, ranting and raving is necessary. I don’t think this is one of those days. Take a moment. Breathe. Enjoy the power of negative space.
And a little Debussy.
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to a faun’s afternoon), L 86, a song by Claude Debussy, Timothy Hutchins, Charles Dutoit, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal on Spotify