Space, as you might expect, is the area between objects and surrounding them. Or, at least, that is “negative space“, as it is referred to in art-speak. “Positive space”, then, is the object or objects. In early art, negative space held little importance, and was seldom more than an afterthought; either the entire work was positive space, such as the first carved or sculpted objects, or negative space just happened to be where you weren’t already carving, chiseling, or painting. In any case, negative space has become more and more important as art history has moved forward.
In Renaissance Art, form was determined by an outline, which had the effect on volume in a painting of rendering it either something or nothing. Light was often the source that showed volume in this case. Negative space was not a “thing” until the French Impressionists. These painters, again looking at light, saw it in terms of the atmosphere, and so for the first time positive and negative space were rendered in exactly the same way; this, in terms of atmosphere’s effect upon light, which illumined not just objects but entire environments, that those painters found already voluminous even before objects were placed in them. In the 20th-century, Pablo Picasso and the Cubists, found another way to think about positive and negative space, and that was that they were just devices meant to “fool” the viewer from the reality of the two-dimensional surface in front of them. Picasso, began crafting a technique, called “Push and Pull”, which sought to “push” areas within a composition that seemed to come forward towards the viewer back, while “pulling” areas that seemed to recede forward. By doing this, he sought a flatness that was honest to the two-dimensional surface that acted as the plane for his compositions. I realize that this is an extremely condensed version of these events, but hopefully you get the picture; the relationship of positive to negative space is significant to art, and approaches have been varied just as they’ve also evolved.
“…On a lucky day a surprising balance of forms and spaces will appear and I feel the drawing making itself, the image taking hold.” -Philip Guston
“I like a form against a background- I mean, simply empty space- but the paradox is that the form must emerge from this background. It’s not just executed there. You are trying to bring your forces, so to speak, to converge all at once into some point.” -Philip Guston
In terms of photography, there are two traditional rules of thumb in regard to how space is to be rendered within the frame.
1. The Rule of Thirds- or, the idea that your subject should never occupy more than a third of your composition. And, in addition, popular opinion suggests that there is a “sub-rule” here that implies that the subject should always be in either the far left or far right third of the frame. In other words, to place your subject directly in the center makes your photograph automatically susceptible to being interpreted as an amateur work, since most amateurs are generally only looking to capture someone’s face and are not thinking about alternatives for composition.
2. Negative Space should be used to draw attention to the subject and to isolate details. This rule is accomplished by one of two ways: 1. you open up your aperture wide enough to narrow your depth of field and therefore isolate your subject from its background,
or, 2. you line up the objects within your frame in a way that befits the story you are trying to tell about the subject.
I will often break the “sub-rule” to the Rule of Thirds (the one which places the subject either on the far left or far right) because I regard it generally as more of a “taste” than a true “rule”, and I feel that because everyone has given over to following it exclusively, I am liberated to place my subjects in the center of the frame again. However, I never break the second rule, and often allegiance to that rule is what determines for me whether or not I choose to follow “sub-rule” to the Rule of Thirds for any particular shot.
Here are some examples of times that I have broken the “sub-rule”:
Of course, following rules, in any case, is not the exclusive path to any end result, and art especially requires a sense of exploration and experimentation, and rule breaking (as I have previously written.) After all, “You can be sure of one thing. It doesn’t come out worth a damn if you’re not having a good time doing it.” -William Eggleston