Serif & Silver Issue III: Unchanged – The Moral Order of Negative Space

It’s a rainy day, the ground is saturated with water and leaves are beginning to drop. It was only a few days ago we got that first good rain of the season; the one where you can smell that autumn is coming. But it’s late this year, mid October and the Portland area is still regularly hitting nearly eighty degrees. I’m running late too, but for entirely different reasons. This issue is the first time I have ever felt as if I am low on photographs.

As the first issue of Serif & Silver came to a close, I already knew where the second would take me. Our road trip through Wyoming had been planned months prior, camera and film had been selected, but most importantly I had a direction. It was in this down time between the first and second issue that I sat down at my desk, pen and paper in hand, and planned a road map for Serif & Silver. This map contained inside not only specific details for ideas and themes, but more importantly a general idea of where the third and fourth issue would go. Because after number four this series of publications will be over. And it’s because I’m running late that I’m doing something I haven’t done yet — writing prior to selecting the photographs that will make up this third issue.

In reality though I think this is ok, I know where we’ll be heading together within this series, and where we will go after that as well. This project, Serif & Silver, began more or less on a whim. I was looking to gain a few things; one: work on my writing, two: build collections of photos, and three: to be able to better speak to those images and what they represent. This began in Serif & Silver (Polaroids: Instant Photographic Prints 2010 – 2015) as I explored the idea of images coming from seemingly nothing and being used together to create a larger idea and series. I focused in on this concept with Serif & Silver (Artifacts: Past, Present, and the American Roadtrip) looking at pairs of images and how they interact with one another. Yet it’s clear that from the most base level a series of photographs can be looked at more closely.

Unfortunately the photographs I want to look at more closely may not exist. But if they do, I am confident that they are somewhere within the eight hundred and forty square feet I call home. Built approximately 75 years ago and originating as an apartment complex, the condo we now live in provides everything we were looking for. It’s minimally designed brick exterior hides a well laid out floor plan maximizing the small space within and leaves nothing to waste. The furniture we have chosen accentuates this with clean lines, low profiles, and a smart layout to maximize how we move and use what was already provided to us. It’s a great place to live for a number of reasons, but more importantly many of those exist beyond the exterior walls. We have a communal courtyard where our complex has potlucks and events, we know all of our neighbors, and it has a walk score of 94. The walk score is never something that I thought I would be proud of, or something that I would enjoy; a younger version of myself would be frustrated that I only have one parking space and one economical car to go with it. And I’m ashamed that it took me until I was 27 to realize I didn’t need the large suburban plots I grew up with, and it saddens me to know that there are many who never will come to those same conclusions.

Despite our furniture choices, and outside the community space, it is the walk score that is important for a number of reasons. What it boils down to is nothing inherently scientific. And in my research I was never able to pinpoint how points are earned. For example anything above a 90 means you could live without a car from this location and would never run into issue with errands, groceries, etc. But how does a 92 differ from a 98? Are there more grocery stores? More transit options? Unfortunately we never get that in depth into what builds these metrics. But perhaps more interestingly is how accurate they end up being without providing a context for their foundation. Unfortunately for most, the concept of a walk score, or being able to walk to anything in your neighborhood is a foreign idea.

James Howard Kunstler is an outspoken opponent of the modern American Suburb. Having discussed ad-nauseum in his first non fiction book on the subject, “The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape” we’re given a deeper insight as to why the structures around us haven’t been designed for human use, but rather the car, and how this has not only caused a greater divide between the rich and poor, people of color, and contributed to global climate change, but has removed us from the community and interaction with those around us. An example provided is that alleyways are no longer seen within new developments. Ignoring that they are often seen now as a waste of space, and a home for crime or homeless populations to congregate, the actual reason is they cannot be made with legal width to accommodate a fire truck. While this may be seen as something that isn’t necessarily missed it forces many unintended consequences. Most importantly the loss of an alleyway forces the garage the be at the front of the house; meaning where we were once greeted with a welcoming entrance into personal space, we are now met with the large blank wall that is a garage door, while the front door has been pushed back another 20 feet.

Kunstler further demonstrates that we’re drawn to focal points naturally, and this leads us to the basis for city planning. Using universal principles a typical town environment will often have streets capped in a T-Junction . This “T” provides us with something to focus on as we move through the area around us. Historically this would have been a building dedicated to the public such as a City Hall, library, or a church. But it not only pulled us in and provided an anchor, it created pause and allowed our eyes rest as they had an object to focus on. Decades later as the automobile was introduced and suburban sprawl became a goal, this T-Junction was removed to allow for faster passage from point A to point B. Since we were walking less and driving more, removing the junction removed stop signs and we could freely get from our home to our destination. Unfortunately this allowed for cars to create their own speed limits. Where a total speed of the community and roadways was never thought of before, it now was a problem that had to be fixed. The intermediate solution for this was to bend the street so that you can’t ever quite see the end. It provides a pseudo focal point, but with nothing of substance. Imagine yourself at a diner with a bendable straw. As you look through it while perfectly straight it focuses your eye on the destination. But bending it just slightly closes that window and forces you to only look at the wall of the straw. While you’re seated at the diner this doesn’t matter much; unfortunately when driving it is ever changing, and we are given no place to visually rest. This again unintentionally adds to the speed in which we can travel from point A to point B, but as Kunstler puts it, this is “exactly what you shouldn’t want in a place where children play.”

It is these little things that compound on one another, pushing back the entryway from the street to accommodate a garage, bending roads so we don’t need to stop. These have removed our community space and furthermore the interaction with our neighbors and the people around us dramatically decreasing the quality in which we live. This applies even for those of you who tend to be more introverted like myself. No longer are we able to walk to our local markets, where produce and goods are provided from local resources, where our purchases are going to others who live nearby, straining our economy and environment, sending money away as we ship goods in and further separated our societies from the real world.

Unfortunately I believe removing the focal points that has caused more damage in the long run, as it is the same type of focal point that exists in photography.

Looking at the focal point as a piece of the photograph the intent becomes more clear. It is not the most important aspect of any given photo, but rather one of many building blocks. Take a look at your hand. It is a complex system of muscles, tendons, and bones with unparalleled dexterity. It is what gives me the ability to type these words, then with a quick shift of position they are able to turn the page that you are reading right now. But the building blocks, the bones that make up your hand are not unique to you, not unique to humans, and not unique to primates. The design behind the hand and all its complexities is one that can be seen across the animal kingdom linking us back to a common ancestor. They are the same blocks that exist hidden inside the flipper of the blue whale. Similarly those within the whale’s flipper exist stretched out in the wing of a bat. But there is another common trait that is rooted in our yearning to survive that rises above all others: pattern recognition.

You should consider yourself lucky for it. Just by being human you already are unparalleled in your ability to see the patterns in everything. It is why you know who people are by looking at their face, and why you can get somewhere even after being provided vague directions like “turn right after the McDonalds”. Perhaps even more interesting though is your ability to seemingly slow time. While this sounds outlandish it is a phenomenon you have certainly experienced before. Perhaps you were bored in high school, your teacher going over a math problem you would never find a real world use for; as your eyes dart back and forth panning the room you look at the clock wondering how much longer until your next period only to see the red second hand hang there for slightly longer than it should. There is reasoning behind why this happens rooted in our history as a species. Our brains never stop looking for something to rest our eyes on. And as you pan the room, looking back and forth your brain never stops interpreting what it sees. Despite it looking like a blur, we are analyzing the many different objects our eyes stopped to look at in that time. So by the time you consciously pause to look at the clock, your mind needs to play catchup for a moment, causing that second to last just a little bit longer than the next. It is also within pattern recognition though that we owe so much more than our survival, as it allows us to create and enjoy art.

But the focal point is not the only piece of a photographic puzzle. Looking back on Kunstler’s model for the American town it is heavily weighted on a balance between the living and use space. The mixed use building, one that combines a first floor consisting of office or retail space with living on the upper levels is a style that has thankfully seen a revival in recent years. Unfortunately after the 1920s it fell out of favor, even being banned in certain portions of the country thanks to strict building codes. But these structures best exemplify a working model for any given city.

It is when we take this approach that builds living spaces designed for all uses, and not just one, do we actually find the balance. More importantly we can now clearly see how the connections between the positive space of the focal point, and the negative space that surrounds it.

Looking back on the instructions that I was provided as a young aspiring photographer I don’t see any difference as to what was thought 100 years prior, or what is tough today. We tend to fall back on our defaults for helping out those who are looking to improve their artwork. These suggestions, these ideas, they often provide any real substance in terms of advice. If you are looking to photograph weddings, automobiles, fine art, kitschy art, or anything in between you won’t even see individualized help be offered.

But even if help could be rubber stamped across the countless different types of photography, would it matter? Take for example the most common tip you will see pop up, the rule of thirds. Designed to aid in the composition of images by simply placing your subject at one of 4 pre-defined points within the frame it is an easy and carefree way to give your images a more dynamic flair. And it should come as no surprise that we see it in all forms of photography, the same weddings, automobiles, and fine art I had mentioned above all love to hit the ground running and shove their subjects into a corner. But while it will guarantee the photo is made more dynamic, it is rarely looked upon to see if it is warranted. This is because rules are looked at like a light switch, on or off, with no middle ground. The reason the rule of thirds makes a photo more dynamic is because of the tension that has been thrown into the mix. Tension that resides exclusively in the negative space of an image.

Taking a few steps back to the message I provided in Serif & Silver (Polaroids: Instant Photographic Prints 2010 – 2015). I looked at the photographs based on their similarities in composition, forming patterns and building a series of connected images from snapshots I had been taking for years. But within the last 6 months, and specifically in the last few weeks as I have been stressing out due to the lack of photographs that will be printed on the upcoming pages, I have been more inclined to try and look at things from the opposite end.

It hasn’t been easy; this ground up perspective is and idea that while I haven’t advocated against, I certainly have been less than friendly towards. As an outspoken proponent of not only photographs as a complete and finished collection, but as pairs and companions to one another it seemed counter intuitive to look at the similarities in all images regardless of subject or the rules that were imposed on them. But in doing so it helped me to realize that the negative space of an image is just as, if not more important than the subject itself. In putting together “Polaroids” I was looking at the positive space in the truest sense. Focusing on key aspects of a photograph that lend to the design of the image, and not the image itself because I was refusing to take it as a whole. It is within the concept of the whole image, what negative space means from photo to photo that I was able to see the structure that connects everything. This is a universal truth that extends well into the real world and the spaces in which we occupy as well.

We find ourselves back on that slightly bent suburban road. Only changing enough to remind you that you are indeed moving forward and not remaining stagnant through the cookie cutter homes. It is this structure, and this use of space that provides the antithesis for what Kunstler proposes, and the meaning behind it is what I have laid out here. Because the specific focal point of this landscape has been removed, we are left with only negative space. Yet since negative space cannot exist on its own it must be exclusively positive space. However positive space without its focal point is a mess. It leaves our eyes nothing to focus on as they track the various patterns. It bears no relation to other landscapes we see in the urban core, or out in farmland. It refuses to acknowledge that the moral order of negative space is what provides the focal point and place to rest, a place to bring in components from outside, and a place to call home.