11. The Case for the Negative

Nearing journey's end

It could be argued that all a photographer does is to capture light reflected off surfaces and compose those reflections into images that create a mood or tell a story. The surfaces might be people, or buildings, or landscapes, or flowers. To the photographer, it’s all the same. They are just surfaces.

The photographer uses light to describe a subject: the shape, the texture, the volume, the mass. But the photographer also uses negative space to suggest that, regardless of what the light is telling us, there is much more to the subject than can be seen with just our eyes. The negative space gives us the opportunity to use our imagination, to find the deep connection between the subject and our own experiences.

As you can see, the photograph I have used to introduce these writings contains a great deal of negative space. There is much more darkness than light. But before I reveal what was in my mind when I took it, I feel that it is important to draw a distinction between documentary photography, and the genre to which this image actually belongs.

Documentary photography reports what happened in a particular place at a specific moment of time; and as such, it must tell the truth and nothing but the truth. It rarely tells the whole truth because of the limitations of the medium (the selective frame and the absence of back-story); and part of the skill of the documentary photographer lies in his or her ability to tell as much as possible in a single image. Of course, the photographer may editorialise by portraying the subject in a way that reflects a particular point of view; or on the other hand, strive for objectivity, taking the nothing but the truth maxim to the extreme. But whether a subjective or objective approach is taken, a photograph is no longer documentary, by definition, if the physical truth has been altered or distorted.

Documentary images are generally easier to read because of their natural explicitness. The photographer is at great pains to tell the viewer what is happening and if the image is successful, that communication is both comprehensive and instantaneous. On photo-sharing websites such as Flickr, where large volumes of new images are uploaded every day and viewing time is finite, viewers respond enthusiastically to the best documentary photographs, largely because they get the story immediately and with very little effort; but where the image requires the viewer to spend more time, absorbing the elements and deciphering their code, time runs out and acceptance is less forthcoming.

I find myself less and less drawn to making documentary photographs these days. This is not a criticism of the genre or those who practise it – I still enjoy and appreciate it in the work of others – it is simply a reflection of how the way I view the world is evolving. Instead, I am increasingly attracted to what I will call, for want of a better term, narrative fiction. As a photographer, I covertly enlist people going about their daily lives to play the roles in the scenes their actions suggest to me. It is true that what I imagine and portray these unwitting actors to be doing might not be what they are actually doing; but then, so much of what we perceive around us is no more than the illusion of reality. We are constantly bombarded with random pieces of information that our brains absorb and organise and rationalise in an attempt to create a narrative that we can accept as reality. And where we don’t have enough information to complete the picture, we draw on our acquired knowledge and past experience and through a process of inference and supposition we fill in the gaps. This is called “circumstantial evidence” and in a court of law it would be deemed to be inadmissible; but in our desire to make sense of the world in which we live, there are no laws to inhibit our imagination. So, quite simply, what I do as photographer is take some of these random pieces of information out of context and offer them as the elements of a story for the viewer to construct. If I were practicing a documentary style of photography, truth and accuracy would be of paramount importance. But since the objective is to create a fictional narrative based on a scene that I have observed, I find that verisimilitude is more important than veracity.

In one way, a photograph is a form of self-portrait in which the photographer proclaims loudly and without reservation: this is who I am; this is what I care about; this is what I feel; and this is what I want you to know. Once the image is published, the photographer’s work is done; but the creative process does not end there because each person who views the image thereafter creates a personal interpretation, formed through the reaction between the raw pictorial elements of the image itself and the viewer’s own knowledge, experience and emotions that the image invokes. In that way, the image becomes a mirror, reflecting whoever looks at it; and just as each person who looks in a mirror sees a different reflection, how you interpret a photograph reveals as much about you as it does about the author; perhaps even more. So, it seems to me that the more a photograph leaves room for interpretation, the more its true meaning lies in the eye of the beholder.

I felt it valuable to make the distinction between documentary photography and narrative fiction because their approach to image-making is so different. The documentary photographer sets out to tell the viewer what is happening in the captured frame; whereas the art in narrative fiction lies in getting the balance of information right. Give too little and the viewer might struggle to construct any form of narrative. But give too much information, be too prescriptive, and the scope for the viewer to exercise his or her imagination to connect with the image and construct his or her own personal narrative narrows. The challenge lies in the fact that every viewer is different, everyone comes to the image with his or her own experience, his or her own emotional being. For this reason, the negative space in a photograph is just as important as the composition of positive elements because the negative space is the canvas on which the viewer completes his or her personal interpretation of the image.

So, this brings me to the photograph I have chosen to illustrate these concepts.

The image was captured shortly after my mother passed away. At that time, she was often in my thoughts and never far from them. One day, I was walking along the street, camera in hand, when I saw an elderly woman sitting in the passenger seat of a car, door slightly ajar, waiting for her carer to come around and help her out of the vehicle. Without thinking, I turned my camera towards her and took the shot. It was a situation my mother and I had been in many times before. Because of her difficulty in walking, I would drive her to wherever it was she needed to go. When we’d arrive at our destination, I’d ask her not to get out until I got round to her side of the car; and invariably, she would have opened the door before I got there. I was thinking of her safety. She was thinking of her self-esteem. And all of these memories were triggered by that narrow shaft of light striking the elderly woman sitting in the car.

The title, Nearing Journey’s End, has two meanings. Literally, it refers to the fact that, presumably, the subject has arrived close to her destination. But on a deeper level…well, I’ll let you imagine that for yourselves. Let it suffice to say that I realised in that instant that I would never do this for my mother again.

That is why I felt compelled to capture this image; but there is little if anything in the photograph itself to explain my motivation or to tell this particular story; and that doesn’t matter because this is not documentary photography and the explanation I have given above is my own particular interpretation of the scene I stumbled upon that day. Others will have their own interpretation, creating a fictional narrative that has relevance specifically to them; whereas some will find nothing at all they can relate to in the image and dismiss it as meaningless. That is the risk I accept when publishing a work of this nature. In the end, this might turn out to be an example of a photograph that contains insufficient information; but I am blinkered by the strength of my own interpretation and everything I associate with it. Only by putting it out in the public domain will I know whether or not it succeeds.

Of course, the distinction I have drawn here between documentary and non-documentary photography just scratches the surface. Narrative fiction can be further subdivided into stories about what the actors are doing and stories about what they are feeling. But that is a subject for a future discussion.



9 thoughts on “11. The Case for the Negative

  1. You are such a great writer and such a wonderfully thoughtful artist. I love what you wrote and found a whole host of truths in it. I think that is exactly the most beautiful and transformative thing about photography; that it clearly is a strong reflection of the artist’s viewpoint, experience and emotion yet at the same time can be seen completely differently by a viewer coming to it with their own perspective and emotional baseline. Once we release an image, it is incredible to see the different lives it can take on when it is out of our reach.

    I was very moved by both your words and your image. Wonderfully done, thanks for sharing something so personal and powerful with us.

  2. I’m not naturally artistic, or at least, I don’t find abstract or interpretive composition in photography easy to conjure. But I do like the term narrative fiction. And I heartily agree that we can make the photo work whatever way we want. What tale we spin does not necessarily have to pertain to the photo we take, but how we fail at that moment. It’s a wonderful rumination of the idea of how we make photography work for us than the other way round. Always appreciate your unique thoughts on this, Keith.

  3. “…a photograph is a form of self-portrait in which the photographer proclaims loudly and without reservation: this is who I am; this is what I care about; this is what I feel; and this is what I want you to know.”

    A wonderful observation, and the essence of what I think/feel when I view others’ photos. I interpret what you (the photographer) were thinking, how you see the world, and even who you are. I’m sure that, in virtually every case, the way I construct the photographer and his/her world is different from how they view themselves, but it’s all I have to work with.

  4. Initially I misread the photograph–it seemed “noir,” like a mystery, a stakeout: an observer in the car, perhaps with a gun or a camera, watching someone less protected. To me it seemed that the point of view of the photographer was in the light, more vulnerable, more exposed. I thought the journey’s end was going to be when the observed person died or was trapped by the observer. Your words of explanation helped me to see a much richer, deeper meaning. So I think there is justification, as in this blog, for an artful complementarity between words and visual images. I like pictures, but I like them better with skillfully chosen words. I like words, but I like them better with skillfully chosen photographs.

    I question the very existence of “documentary” photographs or “objectivity.” I’m a historian, and the first principle of historians (since about the middle of the 20th century) is that there is no such thing as objectivity. Everything is done from a perspective, from a point of view, and we accept that the historian’s point of view is so important that it needs to be stated. In most cases point of view is influenced by gender, class, culture, politics, ethnicity, and the personal experiences of the viewer, the viewer’s audience, and even in some cases the viewer’s subject. As photographers, we decide what to include and what to crop or ignore. Pictures can and do lie, even without Photoshop, which introduces another whole dimension of untruth.

    This extends to “memoir,” which I believe is always narrative fiction, as nobody will ever tell everything; to autobiography (ditto); and to “history.” Basically, I am saying that everything is fiction. Everything is selective, everything is based on a perspective. Nothing ever simply documents. Even an unattended camera, left to run for hours in one place, expresses the perspective of the person who aimed it: why here and not there? Why this day and not another day?

    Accepting that everything we say and do is fictional gives us a certain freedom; and it requires of us the self-reflexivity to identify ourselves and our perspectives. Some people prefer the secrecy of remaining in the shadows, in the car, as it were, looking out, pretending to be objective.

    Thanks for this provocative, thoughtful, well written post and for the very fine picture, which I now appreciate much more than I could have appreciated it without your very explicitly self-reflexive essay.

    • Kendall, thank you so much for your detailed comment. Let me just respond to two points. First of all, I don’t think that you can “misread” the image because your interpretation as is valid as any other, including that of the author. As I tried to say in the piece I wrote, the purpose of this image was not to give the viewer information but to provide a set of ingredients for the viewer to “bake” into whatever cake he or she chooses. Secondly, I understand and agree with the comments you made on “objectivity”. It is not as binary as I may have implied (objective -v- not objective) but is a question of degrees, a spectrum, if you will. I referred to documentary photography simply to illustrate, by opposition, that what I call narrative fiction does not set out to tell a story but rather provide the ingredients (that word again) for others to concoct a story. The difference between the genres is based on intent. Can anyone be truly objective? I’m sure not, for all the reasons you articulated. But to paraphrase George Orwell, some are more objective than others. Thank you again for your comments. Have a safe trip 🙂

  5. I liked to read this article… I feel much of recognition here.
    The “photograph is a form of self-portrait ” part is definitely appealing to me.
    When first looking at this image, first on Flickr, I saw myself in some undefined future, coming to an end of my own journey….arriving at my own door…
    (excuse me for my poor English, not being my native language)

  6. Hi Keith,

    very nice story again.
    First of all, I have to tall you that before you told me, I have no idea the stories were fictions. So you certainly achieved what you wanted. They sounded so real and entertaining in a way. I am not much of a reader, but the way you compile the stories makes me want to continue reading and keep my interest. I am sure I’ll be reading more of your piece in the future…

    Your book looks very nice too btw.

    see you around,

  7. Like Kendall, I’d a first interpretation of the image then a second interpretation following reading the title of the image. At first my impression was secretive, of someone wanting to be hidden. And of course there’s that part of me that always sees line, shape, texture and tone. After reading the title, then my perception of the apparent agedness of the person in the image changed, more to what you were saying about your mother. That taut line of mouth. Maybe not grim, but determined. Maybe a little pain too. Something all who get to this point have in common.

    And as a physical therapist who has patients falling in the parking lot all the time, I’d prefer you go around the car to assist. Thank you…

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