Negative space can be a powerful tool for visual storytelling just as the focus on form or a subject. It works just as well as patterns and leading lines in drawing our eyes around the frame. Nathan Wirth makes an interesting approach to demonstrate this through his superb black and white series, guided by the Japanese minimalism of the spatial concept of ma.
We all recognize negative space, from the perspective of both design and photography, as the space around the subject of an image. However, through this series, Wirth also introduces us to an alternate way of looking at it through ma. Here, he describes a more philosophical approach that involves “seeing, hearing and, perhaps, feeling and expressing (a) the intervals and emptiness of space; (b) the void between all things; (c) a pause in time, and (d) a simultaneous experience of form and non-form.”
However, he cautions against intentionally building a body of work around it. Rather it’s more about looking for ma before or after the act of creation — or taking the shot if it’s photography involved. It’s more about utilizing the negative space in the composition not only to emphasize what is there (the subject) but also as a point of thought or discussion about what isn’t there.
Wirth further explains below:
“Ma speaks as much of what is not there, what is not said or expressed, than what is there. Ma provides an intriguing perspective for entering the space between notes in music; the spaces between the flowers and the branches in an ikebana arrangement; the pauses within a poem; the space left unbrushed in calligraphy and brush paintings (the non-form of the empty space ending up preserving the movement(s) of the brush when the calligrapher swooshed ink across the empty white space); the experience of the non-form, whether conscious or unconscious, bound to the experience of the form and the experience of the form bound to the non-form.”-Nathan Wirth
Wirth’s interpretation of ma is a rather clever invitation for us to look deeper into minimalism as a visual aesthetic. With these ideas in mind, we can then begin to wonder, what is the negative space in his photos keeping hidden from us? What is it suggesting to us? What is it inviting us to imagine about the subjects and their realities?