Pictures of Nothing written by Matthew Ritson
Matthew Ritson joins us today for a guest article about pictures of nothing and the story they tell. Check it out.

We’ve all been there, standing in a gallery, staring at a picture of a seemingly empty space and asked the question, “why?”. Well, it’s an important question and you can count yourself among the great philosophers of history for asking it. What is about these vacant images that hold our attention and what do they mean?

Header image: Hiroshi Sugimoto

First of all I have to admit, the title ‘Pictures of Nothing’ is a little misleading. I mean, there is always something in a photograph; the process itself requires it however minimal it may be.

For instance, the above image, a seascape by Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto shows this perfectly. Through simple gradation of a solid white sky to the heavy tones of deep water, the image imparts enough information to pull us in.
At first glance it would be easy to say ‘there’s nothing there” and that would be somewhat true. Instead, lets think about what we do get, a vastness of space, an engrossingly huge body of water and the polarity of weight that comes with it. It’s a photograph of epic proportions, the endless horizon a metaphor for the infinite space beyond our knowledge. It makes us feel small and in doing such gives us an opportunity to reflect, to meditate on our place in this world. We can look and look and look but the only answers we can achieve from such a photograph are the ones we find in ourselves.

Pictures like this are important to devote time to. Sometimes we can get so much more from less, as it’s up to us to fill in what is maybe more immediate in other images.
This is quite a literal translation of photographic ‘nothingness’ and the sea is quite a commonly used symbol in pictures. We can understand its attraction and appreciate it’s metaphorical qualities but what about the uncommon?

Stephen Shore

This image from Stephen Shore’s series ‘Uncommon Places’ takes what we all assume to be a common scene, a dirt road in Middle American somewhere. We all know what it is and have seen many like it, there’s nothing particularly special about this road, and its emptiness almost comes not from its lack of activity but from its familiarity. So why is it uncommon?
Stephen Shore, much like his fellow photographer William Eggleston, was an early pioneer of taking pictures of everyday scenes, starting in the late 1960’s. They were able to show us that in capturing the everyday we can manifest the uncommon qualities of being everything from aesthetically pleasing to dramatically meaningful.

Take time to ponder over this dirt road. Where does it lead? Who has travelled it before? What’s the story of the man and his dog?

We often take for granted our immediate surroundings, its so easy to walk the same road everyday and pass by the same scenery that we forget what they can really mean to us if we took the time to observe. Photography gives us a great opportunity to take the obvious things we already know and implant in them, frozen in time, a deeper sense of what it means to simply look. We can create our own stories and dig our teeth into the fanciful narratives that take place right under our noses.

William Eggleston

Robert Adams

For other photographers the sense of nothingness and the questions that arise come from documenting change, what was once there is no longer, or in the case of Robert Adams what is about to come.
Adams focused his lens on the changing landscapes of the American West. In the 1970’s he saw a once uninhabited environment begin to transform into the bustling terrain of suburban America. What he managed to capture was not only the transformation but also the beginning of the story. The empty spaces that became full.

The idea of nothingness in a photograph is a codeword for potential. Whether it’s the chance to be reflective, meditative or improvise a new sub plot, the void lies in wait, to be filled.

For Robert Adams it was his society changing around him. His images elicit the political nature of photography, when it’s not us ourselves that are filling the gap but the incoming human history that encircles all photographs.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that when we look at a photograph we are looking at reality and with that every image made sits within the context of its place in history. Often the negative space in an empty photograph is an ideal precursor of things to come.

Dorothea Lange

What’s easy to notice about all these photographs is the lack of people. We think of them as empty spaces because we can’t see anyone in them, in other words they’re not being used. The photographer Lewis Baltz who, like Robert Adams, photographed the changing landscape of America in the 1970’s, was often asked why there are no people in his photographs, to which he responded, “there is so much evidence of human effort”.

Even though there are no people, they were there. They were there to lay the road, to design and build the buildings, to clean the sidewalk and to leave their mark on the landscape. As Baltz concluded, “the place for people in my work is the viewer, without the viewer to complete the experience of a work of art…that work doesn’t really exist”. The photographer initiates the process but it is on our shoulders to ask the questions.

Lewis Baltz

Much like the great philosophers in their great undertakings of thought there wasn’t always one conclusive answer to be had, maybe more questions would arise, leading to a more valuable pursuit, a common thread of understanding, a search for greater knowledge.

Perhaps having more questions is valuable in a world where too much needs answering quickly. Whether it’s your phone that’s constantly ringing, that last email you got from work or the forever endless question “what am I going to eat for dinner?”.
Photography is as much a search for knowledge as any other medium but it has the ability to pull fragments out of reality and give us single moments; give us more time. The most valuable thing we can do with that time is not to try and find an immediate answer but to simply sit, look and think “why?”.

All original images can be found here:

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Atlantic Ocean, Newfoundland, 1982

Stephen Shore, Presidio, Texas, February 21, 1975

William Eggleston, Untitled (Bathroom with Pink Curtain, Cuba), 2007

Robert Adams, Along Interstate 25, Eden, Colorado, 1968

Dorothea Lange, Highway to the West, 1938

Lewis Baltz, Fairfax, 1973

All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher

Thanks to Matthew for this insightful article. Please be sure to comment below.