Lately, I’ve been thinking about negatives. This might seem curious since I haven’t shot film in years. In fact, I haven’t even looked at a negative since the time, several years back, when I went on a 3-day scanning binge — a process so painfully tedious that, to this day, I suffer a mild anxiety attack whenever I see a curled up strip of plastic.

So why am I thinking about negatives? Because I’m thinking of them in the stylistic sense, rather than the traditional. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about creating the opposite of an image — inverting every decision I made in the original capture, and replacing it with its conceptual opposite.

The notion first came to me as I took a self-portrait in a dilapidated mirror that adorns an abandoned night club. At the time, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to focus on my face or on the mirror. I chose my face and, after publishing the photo in my Tempted by Texture article, I began to second-guess that decision. The more I looked at the image, the more I thought I’d like to try inverting every decision I made. In other words, not only would I take the focus off my face and put it on the mirror, but I’d also invert the lighting — shooting at night, rather than day. Similarly, since I originally conceived the image in high-contrast black & white, I wanted its ‘negative’ to be a murkier color print. I returned to the mirror on Granville Street and, on a chilly winter’s night, shot the negative concept image. Below are the two images — the original and its ‘negative.’

In photography, as in life, inspiration can come from anywhere — you just have to be receptive enough to recognize it, and thoughtful enough to capitalize on it. This particular idea — to create a stylistic ‘negative’ — has increasingly permeated my consciousness the last several weeks. Now, when I look at a scene, I find myself looking for its conceptual opposite. Sometimes the ‘negative’ concept isn’t compelling, but sometimes it’s more visually interesting than the original composition.

Case in point: I was walking around a local park with a Lensbaby mounted to my camera body. Lensbabies are ideal for creating selective focus effects and, by their very nature, they force you to think seriously about composition. I was kneeling down to frame a shot that contained three elements: In the foreground was a fountain, which I would render out of focus. In the background was a building, which I would also render out of focus. The focal point of the image, located a couple meters from my lens, was a pot of flowers. As I eyed this shot, it felt too ‘pedestrian’ — even with the Lensbaby effect. So I decided to consider its ‘negative’ image.

In the original shot concept, both the water and the building would be out-of-focus. So the ‘negative’ image would require that those two elements now be in focus. By the same logic, any greenery — which was the intended focus in the ‘positive’ image — would need to be rendered out-of-focus in the ‘negative.’ It seemed like an impossible set of constraints, but I chose to spend a few minutes scrutinizing my environment for possibilities. Within 30 seconds, I spotted the reflection of a high-rise in a puddle. Using the Lensbaby’s crazy articulation capabilities, I was able to twist it in such a way that the puddle and building were in focus, while the greenery in and around the puddle was not. The result is a compelling image that I would never have thought to compose, had I not been looking for the ‘negative’ of my intended image.

Rules and limitations force us to find creative solutions. By imposing rules on your photography, you force yourself to think creatively and to carefully consider composition. This is one of the reasons that I rarely shoot with a zoom lens. It’s also why I invent little games for myself, like “finding the negative of the image.” Sometimes the best shots are where you would normally never look.

©2009 grEGORy simpson
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