There are two particular visual ideas underpinning my Assignment 2, which is about music triggering memory:

  • Sound waveforms
  • Negative space / unusual framing shapes



I am taking each of these in turn and look at how other practitioners have incorporated them into their work. The previous post covered the sound wave element and so this post will look at negative space / unorthodox photographic shapes.

Rationale for this approach: ‘forgetting as canvas’

Before looking at how and why others have used similar visual techniques, I just want to briefly explain why I am applying the idea to this particular piece of work.

In her book Memory: the New Critical Idiom (2009) Anne Whitehead closes the introduction with this (my emphasis):

“Although this volume is titled Memory, I am therefore also preoccupied with the question of forgetting. This concept not only forms the shadowy underside of memory but, more precisely, shapes and defines the very contours of what is recalled and preserved.” (Whitehead 2009: 14)

So forgetting, often dismissed as a flaw of memory, is necessary for memory to work. If we forgot nothing, how could we remember anything important? An operational memory is a filtering system; what we discard gives shape and significance to what we retain.

I took this notion for a wander and began to imagine what it would look like if one tried to visualise this two-part concept:

  • That a memory has a shape
  • … and that forgetting acts as the canvas that renders this shape discernible

It reminded me of the figure-to-ground relationship in photography – the contrast between the foreground and the background being sufficient to focus on the former, with the latter acting as the canvas. Memory, like photography, is selective; just as we choose what to include and exclude in a photo, our brains choose what information to retain and what to jettison.

A couple of other sensory analogies sprang to mind:

  • It’s like how the written word needs a blank page beneath for the text to be legible
  • Or – and this is the lightbulb moment for this assignment – how music needs silence 

This is why I chose to employ so much white space in this series: it represents what the subject is not remembering, such that what they are remembering can form a shape.

A quick note on ‘negative space’

The phrase negative space generally has a broader meaning to that which I’ve had in mind when I’ve been using it recently; it can refer to any area of plain or muted background against which a foreground subject can become more prominent to the viewer, or give the subject visual space to ‘move into’ in the viewer’s mind. It is normally already a part of the scene before the photographer’s eyes and is framed in such a way to make the space a compositional feature of the photo.


Whilst this is by far the most common use of the concept in photography, my use of negative space in this project (and in previous work as noted below) is a more extreme version, where the space is entirely blank. The ‘negative space’ effect is really an outcome of the primary point of this visual approach, the unusual framing shape.

However, this is not to say that the white space is unimportant; the exact amount and positioning of the space can be intentional and significant. For example, in my assignment I have made the overall frame shape a standard portrait ratio and positioned the visible portion in the top third, as I believe that following some of the conventions of portraiture helps to the viewer to focus on the person (I want viewers to see a photo of a person in the act of remembering, more than they see a photo of a sound wave that happens to have a person’s face in it; it’s a matter of finding that balance).

Examples from my own work

As noted in another post, I have – without realising until recently – used a combination of negative (blank) space and unorthodox shapes a few times over the last couple of years.

Looking back, there are two key reasons I decided to do so in each case:

  • To make the images more visually distinctive
  • To allow the presentation format itself to carry some signification (metaphorical or metonymic) to support my intended message for that particular project
    • example 1: a narrowing of view to denote a narrowing of focus/attention
    • example 2: data visualisation techniques to highlight absurdity of over-simplification
    • example 3: playing on the essay title Joining the Dots and highlighting pertinent aspects of an image

So: if that’s why I’ve done it, what about other practitioners? I’ll now look at a few example projects by other photographers and discuss why I believe the particular technique is effective (or not).

Geometric shapes

The proportion of photographs that aren’t rectangular (including square) is vanishingly small. The rectangular norm is so deeply established that to deviate from it is noteworthy and generally needs to have a reasonable rationale attached – the first question I ask about a non-rectangular format is: why have they done that?

By far the most popular non-rectangular format – and as noted above, I’ve used it myself – is circular (and/or oval), with examples going back into the early days of photography. In one sense a circle is the graphical opposite to a rectangle – no straight lines, no angles – yet in another it fits with another aspect of photography that we take for granted: lenses are circular, even if viewfinders, sensors, film and prints generally are not.

Ornamental frame shapes seem to have been a significant factor in early use of circular photography, harking back to art history references such as the tondo frame style in Renaissance art. The Miracles (2012) by Deborah Kelly takes this approach directly, recreating specific Renaissance paintings as photographs and framing each one in a bespoke circular frame.

The Miracles (installation view), 2012 by Deborah Kelly

The construct is a brilliant marriage of subject matter and presentation format: the images are all of a diverse range of families (including single parents, same sex couples, transgender couples etc), whose children have been conceived by what is known as ‘assisted reproductive technologies ‘ (IVF, surrogacy etc), and the following analysis from Artlink Magazine made sense to me – even if I confess I might not have come to this interpretation myself unaided:

“The circular forms and varied sizes of the frames deny the possibility of display as a rigid grid: hung together as a fluid constellation, the photographs propose a broader notion of family than that promoted by our public institutions, one that is structured by love and relationality rather than by gender and defined hierarchies.” (Artlink Magazine, 2013)

Album 31, an intriguing archive-remix collaboration by Bettina von Zwehl and Sophy Rickett, partially uses oval frames in its presentation.

Page 4, Album 31, 2015 by Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl

In taking images originally presented in a standard rectangular format and re-presenting them in a different shape, it does more than just create new connections between the works – it projects an aura of being older than it is; it starts to resemble the kind of Victorian album of miscellany that was its stated inspiration. Compared to the satisfying integration of subject matter and presentation from Deborah Kelly in The Miracles, I’m less sure that this combination works as well here: the construct of the album seems tenuous, and more of a link back to the archive to which they were asked to respond than a meaningful presentation format for this actual work.

Jordan Sullivan‘s Islands/Horizons series (2017) use a circular inner frame inside a pastel-toned square backdrop to display scenes of islands.

Island 1, 2017 by Jordan Sullivan

My take on this is that the format emulates the sensation of viewing land through a telescope, making it an example of the photographer aiming to put the viewer in a particular (virtual) vantage point as close as possible to that which the photograph was taken in.

Sanaz Mazinani did a similar thing with Here and There (2004-13), sky scenes that again evoked the sensation of telescopic seeing.

Here and There
from Here and There, 2004-13 by Sanaz Mazanani

Broomberg & Chanarin used circles as part of their twin People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground Northern Ireland archive projects (Contacts) and (Dots) in 2011, where the former project included archive photographs with round stickers obscuring part of the image (as part of the original archiving process) and the latter project – much more interesting to me – being the circular images from beneath the stickers, finally revealed.

People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground (Dots) (installation view), 2011 by Broomberg & Chanarin

In this instance the circular format derived from the original archive, though of course it was the creative decision of the artists to use this device as the visual concept of the project. In a similar way to the work mentioned above, there is a sensory connection between the format and a kind of first-hand viewing experience: in this project browsing the small circular images somewhat resembles looking through a loupe or a magnifying glass. One gets a sense of digging through an archive and discovering lost moments.

Outside of circles, the other standard geometric shape I’ve seen used is the triangle. The shape has a few existing associations with photography, from the concept of the exposure triangle to the various attempts to dissect ‘good’ composition by overlaying triangles on photographs. Its use as a photographic shape in and of itself, however, is much less common than the circle.

My interest in non-standard photographs was in fact originally piqued by seeing the work-in-progress of a fellow Level 3 OCA student Michael Colvin, who creates triangular images (technically tetrahedrons – three-faced pyramids – as they are three-dimensional).

from BoW Assignment 1, 2017 by Michael Colvin

The choice of the triangular shape is highly relevant, as Michael’s Body of Work projects are on the subject of the treatment of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, and influenced by a particular book The Men With The Pink Triangle. As the triangle has now become a symbol of the LGBT rights movement, this is again a strong and significant match of subject matter and distinctive photographic shape.

After I first posted this, a comment from Helen below alerted me to the work of Javier Vallhonrat, a fashion photographer who collaborated over several years with dancer Dominique Abel, culminating in a book project, The Possessed Space (1992). The work is a series of simple nudes with Abel contorting into shapes, that Vallhonrat subsequently builds a frame or set of frames around, then rephotographs.

I found this to be a very interesting approach with respect to my own experiments, as it allows the subject matter to determine the final shape of the work, something I endeavoured to achieve with my images.

Irregular shapes

I found fewer examples of irregular shapes; I was hoping to find works where the shape of the photographic element of the art was both unique and specific to the subject of the particular image, as this is what I am working on. The best way of describing what I’m thinking of is that the subject is ‘cut out’ in an appropriate shape and presented against a plain background – I’m beginning to think that I have imagined this more often than I have actually seen it…

Kate Steciw‘s work first came to my attention as the cover art for Charlotte Cotton’s compendium Photography is Magic (2015). She uses irregular shaped images in bespoke frames that become a kind of photography/sculpture hybrid.

Kate Steciw
Composition 520b, 2015 by Kate Steciw

The content is eclectic collages of photographic fragments, and her stated aim is to interrogate the physicality of the photograph. She takes images from daily life – often from digital sources – and combines and reinterprets them into new artworks.

I guess I’m not getting the full experience of seeing these artworks physically, but I’m not sure whether there’s much conceptual underpinning here over and above ‘photography about photography’. But some of them look great, visually very appealing. Others are more gaudy and overwhelming.

Sanaz Mazinani again: she does interesting things with irregular shapes in her series Imminent Infinite takes images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and digitally manipulates them by cutting to a particular shape.

Imminent Infinite
from Imminent Infinite by Sanaz Mazinani

It’s a beautiful abstract effect, but I confess I’m not quite getting whether or how the shapes have significance.

Mazinani takes the shapes idea a stage further with her Frames of the Visible series (2011-14), which blurs the lines between photography and sculpture. Photographic collages are repeated in tight patterns that look abstract from afar but close-up reveal their photographic origins: the imagery is generally about contemporary war, geopolitics and the media.

Frames of the Visible
Frames of the Visible (installation view), 2014 by Sanza Mazinani

The pattern repetition seems to be a metaphor for unchanging attitudes and behaviours, and their resemblance to middle eastern ornamentation is clearly intentional. An interesting aspect of the artist’s intention is “Understanding the radical ways in which two people can perceive the same object with differing complexity” (Mazinani 2014) – repetitive pattern from afar, nuanced and specific close-up.

Main takeaways

The projects and artists I found most satisfying were the ones where I had a reasonable idea of how and why the shape of the photographic element of the artwork was significant to the artist’s intent or message. In some the use of shapes was more ambiguous and lent itself more to a general interpretation of challenging art norms – that in itself is the message, perhaps.

Overall, my interpretation of the creative choice of unusual shapes is assisted by Sanaz Mazinani’s quoting of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi: “Speak a new language so that the world can be a new world” – which I read as: show things differently and people will see things differently.

This comes back to the first point I raised earlier on why I’ve used unusual shapes: simply to make the images more visually distinctive, to encourage people to look in new ways.

However, in terms of the artworks making a lasting impression, for me they also have to fulfil the second criterion: that the shape somehow carries part of the intended message. The work needs to have some kind of internal logic, even if it is only apparent to the artist…


Cotton, C. (2015) Photography is Magic. New York: Aperture.

Whitehead, A. (2009) Memory: the New Critical Idiom. Abingdon: Routledge.

Deborah Kelly…/deborah-kelly-the-miracles (accessed 31/01/2018)

Bettina von Zwehl & Sophy Rickett (accessed 31/01/2018)

Jordan Sullivan (accessed 31/01/2018)

Sanaz Maznani (Here and There) (accessed 31/01/2018)

Broomberg & Chanarin (accessed 31/01/2018)

Michael Colvin (accessed 31/01/2018)

Kate Steciw…hibitions/kate-steciw (accessed 31/01/2018)

Sanaz Maznani (Imminent Infinite) (accessed 31/01/2018)

Sanaz Maznani (Frames of the Visible) (accessed 31/01/2018)