Making pictures of nothing?

A lot of people who make pictures have said some version of this: “Nothing was happening, there was nothing to photograph'; or more specifically, "I couldn’t make an interesting picture because nothing was happening.”

That’s generally a copout, a sign of a weak photographer, someone who relies on what’s being photographed to make the picture interesting. This iteration of photographers bring little of themselves to the process. Their photographs tend to be simplistic, one-layer, center-based images that go no further than what the captions with their photographs say.

If this sounds like you - or if it doesn’t - how do you make pictures when nothing appears to be happening?

Start by knowing what you want to say about what you’re about to photograph. Many people just use a standard approach to making pictures of whatever they photograph - their version of point and shoot. That type of approach in the end just says: this happened.

Not to sound like a broken record, but you have to say something, go beyond making a picture that shows what happened. I’ve said this elsewhere here in different ways, but essentially you have to play up a quality of what you’re photographing: it’s ridiculous, it’s hilarious, sad, quirky, ironic, tepid ... whatever. Then look for things within the scene that include this quality.

This approach is true whether something is happening or not. It’s just that without a verb layer in play - people doing things - it’s harder to say something. Or at least that’s what you may think.


I’ll mention KayLynn Deveney’s book “The Day To Day Life Of Albert Hastings” as a premier example of a body of work about nothing happening. She photographed Albert going about his daily life. Many of the pictures in her book are still lifes. The rest are of an elderly man making tea, doing laundry, catching some sun, going for a walk. But they all go beyond showing that verb layer.

Because of the way KayLynn saw light and composed and used color and how carefully she moves in and out of scenes and captures moments that combine all of these thing even when nothing is going on, her pictures make you feel what its like to be within Albert’s life.

KayLynn’s book has sold out of its first run but you might be able to find a copy here or there.

Inherent in this approach is getting over the axiom that you should not be part of the picture, that your voice or style or approach to crafting an image should not be a dominant part of your photography. That’s such a lame, passive, compensating reasoning usually put forth by people who don’t have a voice. In fact,  the more your voice is in play, the more unique your approach to making pictures with the intention of conveying/saying something about what you photograph, the better your images will be.

But that can be another post.

When nothing is happening, part two

A certain courage