190206 Scuff - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

In the first of his 2003 series of Mellon lectures, Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock, Kirk Varnedoe said:

"It is experientially also crucially about particulars. The less there is to look at, the more important it is that we look at it closely and carefully. That’s critical to what abstract art is about. Small differences make all the difference." 

I think of this often. I can't say that I've fully learned it, but I do think of it. 


Part of thinking that the less there is to look at, the more important it is that we look at it carefully means that I can't just photograph any old wall, call it minimalist, and be done. No, small differences make all the difference. This can't just be indiscriminate, can it?


There is a way to test this: change something.

Does it make the photo better?

And repeat.

This photo hasn't been fully tested; I'll take some time away and then see if I still like it, and if I do, then I'll try putting it through its paces again. And then maybe I'll print it and take it to my critique group, where they occasionally read too much into a photo if they know it's mine. It's a compliment, but sometimes emptiness doesn't need to be complicated.

What I like about this image, most obviously, is the scuff marks on the wall. Would the photo be better if there was one single mark, instead of two overlapping? How about that faint diagonal mark beneath it? Should there be more or less space above and below, most critically, or even to the left and right? It's a matter of balance and tension, content and expectation.

What really makes this work for me – which is different from making it really work for me – is that it's brighter on the left hand side. I naturally see to the left, so that's where I want my subjects to be. The lightness pulls me left, where I want to be anyway, but there's no thing there to hold my attention. Instead there's the scuff to the right that draws my attention without being where my eye wants to settle. And when I want a break from that relationship there's some detail in the wall to examine, tonalities to enjoy, and that other incidental scuff to trace. 

Then I go back to looking at those vertical scuff marks, and the way light falls, and repeat.


The Pictures of Nothing lectures has been published as a book, which I recommend because it has pictures of the art under discussion. The text is almost word-for-word from the lectures themselves. The audio of those lectures is online for free; the first one is on this National Gallery page, and the rest can be tracked down through soundcloud or by searching with for "Varnedoe Pictures Nothing" on the NGA.gov website.