When you enter an empty room do you register what you see? Rarely, I think, unless its emptiness shocks you. The room is, well, empty, therefore it is unlikely to contain anything or anyone you seek. Why would you bother to study it?
A photograph of an empty room, however, becomes a puzzle. Any photograph draws something to our notice, confers importance on it. Why photograph an empty room?
Consider my photograph of a clean, freshly painted room, no clothing in the closet, a worn radiator, mismatched doorknobs, a scrape at the back of the closet. What happened here? Where are the clothes? Did the occupant move out? Is the room waiting for a new occupant?
Do you ask what is in focus? Is the balance of ceiling to floor, light to dark, shadow to highlight telling you anything? Would this be better with more saturated color? black and white? What is the subject? What do you think about the composition, shapes, negative spaces? Do you like or dislike it? Does it make you sad?
As these questions come to mind, recognize that you may be formulating a model from the data present in the photograph to help you explain away the puzzle. This is the inner wit known as “common sense” in action.
So many photographs are analyzed in those last terms: exposure, focus, composition, balance, genre, beauty… But doing so only uses a fifth of our senses. Indulge me in a trip through the others.
Would your clothing fit in the closet? Would there be room for your dresser, your rug, your bed? Would your cat lounge on the window sill? Would you have a place for your books? Calling these tangibles to mind, mentally placing them in the room, requires an ability to form and manipulate images in your mind. This is the inner wit known as “imagination” in action.
Do you hope to find Narnia at the back of the closet, design a window seat that opens to the basement, replace the radiator with a new type of more efficient heat source? Do you fear the former occupant might have been chased away by a beast exhaling dung-scented breath in the shadows of the closet? Do you wish to paint the room the color of a Venus sky at daybreak, or to carpet the floor in thyme? When you let your mind run wild and entertain thoughts of experiences you’ve never had, you engage in fantasy.
Would the radiator warm you? Would the window shake as you raised it? Might the floor creak? Might you smell paint? or dust? Are you certain that, despite its Spartan qualities, you would find it comforting and serene and balanced? or conversely, left to your own devices in this space, certain that you would feel sad, alone, hollow? This instinctive, assured response to purely visual stimuli is probably estimation allowing you to map meaning on the image.
Do you recall the time you first stayed at your grandmother’s house, or rented the vacant cottage in Maine? Can you hear the soft swoosh of the traffic, the tourists, the children next door? Can you smell warm curtains waiting to be hung? Or Southern Comfort mixed with stale Old Spice, angry voices and a slammed door? Then, of course, memory is providing a host of past experiences to help you interpret what you see.
The brain uses its inner wits to form models and meaning, and sometimes mistakes that meaning for truth. Our decision to like or dislike an image derives in large part from our relationships to our models, rather than some objective truth.
We have a choice. We can hold judgement at bay for a bit, and push our less-dominant wits to engage with what we experience. We can ask questions that shake us out of our sleepiness, intentionally draw out the other modes of thinking, surface blinding emotions.
A strong image presents an opportunity to analyze, yes, but also to dream and empathize and feel and remember.
If you paused to study this room with me, perhaps your next real-life empty room will be full of possibilities and stories.
And that is why I photograph empty rooms.
Or anything, really.