A Series on the Photography of Place
with Image Gallery
I’ll admit it was cool. A basement parking garage for a gargantuan apartment complex. All of it gray. All of it—the plumbing and concrete pillars and lights and numbered spaces—lined up neatly, uniform and exact. I was helping a friend move into a new apartment and was more concerned with elevators and stairs than anything else, so the garage took me by surprise. It seemed to recede forever.
When the day was over, the furniture and boxes moved, the garage kept lingering in my imagination. There was something about its mood I could not place, could not find the right words to explain.
As an idea, a garage is odd. It’s not just a closet for our cars. It holds something completely else. Stored energy. All those engines. All those tools. All that desire to be moving, to be away, to be at speed or at work. All that stored energy wanting to become kinetic. Nothing, I thought, seems to want to leap so badly out of its own skin as a garage.
A few days later I went back just to look for a while. Basement, I thought. Foundational. Holds everything up. Pipes and conduit go everywhere, up into everything. I knew I was forcing a metaphor I could defend, but it was wrong.
And then I noticed something else. The mood of the place changed when someone passed through. It matched their mood, or at least their mood as I perceived it. It seemed an entirely different space. Much like the harmonic sympathy of a guitar string when the string next to it is struck at the first string’s note, the garage picked up the notes of whatever happened to be there or passing through and made it larger, louder, deeper, more moving and true.
What I came to understand was the fact that the basement garage held energy, yes. Energy, perhaps desire, but not a drop of it for being a garage. This garage was a resonant space.
A poet or fiction writer would tell you setting is metaphor, a landscape built to amplify the narrative or emotional drama. An essayist or reporter would tell you that setting provides context, a landscape that informs whatever idea or action fills the story. A set designer for theater or film would tell you that setting provides mood and function.
Photographers do a lot with setting. In landscape photography, setting is subject. A mountain range or ocean-scape or field of sunflowers asks the viewer to inspect the details and find some reflection of themselves. The mountain range means nothing to itself but it can mean everything to me. If you put a person in that landscape, if setting becomes something less than fully subject, it changes the shot. Imagine some poor schmuck fly fishing in an Ansel Adams shot. Suddenly the picture is no longer mainly a transaction between mountain-view and my soul. Suddenly I’m wondering who this guy is, what he’s doing there, what he thinks of the mountain, if he’s caught any fish. I’m wondering about his relation to the mountain.
Portrait photographers often try to delete setting completely, to remove the emotional content of place. White background. Black background. Neutral background. Setting disappears so the eyes never travel from the face. Wedding pictures have a whole world of must-have settings, most of them so common they are ignored. Street photographers and photojournalists get what they are given and often use it for genius. Think Humans of New York.
The best of them understand the notion of dramatic tension, where the subject and the setting are not quite in line. There are wedding pictures with tornadoes in the background. There is that picture of a couple lying in the street, kissing while Vancouver riots. There is always a baby in a war zone.
But what about a setting that serves only as amplifier? What about a setting that holds no intrinsic emotional power and instead seems entirely and completely different depending on who is standing there? Is that possible?
This is an experiment. I explained the idea to a group of friends and some people I had never met. I explained the idea and showed them a picture of the garage without anyone in it. What I’m wondering, I told them, is how the feeling of the space changes when we introduce people, different people, and how that change in mood is really a projection of our own impulse toward story.
Some days I look at these shots and think yes, a garage is a resonate space. Some days I look and think I’m not so sure. I think every space is a resonant space, though there are differences in intensity and depth. There is a part of me that thinks this is an old and obvious idea and I’m just a bit late to the party. But that doesn’t matter.
What is clear is that there is a way to think about space, setting, the relation of subject to universe that’s a bit more complicated and a bit more wonderful than I imagined before. Thematic compliment and dramatic contrast—those are the easy ideas. A resonant space, a space that amplifies the tones and emotions of whatever gains our focus lock, is something we can see if we are aware and looking.
Variations on the Idea of Resonant Space
By W. Scott Olsen
Images in this gallery may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:
View additional prose and photography by W. Scott Olsen appearing in Terrain.org: On Seeing New York: A Photo Essay, Chasing Clouds, and River Flying in Winter: The Sheyenne River.
All photographs by W. Scott Olsen.