a blog by knut skjærven

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Toolbox Off To A Good Start

Workmen’s Wisdom. © Knut Skjærven

I am happy to say that Street Photographer’s Toolbox is off to a good start. You should definitely visit the new blog.

Have a very good day.

 

Gestalt Factors: Make It Easy On Yourself.

Summer Song. © Knut Skjærven.

GESTALT FACTORS:
MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF

One of the most amazing things I have found dealing with visual communication are the gestalt factors. There is no doubt about it.

I use these factors every time I am out taking pictures. Or rather they engage themselves in the process. All by themselves.

I don’t use much energy on them since they have, long ago, settled as part of my second nature. They are part of the invisible rucksack that I always carry along when taking pictures.

Gestalt factors can easily become part of your rucksack too, but first you need to know a little about what they are and how they work. That is what this section is all about.

I am sure that you know many of the factors already since some are pretty common. Sometimes, however, it helps to work things over in your mind yet another time to make sure that things are there to support you when you need them. You will want them in your rucksack too. I am sure.

Over the next weeks I will describe these factors. I will make them useful for street photography and for this toolbox. The section will consist of some 10 different posts. Each dealing with a specific gestalt factor. This post is the intro to the section.

Why are the gestalt factors so important? It has to do with that very human condition that is called making things easy on yourself.

When a viewer reads an image he/she tends to do that with as little effort as possible. That is the mechanism that makes him/her cope with a world of constant information overload. All of us make perceptual shortcuts when we look at, or read, pictures. Photographs included.

As a reader of images this goes all by itself. As photographers it is a good idea to tune in on the way people read images. To understand the shortcuts and to use them in building photographs.

Gestalt factors overrule what is actually shown in the photograph and tell the mind “ok” I am going to read this photograph this and this way. You as a photographer are disconnected from the party. That is, unless you know a little about how human perception works.

There are good words for this process. When you read an image you decode it. When you make a photograph you code it.

There are much more to coding and decoding than gestalt factors, but at least they are part of the complex.

There are two important things that you need to know. Knowledge of gestalt factors comes with a double benefit. Knowledge always does.

The first benefit of knowing gestalt factors is that you are in a position TO USE them in your street photography. The second benefit is that you are allowed NOT TO USE them. Knowing these, and other tools, your artistic freedom will increase.

Now, let us take a brief glance are Summer Song, the photograph that accompanies this first post in the gestalt section. What do you see in it at first glance?

I am pretty sure that the first thing you noticed was not that there are 13 windows in the house at the back of the image, and that 4 of those are hardly visible or not windows at all. I am also pretty sure that you cannot give me the number of grass straws in the lawn in the low part of the picture. I am also pretty sure that you would not say that the picture consists of 8 different people doing different things under open air.

You are most likely to say that in this shot you see 4 groups of people. Pairs of two.

If my anticipation is correct you have made it easy on yourself by ordering and grouping the information in the photograph. The decoding is based on closeness and similarity, which are two of the gestalt factors we are going to deal with in later posts.

This is what gestalt factors do: based on visual patterns they order and prioritize things for you. They shortcut myriads of information into understandable wholes that you grasp immediately. Saves both time and energy.

By knowing gestalt factors you can use them in your photography. You don’t have to, but you can.

Knowledge of gestalt factors will, with very little effort, become a part of your rucksack. I find working with gestalt factors very exiting. I think you might too.

Make it easy on yourself.

Good luck with it.

© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved.

IMPORTANT:

As you probably know by now these posts are written for the blog: Street Photographer’s Toolbox. The blog is under development and not made public yet. Stay tuned.

NB! You can bookmark the blog already now, but you need to wait a while till it is made public. Here is the address for your bookmark: http://streetphotographerstoolbox.wordpress.com/

Connotations: Syntax

The Syntax. © Knut Skjærven.

Syntax is the last of the connotation procedures mentioned by Roland Barthes.

He says: “Naturally, several photographs can come together to form a sequence (this is commonly the case in illustrated magazines); the signifier of connotation is then no longer to be found at the level of any one of the fragments of the sequence but at that – what the linguists would call the suprasegmental level – of the concatenation”./24

The Free Dictionary defined concatenation as “a series of interconnected events, concepts, etc.” Or simply “To connect or link in a series or chain”.

In spite of the difficult words used by Barthes the idea is very simple. If there is more than one image you have a possible picture story. The connotative content is then based on all the images involved and not the single ones in isolation. I don’t think it is necessary to be more difficult than that? Call it suprasegmental if you like.

Henri Cartier – Bresson would have liked this since he 9 years earlier spoke about the same phenomenon. In his prelude to The Decisive Moment (1952) he speaks about the picture story and the need for having more than a single photo to illustrate a point: “Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is the whole story in itself. But this rarely happens.”/The Minds Eye/23

Often Cartier – Bresson uses more than one image to cover a story. As do most photo journalists.

There are different dimensions in this phenomenon. Both Barthes and Cartier – Bresson suggest that the syntax is within a single story, for instance, in a magazine. But what about the connotations that might emerge from all the images in a specific magazine? Or even more magazine. Could be called an editorial style. There certainly is a level of syntax there too.

What about the even more complex situations that emerges when both the viewer and the viewedthe perceiver and the thing perceived, are considered as segments in the same event? Just a question.

Definitely the last words on connotation procedures have not been said yet. That is another story. As for Roland Barthes, the story ends here.

26/05/2012


Training Sessions:
 See Street University.

Relates posts in this section:  Introduction; Trick Effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.

Library Thing: Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press, London 1977; Henri Cartier – Bresson The Minds Eye, aperture, New York 1999.

Connotations: Aestheticism.

Docklands. © Knut Skjærven.

This is actually one of the very few places where Roland Barthes refers to the great master of French street photography: Henri Cartier – Bresson. The article is written in 1961 and Bresson was at his peak of performance as a photographer.

In describing his fifth connotation procedure Aestheticism, Barthes uses these words: “Thus Henri Cartier – Bresson constructed Cardinal Pacelli’s reception by the faithful of Lisieux like a painting by an earlier master. The resulting photograph, however, is in no way a painting …”. /24 (Here is the photograph in question).

In the sentences before this rare reference to Cartier – Bresson, Barthes says: “For if one can talk of aestheticism in photography, it is seemingly in an ambiguous fashion”./24 When photography try to turn painting it could be a) either a trial or an aspiration suggesting that photography, like painting, indeed is an art form in its own right; or b) “to impose a generally more subtle and complex signified than would be possible with other connotation procedures”./24

This is then the ambiguity that Barthes is talking about: the aspiration to be art, or to invoke more subtle connotations. Fair enough.

The reference to Cartier – Bresson is very convenient. Cartier – Bresson’s dream in early days was, in fact, to become a painter, and he chose photography only as a second option having tried his way as a painter with no great success. Cartier – Bresson was indeed familiar with the rules of composition and he stuck to the classic guidelines all of his life. It is said, that he even had a little notebook with him in which he kept sketches of famous paintings as an ongoing inspiration for his photography. A brilliant idea if that is the road you want to take as a photographer.

The big question is: What could be the connotative effects of for instance Cartier – Bressons road to photography leaning as he did on classical guidelines for composition. Here comes the answer, or at least one of them: the connotations embedded in such a procedure is that of harmony, beauty and pleasantness. But also control. All of them Cartier – Bressons trademarks as a photographer.

It would be absolutely wrong to say that Cartier – Bresson was a copier of master painters, but is would be absolutely right to state that he indeed used classical rules for compositions in his photographic work.

To use a similar path to photography, or for that matter NOT to use a similar path to photography, both require knowledge of the matter. Knowledge of painters’ ways, knowledge of compositional structures. How else could one hope to connote anything bases on aestheticism.

This discussion brings us back to more practical matters: One of the ideas of Street Photographer’s Toolbox is, indeed, to disclose and discuss basic rules of composition. Not to become painters, but to stay photographers.

Have a good day.

—————–

25/05/2012

Relates posts in this section:  Introduction; Trick Effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.

Training Sessions: See Street University.

Library Thing: Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press, London 1977.

Copyright: Knut Skjærven (text and picture).

Itching Images: Strange Encounters

Strange Encounters. © Knut Skjærven.

What you want to see in a street photo is not only encounters, but what I call strange encounters. It is this strangeness that makes a picture itching. You want to have a second look. What are these people doing? Why are they there?

If the image is complex you need to connect different encounters to each other to prevent the image to fall apart in two or even more images.

There are different tricks that can accomplish such a unity. One of them is to connect sub-themes by a line structure like it is done on this image. Even a straight line will do.

There are three very different people encounters in this image: a) the pair in the foreground (which opens the image); b) the couple up left moving out of the picture; and c) the three (seemingly) gentlemen in the background in the right hand side. All of these are held together by the overall composition. They are  connected by lines, spaces and other more subtle pointers.

The main point is that you have to, at least, capture one strange encounter at the top of the visual hierarchy through which an image is approached/opened. In this photo such an entrance are the two young people in the foreground. They seem to have great fun discussing who is going to take the picture of who.

Strange does not carry any negative connotation. The label is used simply to connote a situation that is a little different. A humorous situation being one of the options.

24/05/2012.

This post has been prepared for a new website Street Photographer’s Toolbox. That site will not be public for a while yet. It is under construction. However, some of the many posts that will go into the new toolbox for street photographers can be read here. You can also get bits and pieces of the new toolbox at Facebook Page Street Photographer’s Toolbox.  Enjoy.

You can bookmark Street Photographer’s Toolbox already now.

Connotations: Photogenia

Fusion. © Knut Skjærven.

It is a fascination notion. Maybe the most spectacular of them all. Speculative.

Ronald Barthes calls it photogenia and it is the fourth of his connotation procedures. But he does not really give you anything more than a clue as to what is to be understood by photogenia. He cleverly escapes the question by stating that “it will suffice to define photogenia in terms of informational structure. In photogenia the connoted message is the image itself, “embellishes” (which is to say in general sublimated) by techniques of lighting, exposure and printing.”/23.

“The theory of photogenia”, he states, “has already been developed (by Edgar Morin in Le Cinéma ou l’homme imaginaire) and this is not the place to take up again the subject of the general signification of that procedure”./23

Thank you Mr. Barthes. Thank you for this extensive explanation.

That is where he leaves his readers, in nowhere land.

What, however, after all is important is the clue that he gives you: in photogenia the connoted message is the image itself. I need to dive into the sources if I want a grip on this idea. And that is just what I will do. Therefore, I will come back with an update on photogenia. Pretty soon.

In the meantime you can work with me in solving the mystery of photogenia. Here is a sentence from an article by Jean Epstein called “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie”. It goes like this: “What is photogénie? I would describe as photogenic any aspects of things, being, or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction”.

Yes, Epstein talks about filmic reproduction, but we will talk about photography. I’ll be back soon.

24/05/2012

Relates posts in this section: Introduction; Trick Effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.

Library Thing: Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press, London 1977.

———
IMPORTANT:

As you probably know by now these post are written for the blog: Street Photographer’s Toolbox. The blog is under development but not public yet. Stay tuned. Have a very good day :-). Thanks for reading.

Itching Image: Decisive Moment / Complex

Beach Party. © Knut Skjærven.

ITCHING IMAGE:
DECISIVE MOMENTS / COMPLEX

This is definitely a more complex version of a Decisive Moment.

Complex is not the same are complicated because there is nothing complicated in this image. But it is, in my view, complex both visually and related to content. The share number of themes working together have increased when comparing this image to the other example of a Decisive Moment: Come Fly With Me.

The viewer will automatically ask for these many themes to work together for it to build a coherent image in his/her mind. I my view they do, but you don’t have to agree in this.

Let me point to the possible sub themes in image: the sunbathers and black dog looking out towards the canal; the man in the foreground also turning the back on the sunbathers; the sunbathers themselves; the dog and the man both turning their backs on the sunbathers; and, of course, the curious guy in the boat close to the frame at the left hand side.

What is happening here? That is the question. Is this a random constellation of people, or are there more subtle issues at stake here? Perhaps the whole thing is an act in a play unfolding on the dock of the bay.

I am not going to suggest what all of this means, because meaning in a complex moment like this is very much up to the individual to speculate about. And with that I will leave it.

If possible: Enjoy.

21/05/2012.

This post has been prepared for a new website Street Photographer’s Toolbox. That site will not be public for a while yet. It is under construction. However, some of the many posts that will go into the new toolbox for street photographers can be read here. You will also get bits and pieces of the new toolbox at Facebook Page Street Photographer’s Toolbox.  Enjoy.

Itching Image: Decisive Moment / Simple

Come Fly With Me. © Knut Skjærven

 

ITCHING IMAGE:
DECISIVE MOMENTS

Nothing is more important in photography than catching a Decisive Moment. Such moments makes or breaks an image. Here is one that is pretty decisive. I young lady hanging in the air at the landing place of the Copenhagen Marathon, May 20, 2012.

That said, what is a decisive moment? Sometimes it is easier done than said, because all do not agree of what a decisive moment is.

In a way all photographs are decisive moments. They can never be repeated and for whatever reason the release button is pressed, it renders a photographs of a decisive moment. Many people stick to such a definition and you will see lots and lots of photographs described as decisive moments.

However, such a wide definitions renders only small letter decisive moments. Let’s call them that.

Decisive Moments with capital letters are very different. More like the definition given by Cartier – Bresson: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a faction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” (The Minds Eye, Aperture 1999, page 42). These moments place a demand on both the content of an image as well as of its form. Compositions play a larger part.

How do I know the difference, you may ask? The best way to know the difference between small and capital letter decisive moment, is to take a good look at the image. With the same eyes and mind that you look at the world around you. If the image hits you as being striking it probably is. If it hits you as being Decisive it probably is. Look for the content and look for the form. The overall composition.

Can you learn how to take pictures of capital letters Decisive Moments? Good question. Some of it yes, but not all. It is like in the real world: Luck is important, and if you prepare for luck you will probably get it. You certainly can prepare.

And the other way around.

Good luck with it.

21/05/2012.

This post has been prepared for a new website Street Photographer’s Toolbox. That site will not be public for a while yet. It is under construction. However, some of the many posts that will go into the new toolbox for street photographers can be read here. You will also get bits and pieces of the new toolbox at Facebook Page Street Photographer’s Toolbox.  Enjoy.

Itching Image: Odd Man Out

The Gunmen © Knut Skjærven.

Odd Man Out fits perfectly as a description of yet another idea for making itching images.

Odd means stand apart, strange, different. Something that breaks with what is expected.

Expected does not refer to a personal expectation you might have. It refers to a visual expectation that is built in to the image, as far as that is possible at all.

Looking at The Gunmen, the guy who breaks out is the one looking in the photographer’s direction. This photographer. With a little surprise on his face for being photographed at the time of photography.

There is no rocket science at work here, but these images may be trickier to capture than you think. How often do you see three young men standing in line, with the same bodily posture, camera in hand and lifted simultaneously ready to shoot whatever it is? And a fourth breaking out having spotted this photographer? You?

Or a visual structure like it? The first man is the odd man out. Indeed he is.

Two things must happen at once. First you have to establish a visual expectation. Secondly you have to break that visual expectation.

For this type of street photography you have to do it by observation only. You have to FIND the situation and not DIRECT it. The type of street photography we strive for is based on unedited situations without any interference by the photographer other than that of being present. Not the Carol Reed way.

This is the principle then: Look for a visual flow that leads to a visual expectation. Wait for the third, the fourth or the fifth man to break out of that visual flow. It does not have to be people. Any other object will do as well. But you need a flow and something that diverts from it. An odd man.

Oh, I almost forgot. James Mason played the main character in Carol Reed’s movie from 1947. He was the odd man out.

Good luck with it.

160512
© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved. (Text and image.)

————————————————————-

This post has been prepared for a new website Street Photographer’s Toolbox. That site will not be public for a while yet. It is under construction. However, some of the many posts that will go into the new toolbox for street photographers can be read here. You will also get bits and pieces of the new toolbox at Facebook Page Street Photographer’s Toolbox.  Enjoy.

Itching Image: Two Of A Kind

Two Of A Kind.© Knut Skjærven

One way to create an itching image is to make a two-of-a-kind shot. Like the one you see here. It is a very simple version.

You get an image of this type when you frame two (or more) similar objects. It has to be objects that are NOT intended to be isolated or framed together. Such a strange framing is what (can) make an image itchy. The famous Henri Cartier -Bresson used this little trick in many of his images. He did it well and was one of the first to use it.

Normally shots like this leaves an impression of curiously or humour. A smile at least.

When I speak of objects I include people, which are normally called subjects. Objects or subjects, in this context, it does not matter. In the shot above we actually have one of each: one live person sitting down and one kind of similar object in the painting. In addition we have a somewhat similar overall outline of the two, look at their hands and their faces. Same (roughly) positions of hands, and the somewhat same strange expression on their faces. Look at the mouths.

The picture was taken at the Danish National Gallery in Copenhagen. Earlier this year (2012). Copenhagen is in Denmark.

You can, of course, also make three of a kind and you can substitute objects with situations or groups of people, which will leave you will more complex images. In this example you get the very simple version. I would say that three of a kind is rather difficult to do. Groups or situations might be easier.

I mentioned that Henri Cartier – Bresson used this technique. His shot from Athens in 1953 is a good example. Here he combines two groups of a kind: two women upstairs (the decoration of the house), and two women downstair (passing on the pavement). Another one is shot in Nepal in 1963 showing a concrete figure with roughly the same outline as a passing woman. Another one yet is taken in Rome in 1951 showing a male hairdresser looking out the window of his shop. He is flanked by a poster of a woman in the other window. There are many more such examples in Cartier – Bresson’s portfolio.

I would say that two of a kind was probably one of Cartier – Bresson’s favorite techniques for creating itchy images.

When you see the shots that I have mentioned you will know what two-of-a-kind is all about. It is that very combination which MAKES the images mentioned. Two-of-a-kind is an effective way to create an itching image.

Very easy for you to try as well. Good luck with it.

150512
© Knut Skjærven. Text and image. All rights reserved.

————————————————————-

This post has been prepared for a new website Street Photographer’s Toolbox. That site will not be public for a while yet. It is under construction. However, some of the many posts that will go into the new toolbox for street photographers can be read here. You will also get bits and pieces of the new toolbox at Facebook Page Street Photographer’s Toolbox.  Enjoy.

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