a blog by knut skjærven

Street Photographer’s Toolbox

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.

 

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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.


Connotations: Pose

K-Damm Couple. © Knut Skjærven.

IMPORTANT: I am preparing a new site named Street Photographer’s Toolbox. The site is aimed at active street photographers.

The new site is not ready for publishing yet, but some of the posts are.  This is one of the new posts. You will not be able to open all of the links in this post at present. Stay tuned. 

The second connotations procedure Roland Barthes mentions is Pose. 

He talks about people pose which suits us well since we define street photography as having people as the distinct and bearing element. Barthes’ example is a portrait of President Kennedy. The example in this post is far from it. More on that below.

Let’s listen to what he says and expand on the theme just as we did in the post on Trick Effects.

Barthes:”Consider a press photograph of President Kennedy widely distributed at the time of the 1960 election: a half-length profile shot, yes looking upwards, hands joined together. Here it is the very pose of the subject which prepares the reading of the signifieds of connotation: youthfulness, spirituality, purity.”

A bit later in the same text: “The message in the present instance is not “the pose” but “Kennedy praying”: the reader receives as a simple denotation what is in actual fact a double structure – denoted-connoted.”/Page 22.

No one would argue that a shot like that was anyway near what we would want to do in street photography, but it stresses what pose is and what it can bring in terms of connotations. Pose is the direct or indirect arrangement of a scene to be photographed. Like setting up President Kennedy in the shot mentioned. Like setting up anything else under any circumstance you can think of. Pose is a broad and very important thing in any type of photography.

So also in street photography.

It is a good idea to dishinguish between three types of poses. First there is the posed pose, then there is the unposed pose and finally there is the provoked pose. 

For the photographer the different is that in the posed pose he directs the person or the people in question. Like in a studio he sets the light, brings the chair or whatever to sit on, etcetera. In professional cases such posing might well include laying the makeup and setting the hair. Male of female. For the street photographer the pendent would be that he asks people to take on a certain bodily pose, move to a certain location, etcetera.

The provoked pose is when you call indirect attention from people and you by that get them to act in certain way based on such a provocation. Could be that you in a street set up your tripod and photographed people when they came looking and wondered what you were doing. Could be you wanted to shoot people in their face using a flashgun. The last variant seems to be popular and would be a direct provocation quite literally.

These are three different ways of doing street photography sure, but the way we in Street Photographer’s Toolbox understand it is photography as unposed pose. In other words: Cases where you do not directly interact with the people you want to picture. No before you take the picture.

Maybe you say that unposed pose is an awkward expression? I agree with you. The reason why it is a good idea to use it is that is stresses the obvious fact the all photography to a certain extent is posed photography. Already being there  as a photographer under a certain sky; in a special location; at a time of day or night you have partly decided/posed the content of the shot. Call it pre-posing. You may not interact with people themselves but you model everything else. And by setting the camera you model that too.

All the decision you make in this respect have influence on the connoted content you will end up with. You may think that you are there as a spectator alone and that you render untouched reality. That is not the case I am afraid, but you can do your very best as a photographer of unposed poses. That will have to do because there is no other way.

Such a thing as a street photography untouched by man does not exist. By the way, the photograph above, K-damm Couple, is unposed pose, but not quite. I asked the girl to look into the camera, and that little gesture makes a big different. You might say that I was stretching the rules a bit. Hopefully Barthes would have liked it.

Thanks for reading.

12/04/12

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

Street Photography Training Sessions: See Street University.



Connotation Tool: Trick Effects

The Flying Dutchman.© Knut Skjærven.

IMPORTANT: I am preparing a new site named Street Photographer’s Toolbox. The site is aimed at active street photographers.

The new site is not ready for publishing yet, but some of the posts are.  This is one of the new posts. You will not be able to open all of the links in this post at present. Stay tuned. 

I am going to treat Roland Barthes’ connotation procedures in the same order that they appear in his article The Photographic Message in the book Image, Music, Text.  And I am going to add a little to them to point out their potential for street photography.

The first procedure he points to is Trick Effects. By that he really means trick effects: doing trickery, or faking an image. He talks about inserting an object or a person that was not actually there when the picture was taken. We know this from political propaganda but most of the times when a person is removed from an image after having fallen out of grace. Removing is in the same visual vocabulary as inserting.

Barthes mentions an image where an American presidential candidate was faked to be in the same shot as a communist leader. Thereby connoting a positive connection and even friendship between the two. The communist leader was inserted into the photograph. (We are back in the cold war days.)

Today, we would say that an image like that was heavily photoshopped by inserting an object or a person in a frame where it/he/she did not actually belong. Like in concept photography where this type of manipulation is quite alright. It will, however, not be acceptable in street photography were documentation is an important issue.

You may rightly wonder what this connotation procedure is doing in toolbox for street photography? Particularly as we speak of street photography as straight photography. Straight meaning that we do as little post production or editing as possible. Surely there is no room for trickery and faking images when you define street photography?

You are absolutely right, but as our mission here is to be loyal to Barthes procedures we have to include trick effects as one of his connotation procedures.

There is another reason which is even more important. That reason has a direct relevance for our understanding of street photography.

Roland Barthes: “The methodological interest of trick effects is that they intervene without warning in the plane of denotation; the utilize the special credibility of the photograph ( … ) in order to pass off as merely denoted a message which is in reality heavily connoted; in no other treatment does connotation assume so completely the “objective” mask of denotation.”/Page 21.

What Barthes is trying to say, is that photography of all media have a special capacity to trick people because people or object inserted into a photograph, done well enough that is, really seem to be part of denoted reality. Thereby you also manipulate connotations as in the case of presidential candidate and the communist leader.

Is that it then? Are Trick Effects of no use in a street photographer’s toolbox? Off to the next procedure in Barthes cluster of connotation procedures? Not quite, because photograph’s capacity to blur the distinction between denoted and connoted content can also be used with great effect in proper, unmanipulated street photography.

How come?

Let’s switch the words insert with include, and fake with make. Then the situation becomes very different. We manage to hold on to photograph’s capacity to be truthful to reality. Now we no longer have faked denotations that produce false connotation. We have real denotation producing truthful connotations. By substituting insert with include and fake with make we manage this.

Why is this important? It is important because I never understood quality street photography as a plain and a mostly mechanical rendering of street life. To stress the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary takes a special effort of including or excluding (not inserting or removing) things that in the rush of passing (through life) are normally overlooked. That is the overall mission of proper street photography if it has any. That is its humanistic perspective.

NB: It can often be difficult to detect if a content is inserted or simply included. The difference is critical. In The Flying Dutchman above, the boy jumping in the background could have been inserted in the photograph. It is not. The connoted message could be described as livelyplayfulpositive.

Taking into account that the image is shot at Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the connotations takes on yet another layer of meaning. Maybe a symbolic one. One of reconciliation perhaps. You decide.   The image holds first (denote) second (connote) an even third (symbolize) level contents.

Thanks for reading.

10/04/12

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

Street Photography Training Sessions: See Street University.