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.
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/
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 viewed, the 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.
Training Sessions: See Street University.
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.
Training Sessions: See Street University.
Library Thing: Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press, London 1977.
Copyright: Knut Skjærven (text and picture).
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.
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 lively, playful, positive.
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.
Street Photography Training Sessions: See Street University.
I am introducing a new line of posts. I call it picture posts. It is simply a picture with as little text as possible. These posts are tagged, what else: picture post.
Copenhagen, July 29, 2011.
Let’s move on if that is ok with you?
I have read your blog, or should I say blogs. I particularly refer to certain passages and, what should I say, indications that you seem to come with more than one time. I find them, for instance, in barebones communication, your first blog that deals with photography. Among many other things. You started that in November 2007.
You say, or at least indicate, that there is an affinity between phenomenology and photography. I understand that it was thoughts like that led to the making of the present blog.
I find it fascinating that you also seem to indicate there is a type of affinity even between phenomenology and black and white photography. You even take it so far as to you say that this affinity can be shown in the some of the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
So my question is simple is if you would be willing to elaborate on this? I can’t see that you have done that anywhere else?
Yes, it is true that I have indicated that. It is also true that I have until now, not done much about explaining it. The reason is simple that it is complicated. I don’t think I am finished elaborating on it either. But ok, I will give it a try. It is good that you push this question. However, please look at this as a preliminary answer. I may come back and change and add to it another time.
You know that phenomenology says that man mostly operated in the natural attitude. The natural attitude has a practical and a scientific dimension.
The practical dimension has to do with our life-world where all our daily, practical experiences and doings take place. This interview, for instance, happens in the natural attitude. You and I talk together in a life-words setting.
Phenomenology, however, also deals with a phenomenological attitude. Please note that I say too. It is not a question of leaving the natural attitude and move into another sphere. Nothing strange about it at all.
The phenomenological attitude carries different names, but here I will simple call it the phenomenological attitude.
In the phenomenological attitude you arrest whatever you are occupied with in the natural attitude. Phenomenology calls this to bracket the world. The world is still there, but you set it out of play so you can have a closer look at it. That is a phenomenological approach and a phenomenological investigation. Much like a photographer arrests a life word incident by pressing the shutter on her/his camera.
Now why would anyone want to make an arrest as this? Obviously to get a better understanding of it. You detain the incident for a moment to see what makes it up.
What makes it up reveals it self as, what I will call, structures of consciousness. These structures of consciousness are the heart of the matter for phenomenology. Unfolding them and understanding them are what phenomenology is all about.
Let me take an example: At this very moment I am concentrated on this interview. I think and I speak and this activity is directed towards you as an interviewer. The activity is at the core of my attention. When I operate within the natural attitude, in the life-world, that is all I need to know. It is all that you need to know about this situation, as well. We agree on this and we understand each other
When I arrest this simple situation another and much more varied and complex picture turns up. Not that it is more difficult once you get a grip of it. This is the move from one attitude to another. Like having a different pair of glasses on. I get to know, for instance, that this, as any other moment, is carried by my consciousness. That consciousness is like a web with threads spread all over. It links to a future, it links to a past, it links to an outer world, it links to an inner world, it links to your world, as well. In the natural attitude all this is taken for granted or not questioned. In the phenomenological attitude you investigate these structures of consciousness.
Apply this to photography and you get an amazing way of seeing. Take pictures in the natural attitude you will get what is there. Take pictures in the phenomenological attitude and you will even get what is not there.
You could say that photography in the natural attitude is all about taking pictures of physical things. Photography in the phenomenological attitude is all about taking pictures of relations.
Look at the photograph that comes with this post, as well as the photograph that came with the former post. First and foremost they are pictures of relations. That is what I try do to with my photography.
Are you with me?
(Silence) Let’s have a short break, and continue this session a bit later. Would that be ok?
Before we start this interview, and let’s say, some of our readers took an interest in this area, are there any books that you would recommend? Let’s face it, a discipline like phenomenology is not something all our readers have for breakfast. It is difficult enough to pronounce the word. What would you recommend? Only ONE book.
Hmm, now I could pretend that this was a very difficult question, but it is not. It took me more than 20 years to realize that everything that has to do with phenomenology is really very simple and straightforward. I will come back to that later, but if you ask me to recommend one, and only one, book to get a feel of it, I have no other choice than to tell you that that book is called: Introduction to Phenomenology. It is written by an American named Robert Sokolowski.
I found this book by accident some years ago at my old university in Bergen, Norway. It is very, very good. It is not quite there yet, but it is close. Read that, read it once more, and read it many more times. Till you get the feel of it. This book has nothing to do with photography, but it gives you what you need at the moment concerning phenomenology. Even that is not an easy book if you know nothing about phenomenology. Remember that understanding phenomenology demands that you refresh your brain a bit. Many people are not used to that (smiling).
Most people misses the point of phenomenology. This goes particularly for university people. They think that phenomenology is something you read in books. This might very well be so in the beginning, but basically phenomenology is something YOU DO. It it even a lifestyle. A lifestyle of observing, describing and acting accordingly. Very similar to photography, in fact.
Then, as a SECOND book I would get a copy of Jean-Pierre Montier’s: Henri Cartier- Bresson: Seine Kunst – Sin Leben. Find the English version. It is called The Artless Art. Read it and study the pictures. I will tell you later why this is such a good match.
But If you only want one book at this stage, it got to be Sokolowski’s.
Here we go then.
For some time, I have had the idea of writing a bit more substantially about photography and phenomenology. Note that I have changed the order of things here: Photography first, and phenomenology second. That is also my priorities.
Not that I particularly fancy the work involved here, but looking over the literature I am actually not that impressed with what I see. If I see anything at all. At couple of years ago, I had the idea that someone else must take on this task or it will not be done. But no one raised their hands. At least not that I know of.
So I will do it, but I will do it my own way.
I have no intention of producing another unreadable, that phenomenologists, are so very good at. I will do this as a practical layout for an approach to photography. Street photography first and foremost. I will do this in no haste, since I have no haste. I will do it just the way I take pictures: The good way: Take the camera, get out there and anticipate that things will happen. They always do. In that respect, I am very lucky. I hope to have some of the same luck here.
This means, that I, at the present moment, only have a rough idea what to write about and the direction I want to move in. That is all, so this is going to be exciting to me as well. Look at this as a RAW file. I can always crop and modify the picture later.
Since both photography and phenomenology are personal matters, that, if you are lucky enough, others will take an interest in, the form of this essay will be an interview. I will interview myself.
The good thing with an interview is that you need to pose the questions before you give the answers, but as we all know, you also need to know the answers before you can pose the questions, this method seems appropriate.
I will a assemble all the interview sections in a large post later, but already now each fragment will be collected on a page simply called The Interview. Look for the page section.
If you are interested in following this experiment, he best way to stay tuned is to subscribe to the blog. You can do that in the right hand side bar.
Good luck with it. All of it.
Thanks to Leica Internet Team for the interview on phenomenologist and photographer . I am honored. And there will even be a second part. Have a good weekend in Solms, New York, or wherever you are.
Click the picture to read the interview.
One thing has struck me. Every time I go shooting with a camera I have the feeling that I am executing phenomenology. Why is this? Are there any reasons why I should have such an idea?
I think there is, and I will make a note about it here.
Phenomenology teaches you to study the things themselves. The way you can experience them in the natural attitude doing day to day chores. Beyond that, phenomenology also tells you to wait a second, to freeze the situation, and to study it further. To bring out the heart of the matter.
Phenomenology has special words for these activities. They call it bracketing and phenomenological reduction. Bracketing is the freezing of a situation. Reduction is studying it in detail to bring out the general structures of phenomena. Phenomenology simply means to study, to talk about, or to argue for that which can be experienced. And how it is experienced. As man’s knowledge is confined to that which can be experienced, phenomenology is a basic discipline. A first science.
Doing phenomenology is very similar to what I do with my camera. Bringing my camera with an intention to take a picture, already frames the moment in terms of having that and that intention. When I press the release button, I actually freeze the moment that I intend, or don’t intend, to photograph.
Having done my homework I know what structures a phenomenological reduction brings with it. Every single picture I take is a window to all structures of all experiences. Every time I take a picture I am, in terms of phenomenology, half way there. I do not have to think about bracketing, or freezing, the natural attitude to understand it better. The camera does that for me.
That is what you see reflected in my photographs. That is the type of pictures that I enjoy taking. Take a look at the one above. Every phenomenological dimension you can ever think of, is in there. You only need to unfold them. Here are 425 more photographs you are welcome to look at.
That’s all, ladies and gentlemen. Think about it. Leica, or no Leica.
So high the sky.