Old Banal images

I was going through some of my old images, from around 10 years ago, when I realised just how my focus, even then, was on the banal human constructs in the landscape.

Most of the following images were taken in and around the village of Sharpness in Gloucestershire. Sharpness is effectively an island with just two small bridges giving access to the outside world. It is a strange place, a mix of industrial, docklands and just 19 houses where humans are definitely there but rarely seen. It feels like the “Marie Celeste” of villages.

This grain tower dominates the whole of Sharpness and there are hardly any places from which you cannot see it.

There is a pub in the outskirts of the village, isolated, with no houses nearby. The image above was my attempt to show this isolation. As usual, the roads are completely empty.

In the image above, I was trying to show the traces of former activity but the current absence of anything moving. The roundabout is a metaphor for being at the end of the road, with the arrows implying no escape, just endless rotation. This really captures how I feel about the place. It is post-apocalyptic, somewhere at the end of time.

The next image continues the banal theme. When I saw the scene, I felt it was also very violent. Again, it is somehow post-apocalyptic with just the largest, now isolated, trees surviving after the hedge was attacked.

The following, captured on the outskirts of Weston super Mare, is just ironic. If this is an example of the brave new world of renewable energy, then we’re in trouble.

Conclusions

Banal, quirky, out of place subjects, traces of absent humans and feelings of being remote and isolated have been features of my photography for longer than I had suspected.

However, thinking back, I now realise that these are subjects I was photographing because of the narratives they evoked within me. I could not explain myself at the time. I could not defend why I had taken such banal, some said ugly, images yet I thought them beautiful.

My researches into my practice and into the practices of other landscape photographers has, at last, helped me articulate my own motivations and given me confidence in the value of my practice.

 

 

Cramond 9 – Fragments

 

It was a bright, high contrast day so I decided to focus on “fragments”, small indicators of human presence rather than the larger view. To emphasise these fragments, I found myself using very shallow depths of field.

This pot was lying in the remains of a circle of stones that had been a “camp fire”. Unfortunately, the leaves have covered any signs of the former fire. I could have taken a wider view and included some blackened rocks but then the pot would have disappeared, becoming insignificant in the surrounding leaves. This lack of context has limited the narrative potential of this image.

This image includes a wider view and so, suggests a degree of remoteness to the building. The graffiti, the missing brick and the bush growing up the side of the building all imply dereliction, which is, in fact, the case.

Overall, I feel this image attracted me more because of its design than for any meaning or narrative. Consequently, this is unlikely to be an image with any long-term appeal for me.

As above, this image includes a wider view that implies a degree of remoteness. There is also an encouragement to narrative with the rust (implying great age) and the rope, also the second, out of focus pole seen in the distance, raising questions about the purpose and who might have installed the pole into the rock.

However, the lighting is such that the image lacks any mood appropriate to the potential narratives. The bright, high contrast, light seems to contradict the messages of the content. In itself, this is not a fault, but it raises questions about whether this image fits with most of my other Cramond images. I think it probably fits better with the following two Icelandic images which were taken in similar light.

This final image is the most pleasing for me.

Probably, because it is the most mysterious. Why is the rope there? Why is it frayed?

The rope is the only sharp element in the image. Also we are looking up at it. These factors give the viewer has an intense focus upon the rope and this could suggest it has a sinister purpose. The overarching of the trees adds to this impression by seeming to enclose and look down upon the viewer. Yet the quality of light implies a playfulness that contradicts these ideas. Hence the mystery.

I wonder how the loss of the leaves as we approach winter will affect the mood of this image? It would be interesting to try it again on a bright winter’s day.

Conclusions

I chose to photograph fragments because of the bright light draining the wider shots of colour. This decision has not enabled me to achieve my usual mood as the lighting is still in control. However, I have achieved shots with added mystery as the lighting appears to contradict the narratives implied by the content.

The detail shots, without distant views, do not suggest the remoteness I normally look for as they lack the usual context.

The idea of light qualities opposing the content narratives is a possible path to follow to add mystery to my images. Limiting the field of view adds to these effects.

 

Spectacle competing with Narrative

In movie world, there has long been a discussion over whether narrative has been displaced by spectacle.

“Spectacle is a quality offered by Hollywood in its attempt to maintain the distinctive appeal of cinema, of the big-screen event that is so important to its broader commercial interests. Spectacular imagery, of various kinds, sells. It is an intrinsic part of many of the properties on which the studios draw for their big franchise products.” (King 2002 – p178-9)

So, commerciality drives the film studios towards spectacle and some argue, this is at the expense of narrative. I agree and would cite the Pirates of the Caribbean series as a perfect example of films where the spectacle is all, and narrative, virtually absent.

Gunning describes this as the “cinema of attractions”:

“the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle – a unique event ….. that is of interest in itself.” (Gunning 1990 – p58)

I believe the same thing is happening in stills photography, particularly in competitive, club photography and urged on by organisations such as PAGB (Photographic Association of Great Britain), FIAP (Federation Internationale de L’Art Photographique) and PSA (Photographic Society of America). Such organisations are themselves commercial and need increasing numbers of paid entries to their competitions (salons) and awards schemes in order to survive.

In pre-digital days, competition and award entries were prints or slides that had to be posted. This was expensive, so relatively few entries were made to each event and turnaround times much slower. Consequently, the event judges had longer to view each entry and spectacle was not the only criteria upon which images were assessed. Today, very few organisations hold salons or competitions for physical images. Instead digital images are now emailed, costs have come down and the numbers of events and the numbers of entries have multiplied many fold.

Judges and their time is now one of the most costly aspects of running such events and so their processes and their throughput must be maximised. From my own observations of salons, the time taken to assess and score each image can be as low as just 2-4 seconds. That is certainly insufficient time to look for any narrative in the image. Only technical aspects such as sharpness and a general appreciation of composition are possible in so short a time. Therefore, I would argue that spectacle is the only criteria upon which these images are now being judged.

In the world of internationally competitive photography, where images from many countries are vying for medals and accolades, again spectacle has an advantage over narrative, much as it has in the movie industry.

“It [spectacle] sells particularly well abroad, in markets where nuances of plot and dialogue might be lost in translation.” (King 2002 – p179)

Photographers from around the world now understand that spectacle has an international appeal whereas the nuances of a particular culture’s metaphor and narrative are impossible to read in just a few seconds.

The above are concerned only with the single image. Few organisations, the RPS (Royal Photographic Society) being a notable exception, accept and consider panels of images. With panels, a strong narrative is the essential ingredient and time should be taken to consider this along with the technical, artistic and other attributes of the images. Here spectacular images could be a disadvantage as they would stand out from the panel and distort rather than enhance the overall narrative. Except in the event that all the panel images are equally spectacular.

Of course, the spectacular image can also contain meaningful narrative but I would argue that the spectacle, by overwhelming the viewer with visual treats, the wow factor, actually inhibits the viewer from engaging at any deeper level. It is like being bombarded with visual noise and so unable to perceive any of the subtleties contained within.

However, I believe that, most often, high spectacle can be a just mask behind which there is very little content. The Emperor’s New Clothes perhaps!

So, for me, spectacle is noisy, it shouts for attention. My personal preference, in photography, and what I seek for my own well-being, is silence. I want to experience and to photograph silence. I want my viewers to feel the quiet and calmness that I experienced when taking my images. I try to achieve this by constructing photographs that have significant narrative potential. I want my mages to engage viewers’ imaginations. In other words, I hope the viewer will take time to ask what, why, who and how about the image and so be driven to make up their own narratives. The narrative they create may be nothing like the one that I told myself when taking the image but that is not important. It is the level of engagement between the image and viewer that is important.

The vast majority of my landscape images include a human construct, marks or other evidence that people live or have lived in a particular place. Evidence of human presence automatically raises the narrative potential of an image in ways that (now rare) “natural” landscapes cannot. That humans (other than the photographer) have been there raises questions of why, who and how and will hopefully prompt speculation and “story making” by the viewer.

For me narrative or narrative potential must always come first. If the image is also spectacular that can be a bonus except where the spectacular masks the narrative. The ultimate format for my images is the panel or series where the narrative of the whole predominates and where no single image shouts for more attention than any other.

Bibliography

Gunning T. The Cinema of Attractions in Elsaessar T. Early Cinema: Space frame Narrative. London BFI Publishing 1990, p58

King G, New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction, I.B Tauris, London and New York 2002, p. 178-179.

Banal Art, Robert Adams, and his influence

My friend, Neil Patton, has questioned my use of the term “Banal Art”. This was bothering me too, as it feels more likely to be read as “art that is banal” whereas I mean “art of the banal”.

I started to research the word banal by looking at other photography related uses of the word. One of the first references I found was a paper by Cecile Whiting called “The Sublime and the Banal in Post-war Photography of the American West”. In this paper, the book, “The New West” by Robert Adams, is discussed at length. This was a useful lead, as Robert Adams was an early and key influencer of my own photographic style and choice of subject matter. In the paper Whiting describes Adams’ work as the “aesthetic of the banal” (p58).

Adams’ images in The New West are of urban development in the prairies, West of the Colorado Rockies, and show a sprawl of monotonous, flimsily built “tract houses” with the occasional views of the distant mountains. Talking about the chapters of the book Whiting says:

“These sections catalogue the ways in which human-made things – utility poles, power lines, strip malls, billboards, trailers, tract houses, commercial buildings – overwhelm the entire region of The New West.” (p59)

To see images from the book, go to:

https://trequartieri.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/robert_adams_the-new-west_01.pdf

Similarly, many of my photographic subjects are also of ordinary, functional, practical things, constructed by humans, but that appear idiosyncratic, out of place when set in the remote, sparsely populated and sometimes sublime landscapes, I choose to photograph.

My choice of subjects, and the way I present them, may be highly influenced by Robert Adams but until recently, there have been significant differences in our motivations. In Adams’ images, the “banal even seems to spread beyond the photographic frame” (p59). He is emphasising the scale of the impact of human constructs upon the landscape whereas I tend to focus on how small the human influence is within my chosen landscapes. Whilst Adams is raising awareness of the effects of too many humans I am typically trying to celebrate the pioneer spirit of the few people trying to make a living in remote landscapes.

“Adams either approached his motifs at such close range that he captured only parts of a house, car, or commercial building, or he remained at such a distance that the suburban development sprawls laterally beyond the photographic borders.” (p60)

Either way, it is the banal elements of the composition that dominate the “natural” landscape. I put “natural” in quotes because, today, it is virtually impossible to find any landscape, anywhere, that has not been modified in some way by human activity. Whiting makes the same point in the following quote, summing up Adams’ work:

“Sublime wilderness may be nothing but a fantasy, but the banal, by coexisting with nature, may be more than banal: transforming a natural setting that has never been timeless or pristine, the banal is, in a sense, naturalised.”

This quote strongly resonates with my own attitudes towards human activity and the environment.

These two images, from Iceland, are examples from my work where I am attempting to show the banal human constructs as insignificant impositions within a large, powerful, and empty landscape.

Here “nature” is not overwhelmed.

My most recent images have taken a new turn. Instead of showing insignificant human constructs, that barely impinge on their environment, with the Lammermuir Windfarm, I was now following Adams’ motivations and techniques. Here I allowed the subjects to flow out of the image frame to imply their endlessness. Like Adams, I have used a strong, banal, foreground element, plus other distant turbines in order to have the windfarm appear to overwhelm the landscape, even beyond the frame.

The message here is of an environment being taken over by humans, rather than my usual message of humans pioneering against the far more powerful landscape.

Here again, the turbines and their service roads appear to spread beyond the edges of the frame, implying their domination of the environment.

Conclusions – Neil Patton’s questioning of my use of the words “banal art” have led me down a very fruitful research path. I have been influenced by Robert Adams for many years but finding this paper has really helped me to understand the ways he has directly influenced my practice.

This exercise has also helped me understand how I can better use scale, quantity and placement of my subject(s) to actively guide (I could never control) the meanings I would like viewers to find.

Regarding subject matter, it is reassuring to read Adams’ quote:

“Many have asked, pointing incredulously towards a sweep of tract homes and billboards, why picture that? The question sounds simple, but implies a difficult issue – why open our eyes anywhere but in undamaged places like national parks?”

As a landscape photographer who focuses on apparently banal subjects, I have often been asked similar questions.

Bibliography

Adams R. The New West, Aperture; New Ed edition, 2008

Whiting C. The Sublime and the Banal in Post-war Photography of the American West, American Art published by The Smithsonian Institution, Vol27, Number2, 2013

Lammermuir Wind Farm

As a recent and very dramatic example of “human constructions in remote environments” windfarms have been a subject I have wanted to photograph. However, until yesterday, I was unable to get close enough to one to achieve representative images.

As usual I did as much planning as I could, using Google Earth to decide how to approach the wind farm above Gifford in the Lammermuir Hills. The only photographic hint that I gleaned from Google Earth was that the roadways leading to each turbine formed interesting, flower like patterns when viewed from above. I thought these might be compositionally useful. Other than that, I no clear ideas or expectations.

The walk in to the wind farm was across 3 miles of Grouse Moor. That was itself interesting as I disturbed many grouse, lapwings and hares as I passed by. On the way, I saw several of these, which I presume are rat traps laid to help protect the grouse.

I could see the wind turbines for the whole of my walk and started to consider the potential problems in photographing them. How could I include the turbine bases as well as the blades without resorting to distant or very wide-angle shots? I decided that the easiest solution was to make the nearest turbine base into a disruptive, foreground element cutting through the frame.

This was about my 4th attempt at a composition and the first that really appealed to me. I like the way the foreground turbine appears like a sentinel looking over the other turbines. I think it is the, almost face like appearance of the door that makes this work. The tiny electricity pylon on the left is an important element as it stops the eye from leaving the image on that side.

Here was one of several attempts to use the roadways as connecting, pattern elements. It hasn’t worked as well as I had hoped as am not high enough. The roadways are linking some elements but the pattern is not strong enough to lead the eye around the image. I think I will need to try again from the top of the hill off to the left of this frame.

When I think about it this image is not driven by narrative, as are most of my photos. Instead, seeing the flower like patterns on Google Earth led me to expectations around the potential for Design. I have not succeeded with that but I will try again from different locations.

One of the challenges photographing such a wind farm is to ensure there is separation between each of the many turbines. A pair of overlapping turbine masts is very messy and attracts the eye. Also, I must scan the whole image and try to take the shot when the turbine blades are not forming patterns with each other that might attract unnecessary attention. This is not too difficult and just requires a few seconds monitoring the viewfinder to understand the rhythms of the blades.

The cloudy sky was a problem. It is far too lumpy for my taste. Next time I need a smoother, darker sky so I can make the white windmills separate from the background more effectively.

Image Analysis by “Initiative”

I have been trying to analyse what are the factors that initiate my taking a particular composition and have devised the following processes to achieve it.
To start with I had to discover and give names to the factors that caused me to be interested in taking a particular image. By reviewing 76 of my “Iceland 2017” images I was able to identify and give names to the following factors:

Intuition – I see an image, I know it is right but I cannot yet explain why. I am recognising the potential for a narrative in the scene but not the narrative itself.
Recognition – I recognise a relationship to something else, a painting, a film, a style, that has previously inspired me. For me, such a scene already has a built-in narrative.
Design – There is something about the design of the scene that appeals – colours, shapes, etc. However, it may not have much in the way of a narrative.
Belief – A location that appears to have a lot of potential compositions that should have interesting narratives. For example, there are quirky         elements and or juxtapositions.
Spectacle – The lighting or something else makes for a spectacular image but often without other merits such as a strong narrative.

Some images had more than one initiating factor. For example, I may have started at a location with a “Belief” that good images could be found there. Then later I identify some elements of “Design” that appealed to me. Such an image would score for both Belief and Design. Hence a larger total number of “Factors” appear in the data than the number of images.

The second step was to go through each image and give it a score based upon my personal preferences, was I pleased with it, did it have a strong narrative, did it fit with my research goals, etc.

This is a purely subjective scoring system that left me with 35 images out of 76 classified as Good or Very Good.

Here is a chart showing the proportions of images that I classified as successful or not.

I am planning to engage with an independent group of photographers for them to rate my photographs against my stated objectives and against their personal preferences as a reality check of my own analysis.

Only those images rated as Good or Very Good will ever be considered for display in my project.

My aim here is to discover whether any particular factor or factors resulted in more or fewer successful images.

The following data table shows the factors versus image success.

Factor                       Good or Very good images                 All images
Belief                                        15                                               44
Design                                      15                                               28
Intuition                                   7                                                 8
Recognition                             5                                                 6
Spectacle                                  3                                                 6

When these numbers are displayed on a Radar chart (and referencing back to the raw data for Image Success) some interesting conclusions can be made.

The most striking observation is that all 7 images with “Intuition” as an identified factor also scored as “Very Good”.

Five of the 7 images with “Recognition” as a factor scored either “Good” or “Very Good”.

Just 5 of my images were classified as “Spectacle” and of these only 3 achieved a score of “Good” or “Very Good”. So being spectacular is not a strong indicator of success.

“Belief” is by far the most common driver for my actually taking an image. However, only ~34% of such images score “Good” or “Very Good”.

“Design” is not a good predictor that the final image will be a success.

Conclusions
Overall my experiencing feelings of “Intuition” or “Recognition” at a location are by far the best indicators that I will produce successful images.

“Belief”, based upon having seen quirky elements and or juxtapositions at a location, maybe a good starting point for taking images but I am not so good at turning this into successful compositions unless I also experience “Intuition” or “Recognition”.

Most of the locations for the images in this sample were only visited once. Consequently, I had little choice over the lighting conditions and this certainly had an impact upon my success rate.

Additionally, when “Belief” is the sole driver, perhaps I need to visit the location more than once in order to better understand it and its possibilities. This technique did work with my multiple visits to Cramond Island. For future field work I should plan to travel less and spend longer at each location.

Seeing stories versus Making stories

After taking an intuitively composed image I can often find quite complex narratives within it. Given that these images have been intuitively composed, that is quickly and without any overt thought, I wonder whether these narratives were intuitively seen or just made up later from my thoughts when deconstructing the image.

My hypothesis is that most of the narrative is already seen, but probably not yet understood at the instant of intuitive composition. I will us a “thought experiment” to test my hypothesis.

I start with an image that became the catalyst for my final undergraduate project. I saw this scene and immediately knew it was going to be important to the narrative of the whole project. I couldn’t explain why. I just knew!

At this point, I had little idea what my project would be about, except that it would be images of objects and scenes at the National Trust’s, Tyntesfield House that were not normally be visible to the public.

The House was closed to the public whilst the staff performed a major cleaning operation. Here a portrait of Tyntesfield’s founding father has been removed from the wall, placed on the floor with the rope and some tissue providing a little protection.

It was the incongruity of the arrangement and the impression of a face hidden but trying to peer through the tissue that was immediately attractive to me.

However, the fact that this was some form of maintenance work seemed obvious from this composition. There is a narrative here but not a complex one. I wanted to achieve something more enigmatic.

This was certainly an intuitive composition. For the final version, with little more than a few seconds thinking I concluded that a closer crop was required to eliminate information and so create the required enigma.

Here is the final version. The whole process, from seeing the scene to creating this final version, was a matter of a couple of minutes. I knew I had something special but without knowing why.

Consequently, I consider this to be an “intuitive composition”.

Over the next weeks, as I looked at and started to deconstruct the image, the following narratives come out.

This is the portrait of a of a very wealthy and powerful man, Anthony Gibbs. In the 1800’s he made large profits from the South American guano trade. A result of his success was the 100 room Tyntesfield House and its 600-acre estate.

His portrait has looked down upon his descendants and their servants for 200 years.

However, today it is the thousands of National trust visitors who look at him as if he is just an attraction in a zoo.

I wonder what would he think?

Even worse, here he is, with his face hidden by tissue and guarded by a rope. Instead of a demonstration of his authority, his portrait is just another object to be cleaned. Would he be horrified by the indignity?

I knew some of the history of the family and house so how much of this narrative did I unconsciously recognise at the time of taking?

Or was it an intuitive recognition of the narrative potential, created by this unusual scene?

Or was the narrative wholly created later, based upon the composition I had taken?

I do know that I was so excited in the moment of seeing and taking the image that I must have recognised something instantly and intuitively.

I immediately understood that this scene would become the foundation for my whole project.

From then on, my project focused on the quirky juxtapositions of objects, accidentally created by conservators as they went about maintaining the house and its contents.

Today, going back to my “Artist Statement”, written at the time (2010), I found the following:

“My photography is about exposing and giving significance to the unintended compositions and accidental beauty of stored, sometimes forgotten and usually hidden objects within their landscapes. There is no deliberate narrative. These are “found” objects in “found” compositions taken without manipulation.”

I was not trying to create any specific narrative but was more concerned about the visual relationships to be found in the “unintended compositions”.  Later in the statement I wrote:

My viewpoint and composition invite the viewer to invent a narrative and attribute their own significances to each object and its place in the image.

I do want to viewer to be sufficiently intrigued by the composition that they will take time to wonder about and create their own image narratives.

In Conclusion

I am not, as I hypothesised earlier, composing based upon having intuitively seen a narrative that I cannot yet articulate.

Instead I am being intuitively attracted by the juxtapositions of a scene’s elements and the possibilities they create for making narratives.

It is an intuitive recognition of a potential narrative that is driving my compositions.

New Topographics?

I have long been inspired by the “New Topographics” photography. In particular the photographers, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke with their ability to conjure beautiful images out of banal subjects.

When I saw the following scene at Laugarbakki, Iceland I immediately thought it was something that might have been taken by Adams.  The new lamp post, the part-made road and the emptiness of a landscape rolling into the distance all reference his critique of urban expansion into the prairies around Denver, Colorado.

This is NOT an intuitive composition! I saw the potential for an image and then it was a case of trying several different compositions until I achieved something I felt was appropriate for an homage to Adams. I will show the initial attempts further on in the blog.

Adams always used B&W film and so I felt the need to convert my image to B&W as well.

Far from being an Icelandic scene this looks much more like the baking hot prairie as the grasses are so light in tone. The sky is heavily overcast and would never be the same as Adams, Coloradan, wall to wall, clear blue skies, which added to the emptiness of his images.

Here are 3 earlier compositions that did not work.

There is no shape to this image and the tyre tracks, far from adding interest, just appear confusing.

This is better as I now have the triangle of grass on the left providing something of a zig-zag shape to the foreground. The single lamp on the right, appearing to look into the image, is OK but feels too comfortable an arrangement. The distant hedge touching the lamp post is just wrong.

The foreground shape is now more powerful but the composition still lacks something. It feels flat, too symmetrical.

In the final version, shown again below, the base of the lamp is now at a fulcrum point around which the weights of the other image elements could rotate. The lamp itself is now looking out of the image and this feels like a tension point (imagine a rope from the lamp to the left edge of the image) which is supporting all the weight of all the image to the right.

 

 

Diary of a Landscape shoot

I’d seen these derelict Cod Drying Racks just south of Husavik. These were far less densely arranged than those at Olafsfjordur, where I had found it very difficult to extract any good compositions. In the end I walked away from Olafsfjordur without any decent images but this was much more promising.

Here is the first, the “intuitive” composition.

Although quite pleased with the arrangement I felt there was too much of a coincidental meeting of the timbers and this attracted my eyes. See where the two arrows are pointing.

Initially, I tried moving about 1 metre to the right. This resolved the overlap but the various elements now seem far too disconnected, the nearest poles too prominent and the overall composition just messy.

Moving back towards the original position I found a good compromise.

The problem overlap is now removed but another created further down the pole. However, this bothers me less as it is closer to the ground (not in the sky area) and so is less noticeable. I now wish I had taken a step back as well because in this version the top pole feels too close and I would now like to have had more sky and more foreground. Another missed opportunity as I did not see this issue at the time!

At this point I was starting to feel more confident with the subject and wanted to find some more radical, less “record shot” compositions. I composed several more images but the following was my final and, I believe, the most successful one.

The purpose of the wooden structures is now, even less obvious than in the previous images. I have now included the Husavik lighthouse and just a few houses, none of which are easy to see. They are just suggestions of a community some way off. The cod drying racks now, to me, appear like some sort of medieval siege weapons that are pointing at the settlement. They are watching from a distance, also from a high vantage point, as if preparing for an attack.

This composition has become quite surreal and raises far more narrative questions than it answers.

Finally, the parallel lines of the horizontal poles, the horizon and, to a lesser extent, the foreground cliff edge form a pleasing repetition.

I spent about an hour at this location. That’s not long compared with other landscape photographers but it was my second “Cod Drying Rack” location and I had already discovered what I didn’t want to do when at Olafsfjordur. Overall I took about 8 different compositions but space limits what is worth discussing here.

Images analysis – Gestalt?

 

I read the following at http://www.users.totalise.co.uk/~kbroom/Lectures/gestalt.htm

“Gestalt means when parts identified individually have different characteristics to the whole (Gestalt means “organised whole”) e.g. describing a tree – it’s parts are trunk, branches, leaves, perhaps blossoms or fruit. But when you look at an entire tree, you are not conscious of the parts, you are aware of the overall object – the tree.”

This is a very simplistic description of Gestalt Theory but the idea described here set me thinking about some of my compositions, especially those where the individual elements seem trivial but their arrangement, size, colour, tone, etc., make for an integrated whole. For example:

There are 4 key elements in this image: the fence, the hillside, the worn patch of earth and the sky (with small cloud). None of these is particularly interesting on its own but together they form a calm, balanced, and satisfying composition that suggests warmth, quietness, even silence. The elements make an “organised whole”.

The image may not immediately grab the viewer’s attention but it does have intrigue. The view of hills beyond the fence suggests height but there is no other indication of the location. Where is it? Why is the fence here? What caused the worn patch? What lies beyond that horizon? Is it a cliff edge?

The image was, in fact, taken about ½ way up Aonach Mor mountain, near Fort William and the fence is snow fence for a ski run.

The following example is similar but has an additional, and disruptive element.

Without the bulldozer, this image would be about the marks, shapes, and colours of the quarry. That humans are involved in the creation of this scene is obvious from the tracks. Also, the conical gravel piles, which can be created by natural (volcanic) forces, are more than likely made by humans.

The bulldozer is a disruptive element because its straight lines and sharp edges are distinctly mechanical. It immediately attracts the eye for its own qualities and not because it is part of the whole scene. Bulldozers have aggressive associations and the way this one is placed, slightly hiding behind a gravel pile, it could be a mechanical dog, guarding the quarry. It is not facing the viewer but there is a sense in which it is aware of the viewer, waiting, prepared. These feelings are enhanced by the tyre tracks leading past the front of the bulldozer. These imply there is a specific path the viewer should take into the image and this path goes in front of, and close to the bulldozer. Is this safe?

In this image, the quarry has become a canvas upon which the bulldozer sits. The whole is really two images which, when combined, produce a single narrative.

Conclusion – The first image asks us to view it as a whole, as a collection of shapes and colours. There is no dominant narrative element. It is the arrangement of the whole that creates a narrative.

The second image would be similar if it weren’t for the presence of the bulldozer. The bulldozer, its associations and its position dominate the image and create a new narrative that is not present when the bulldozer is absent.