Sunday, January 31, 2016

Gestalt! Psychology!

I am starting to see this new brand of BS popping up here and there. It's been around for a while, but seems to be getting some traction these days. It's the new Rule of Thirds, the quick route to Good Composition, and consists of two quite different sets of ideas smashed pointlessly together, to produce something that looks like Science, but is not.

First, a quick review.

Gestalt Psychology is a Thing, it comes with a theory of perception. It's a descriptive theory, not an explanatory one, and it's largely concerned with how we mentally organize what we see. There are ways that we group things. If we see several people, all aligned in space, we perceive "a line of people" sometimes, rather than one person, and another person, and another person. There's a bunch of ways we perform this grouping activity. Things which look similar, or which are close together, or which are aligned in space, and so on, we tend to lump into a collection which we perceive as a single entity (while, of course, simultaneously perceiving the members of the collection, usually). There's also some business about perceiving Things as distinct from Backgrounds.

All this stuff is illustrated by pat and simple line drawings, but it's obvious to any thinking human that it translates only loosely to the real world, and to representational art. You may or may not group things or perceive a certain arrangement of things according to one Law or Another, in reality.

Dynamic Symmetry is also a Thing. Jay Hambidge wrote a book about this in the early part of the 20th century, and it seems to be the usual "I will draw lines all over paintings and Unlock The Secrets Of The Masters" nonesense. It does emphasize the use of diagonals for organizing pictures, which seems to perfectly reasonable. The rest I am unsure of, but it looks a bit woo woo. One thing is clear, there are enough lines and enough choices for lines, that any picture can be made to roughly fit some grid or another. It "explains" all pictures equally badly.

For samples see this thinly veiled ad on PetaPixel, but appropriate google searches will turn up a lovely array of hocus-pocus.

Gestalt Psych and Dynamic Symmetry haven't got anything to do with one another. The first is concerned with how people actually perceive things, the second is a set of organizing principles based on grids drawn on a rectangular frame. This does not prevent bozos from smashing the two together.

Gestalt lets bozos scribble on paintings and show how the girl's eyes are lined up with the tree in the background and the biscuit on the table. Therefore, according to the Law of Continuity, we'll group these things together. There! That's why the picture is so good!

Wait, what? No, we probably don't group the tree and the eyes and the biscuit together, and anyways even if we did, why would that make it good?

Oh, well, because the line formed by the eyes and the biscuit and the tree also fall along one of the innumerable diagonal lines we can draw based on Dynamic Symmetry, so, there. It's good!

Wait, what? Why does that make the picture good?

None of this shit is worth anything, absent artistic intent.

Rules, ideas, methods, ideologies, and religions of composition all teach us -- at best -- how to produce certain effects in a picture. Usually they don't even do that. But let us suppose they do. The issue then becomes to use the effect to support some artistic effort. Composition is, at best, a set of tools. Simply sawing up wood with fine japanese pull saws and gluing it all together at random with the very best hide glue and planing the result with english hand planes is not going to produce furniture. You've got to have a goal in mind, say, a chest of drawers, and then use the tools to produce that. Otherwise it's just a bunch of chunks of wood glued together into a pile.

Ultimately, you gotta have some ideas and you gotta have some taste.

Suppose you have a group of people waiting, and you wish to emphasize the sense of waiting. You might position yourself and the camera to cause the people waiting to fall into a line, a roughly diagonal arabesque traced across the frame. By aligning the people, you make it look like "a line of people" rather than "this person, and that person, and the other person". Gestalt theory informs us that this is possible, and even gives some cues for how one might accomplish this visual trick. But you know it already, because Gestalt theory merely describes how you perceive things.

Now, knowing about it consciously isn't going to hurt you any, so it's possibly a little helpful to read a little about this stuff.

Merely aligning the people doesn't do anything except, maybe, cause the viewer to see them as a group. By so grouping them, however, your artistic intent might be realized, which is the point the Gestalt Psych Dynamic Symmetry crowd seems to miss. By making the grouping an arabesque gently draped across the frame you might create a sense of balance and grace. By shoving the line of people roughly against one side of the frame you might create a sense of unbalance and unease. Depending on your goals, one or the other might work.

It's just another effort at Design and Composition According to Simple Rules You Can Learn And Apply, of the sort that is so beloved of the camera enthusiast. If I just read one more manual, surely, I will be a mighty artist?


  1. It's all a load of bollocks and then it's not?
    Yes, but, no, but!
    Perhaps Travis is trying to compensate for putting his subjects in the centre of the frame!!
    I do that.
    He missed the Golden Section, though; perhaps his Photography 101 forgot to mention that.
    Don't we first of all learn the Rules and then break them?
    Or isn't that cool anymore?
    Perhaps we should recommend Travis to Alain Briot, so they can both draw fancy lines across their photos; I thank the Gods that my photo software doesn't do this!
    I also have many more interesting things to do with my spare time.

  2. "If I read just one more manual, surely, will be a mighty artist?"
    Who, me?! Nah, didn't think so.

    But, there's hope for me yet! Blind Squirrels of the world, unite! There's acorns, er, pictures, in them that woods. Go find 'em!

    With best regards,

  3. Greetings old chap,
    I read the article in question earlier today and smiled all the way through it for a couple of reasons.
    Firstly, as milldam above has stated and as I thought whilst reading it "what a load of bollocks".
    Secondly, I knew, just knew that your rebuttal (read opinion) on it would not be too far away.

    The question I want these self aggrandising prats to answer is this - what are you on and why are you on it?

    The image that was used to show 'breathing room and gazing direction' - I mean, really? For goodness sake does he buy his new clothes at the same place that the Emperor does?

    Bollocks don't describe it.

    And drawing random vertical lines on the Mona Lisa and claiming that they are some wondrous example of Leonardo's artistic genius or some such?
    Damn this chap was a loss to the great masters. He could have taught Van Gough's uninterested potential customers what they were missing and poor old Vincent might have had a few more sales in his life than he did.


    Anyone can draw lines and claim what they mean. OOH, here's a cookie cutter shot by Annie. Bet that AnnIe would laugh at this idiot.

    Anyway, rant over.

    Have a very lovely day everyone, I'm off for a cider!

  4. Yesterday I saw this piece on PetaPixel. All I can say is THANKS! (There is enough bs on the internet. No need to add to the pile)

  5. About the best book about composition I came across is "The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts" by Rudolf Arnheim. It's a tough read, however. Also recommendable is "Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye" by the same author. This latter deals with how a work of visual art is perceived on a psychological level (also includes an introduction into Gestalt psychology). What was quite interesting for me is that while an observer perceives the formal composition of a picture on a more rational/analytical level, the composition of tones and colors is experienced on an emotional level (backed by psychological research).

    Best, Thomas

  6. Not to be confused with Gestalt Therapy, of course... I wonder what Fritz Perls would have had to say about "rules" in composition? "You are troubled by these diagonal lines? Try *being* the diagonal lines..."


  7. While I was reading the aforementioned article a couple of days ago I struggled to remember my Gestalt but since I struggled to embrace them while I was learning them it was hopeless. Good to see I'm not the only one having a good chuckle over all those lines.


  8. All this presents as a flash-back to my days in college - when in an English Lit class my prof was excruciatingly drawing and remarking her translations upon various poems / etc. considered The Classics. She gave us a project to present similar "interpretation" and stated that she would decline and grade a poem handed in with less than 2500 words scribbled across its surface/margins as an automatic "F"!

    I struggled like hell to "interpret" the assigned project of Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" - - - don't recall being able to get past 1000 words - tops! I could have taken peyote washed down with a chaser of absinthe and not come up with the requisite 2500 . . .

    Looking at the poem now (and having garnered many years of life experience)- I could probably hit her requirement . . . but I could just as easily, and probably more so appropriately just read it and say "I get it" with a Gestalt adoration for its truth.

    I guess what I'm trying to blabber on about is that we all have different "things" we present - but that which resonates doesn't often require any additional input.

    As a side note - a *chuckle* to Mike C.'s comment above . . .