Note On Blending, Figure and Ground

Female Smoker © Knut Skjærven

Female Smoker © Knut Skjærven

Looking at this shot I was reminded of that even if there can be a lot of information in a single photograph, not all of it is perceived with the same ease and clarity.

How is it possible to explain that? Let me try:

I was lucky yesterday. I was in just for browsing the shelves in a local bookstore when I fell over a book that I did not know existed. But the title triggered me: Perception and Imaging. Particularly as the subtitle was Photography – A Way of Seeing. Author Richard D. Zakia.

There was even a chapter on gestalt reading of photography, so I adopted the book on the spot. It has some very good points, but in its treatment of gestalt psychology it is not nearly as ambitious as we are here. It only deals with proximity, similarity, continuity and closure. It leaves out the rest of the gestalt factors, and other major points as well. But it holds plenty of good ideas. Some of them I will put to use right here. Right now.

One small chapter deals with camouflage.

One way of camouflaging an object/subject is to blend it with the surroundings; another way is to simply hide the object/subject from direct view; and a third way is to simply deceive the viewer, meaning that you arrange an object so it looks like something that it is not.

Blending is a good term, I thought, and it is relevant for the image above in which blending occurs. It is a blended photo, and that could perceptually get me into trouble. And the viewers too.

Blending occur when two or more visual “ideas” mixes, when it is not really clear what is figure and what is ground.

Figure-ground in another important aspect within visual communication that should be applied to street photography. Figure is that on which you have your attention. The rest is ground. As attention can shift even within a single photograph, so can ground.

Back to the photo above: I was there so I know what I had as figure when I shot it: the female smoker was what I wanted to picture. When your focus is on her, the rest of the picture is ground. Both when you take the picture as a photographer, and when you, or anyone else, views it later.

The photographer’s intention does not necessarily transfer to viewer. In fact is never does. But you can come close. In this shot I tried to make a visual opening, an entrance for the smoking female. Does it work? Maybe people see something else, maybe folks see only blend, maybe some see very little at all. A mess, maybe.

I am not saying blending is always bad. What I am saying, is that if the smoking female was indeed the intended figure of this shot, then blending could be less than good.

So I needed to remind myself of this: the importance of being visually precise; the importance of be cautious with ground when what you really want is figure; the importance of trying to control unwanted blending.

Does this photo work? I will leave it to you to answer that. I already have an opinion :-).

Good luck with it.

© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved. Text and photo.

Copenhagen, May 24, 2013.

, , ,

  1. #1 by flyfishertc on May 25, 2013 - 8:58 am

    Helpful Analysis, Knut. To make a greater distinction between figure and ground, I would have been tempted to have applied a little more sharpening to the woman smoker’s hair and perhaps a little more light. The seated woman and child are slight “diffusers” of impact. The revolving circle of people around the smoker really adds to the smoke’s dominant position at the centre. Works for me!

    • #2 by Knut Skjaerven on May 25, 2013 - 9:21 am

      What can I say? I agree with all of this. Many thanks, Tony :-). Good weekend to you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: