February 17

Gestalt and the organization of visual perception

There is much to learn from Michael Freeman’s ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ but two things particularly stand out for me so far – Gestalt and Figure/Ground. Now I think about it they probably shouldn’t be a surprise, but these are approaches I use in my consultancy work with organisations and hadn’t really thought about in relation to visual perception.

When I read about it of course it makes perfect sense, and it was fascinating to make the new connection, even if I kick myself for not having thought about it before. One of the things that has always appealed to me about Gestalt is that notion of ‘seeing’ the whole, the need we have as human beings to complete the whole.

Modern Gestalt theory takes a holistic approach to perception, on the basic principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that in viewing an entire scene or image, the mind takes a sudden leap from recognizing the individual elements to understanding the scene in its entirety.

Gestalt theory gives us a number of laws of perceptual organization that are important in considering how images might be composed and what is happening perceptually for the viewer:

  1.  Law of proximity: visual elements are grouped in the mind according to how close they are to each other
  2. Law of similarity: elements that are similar in some way, by form or content, tend to be grouped together
  3. Law of closure: elements roughly arranged together are seen to complete an outline shape – the mind seeks completeness
  4. Law of simplicity: the mind tends towards visual explanations that are simple; simple lines, curves and shapes are preferred, as is symmetry and balance
  5. Law of common fate: grouped elements are assumed to move together and behave the same
  6. Law of good continuation: the mind tends to continue shapes and lines beyond their ending points
  7. Law of segregation: in order for a figure to be perceived, it must stand out from its background. Figure-ground images exploit the uncertainty of deciding which is the figure and which is the background, for creative interest

(from Freeman, 2007: 39)

Some graphics examples of these laws at work can be seen at graphicdesign.spokenfalls.edu – I particularly like the WWF Panda logo as an example of how the law of closure works.

Normally, in presenting information, making the viewer’s mind work harder is not considered a good thing, but in photography and other arts it becomes part of the reward for viewing.

Freeman, 2007: 38

September 21

On Photography

On Photography (Sontag, 1979), is one of those titles that is so familiar I felt I knew it before I started. Alright so my first read of it was some years ago now but it has been an interesting reunion. I found I am now reading it wearing different lenses (excuse the pun!) and new aspects stand out for me.

Quite early on an issue struck quite hard, and I know it is something others have picked up on too. She talks of photography as being ‘as much an interpretation of the world, as paintings and drawings. A view that makes perfect sense to me. She then makes a link that has really got me thinking.

“There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.”

 It is one of those statements that stops you in your tracks and certainly made me reflect on my approach to the ethics of photography. On closer reading I think she is referring primarily to photographing people, which I must admit is something I tend to shy away from. In part I guess because I loathe having my own photo taken – I never recognise the person looking back at me and I find it very discomforting.

Later in the chapter Sontag (1979: 14) goes on to say:

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge for them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”

This notion sits within the metaphor of the camera as a ‘predatory weapon,’ (Sontag, 1979: 14) a distinctly powerful metaphor that ought to encourage careful reflection on what my camera is ‘aimed’ at and why.



Sontag, S. (1979). On Photography. London: Penguin.




August 18

The Photographer’s Eye: Michael Freeman

Photo of the front cover of Freeman's ook lying on a desk
The Photographer’s Eye

I am really enjoying the tone and feel of Michael Freeman’s (2007) book, it includes a sumptuous range of images and has clearly had an influence on how the Art of Photography is shaped.

I hadn’t got very far, the Introduction in fact, before I was wrestling with a number of what seemed like key issues:

  • Recognising the decision making behind the taking of a photograph
  • The relationship between the kit and composition
  • My own relationship to the equipment
  • The impact of the immediacy of digital photography
  • Why design has been neglected in the teaching of photography
  • The place of the digital darkroom and post-production possibilities

These feel like pretty weighty points to consider and I imagine they will sit with me for some time. I am sure I will keep returning to them as my work evolves and the course progresses.

As Freeman (2007: 6) himself says:

“This comprehensive control inevitably affects composition and the simple fact that so much can be done with an image in post-production increases the need to consider the image and its possibilities ever more carefully.”


Freeman, M. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and design for better digital photos. Lewes, East Sussex: Ilex Press Ltd.





August 18

The photograph as contemporary art: Charlotte Cotton

The Photograph as contemporary art book lying on a desk
A series of curations?

I have not quite finished reading this book yet and I think it will take me some time to mull it over and reflect on what it offers when I do finish it. A few things have already struck me though. I do not have any issue with the notion of photography being part of the contemporary art field, which is perhaps why, on occasion, I found this book a little frustrating. I think the old notions of distinct artforms and sectors are becoming increasingly redundant as the boundaries are blurred by practice. Artists and other creatives are regularly working across forms and do not recognise the arbitrary boundaries that are often imposed by funding, the gallery system or other external policy structures.

To be fair it is made clear in the introduction that the aim of the book is to ‘work as a survey, the kind of overview you might experience if you visited exhibitions in a range of venues…’ (Cotton, 2009: 7)

The themes are wide ranging from storytelling and emotions to materiality and documentary. Reading Cotton’s background my sense of the chapters being a series of ‘curations’ starts to make sense, they feel like a number of shows that have coalesced under the banner of contemporary art. I would really have liked to have heard more from Cotton herself in terms of why some of her choices were made; how the themes evolved and what made her select the photographers/artists she did. You do get glimpses of this as you read through but I would have preferred it to have been more overt.

I will keep reading and see what else surfaces.


Cotton, C. (2009). The photograph as contemporary art (2nd ed.). London: Thames & Hudson.



July 7

Photography: A critical introduction

I am completely engrossed in Liz Wells’ (2009) ‘Photography: a Critical Introduction’, it is densely packed with a wide array of photographic influences and thinking. It is not an easy skim read, and I do find myself re-reading quite regularly to check my own understanding.

Open book
Thought provoking

It is also a fabulous source of signposting and I have found myself spinning off to follow a variety of leads to other authors and writings. I think that is partly why I am enjoying it, it is stretching but still feels manageable.

I also found it helpful in that it does exactly what it says  on the tin – it is a really clear introduction to some of the core theories and figures that have influenced the development of critical thinking around photography. I am not reading it chronologically, I think I would find  that too much of a slog. I am currently looking at ‘Photography within the Institution’ and will return to earlier chapters at some point in the future.

It feels like a book that is well worth sticking with to really grasp the basics of much of what has shaped photographic theory.


Wells, L. (2009). Photography: A critical introduction (4th ed.). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.


July 7

Behind the Image II

Close up of book cover
A possible framework?

I have been reflecting on Behind the Image and pulling out a few things that seemed to particularly resonate. I am intrigued by the framework they propose as it has a definite crossover with other research approaches I have used. It is obviously not going to be appropriate for every situation but it does provide a useful structure for thinking about my photography as it develops.

Fox and Caruana (2012) suggest that the key elements in developing a photography project proposal are:

  • The title
  • The topic or theme
  • The intended audience
  • Approach and methods
  • Gaining access
  • Proposals for funding
  • Timetable and budget
  • Proposed research references

While in many ways when you look at these elements they seem self-evident I can fully understand that some aspects could be forgotten as the work progresses. Something that should probably be obvious but was a useful reminder is that, ‘simple as it may seem, a title is vital and reveals more about a project than you may imagine.’  (Fox & Caruana, 2012: 12)

I am going to try this approach out on some of the Art of Photography exercises and assignments.


Fox, A., & Caruana, N. (2012). Behind the Image: Research in photography. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.



July 7

Behind the Image

This book absorbed me. It was one I wanted to read early on because it grabbed my attention.

Fox & Caruana book
Absorbing and accessible

I had dipped into some of the other suggested reading – lighting, The Photographer’s Eye etc., but this is the one that I was keen to really delve into. Partly, because I had worked with Anna Fox many years ago and partly, because it appealed to the researcher in me.

I wanted to know how and why they were combining research and photography. When I read the introduction it made me wonder what sort of photographer they had in mind as the readership. As someone who has worked in the subsidised arts sector and done postgraduate research it made perfect sense to me but I wondered if it would be the same for everyone.

I like the idea of having a project ‘framework’ and am wondering how I might incorporate the approach into my work on the Art of Photography.

 “A body of photographic work is developed through knowledge gained in exploring the medium.” (Fox & Caruana, 2012: 6)


Fox, A., & Caruana, N. (2012). Behind the Image: Research in photography. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.