Bob Kidd Photography | The Gestalt of it All

The Gestalt of it All

June 10, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Point Judith Winter Sunset (Nikon F6, Kodak Ektachrome 100VS

After I finished reading Mountain Light, I was interested in what else Galen Rowell had to say. I discovered that his monthly essays, written for Outdoor Photographer magazine, along with many of his images, were published by Sierra Club Books: Galen Rowell's Vision, The Art of Adventure Photograpy (1993) and Inner Game of Outdoor Photography (2001). Steve Werner, the editor and publisher of Outdoor Photographer, had encouraged Rowell "to tell the inner story behind the art of adventure photography in greater depth than any magazine had done before." He also wanted Rowell to retain the rights to the essays so that they could later be assembled into a book. All of the essays were written between 1993 and 1999, when it was estimated that 50 billion photographs were taken each year; that's on film, when digital photography had not yet become ubiquitous.  As in Mountain Light, Rowell wrote from his heart as much as from his head and he did not hold back.

The essays in both books are organized into themes. In the preface of Inner Game, Rowell states that he wrote these essays "with the full intention of later merging them to make a book that would have a broader meaning than the sum of its parts." Here emerges the Gestaltof Galen Rowell. 

Gestalt theory is composed of many contributions by Scottish philosopher David Hume, German literary giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,  German philosopher Immanuel Kant, British physician and philosopher David Hartley, and Austrian physicist  Ernst Mach.  20th Century European born psychologist and co-founder of Gestalt psychology,  Max Wertheimer's unique and significant contribution was to insist that the "gestalt" is "perceptually primary, defining the parts of which it was composed." Together with his co-founders Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler, Wertheimer believed that we see images as perceived within an environment according to all of their elements taken together as a global construct. This 'gestalt' or 'whole form' approach sought to define principles of perception – seemingly innate mental laws which determined the way in which objects are perceived. It is based on the here and now, and in the way we view things. 
Any one who had to sit through a tedious sales meeting has seen the classic faces or vase drawing by Edgar Rubin on a presentation slide. This is an illustration of Gestalt perception and the figure–ground principle. Figure-ground relationship is one of the critical elements of photography. Non-ambiguous figure-ground relationships strengthen the impact of a photo by adding a past experience definition to the image.

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park (Nikon F100, Kodak TMAX 100)

According to Gestalt theorists (and Galen Rowell), past experience connects the observer to the image. Understanding the relative height and size of vehicles in the foreground of my El Capitan image provides a scale of size (To be honest, I just thought it would be cool to include the vehicles as an ah-hah moment after I couldn't figure out a way to eliminate them from my composition). Other elements in this image that also belong to the Gestalt Principles of Grouping  (Germans are well known for their rules. Great examples include: having only one hot meal in a day and never jay walking, even at the dead of night) include proximity and similarity. We see a forest because the trees are grouped together and are similar to one another.  

Rowell frequently mentioned the effect of past experiences in his essays. In the next to last essay of Inner Games, he summed up his thoughts on why we appreciate great photographs in a declarative statement that is as much about photography as it is about Gestalt psychology:

"All perception operates by comparison. No photograph moves us unless it triggers the memory of a pattern or form that we have seen before. If an image is made up entirely of original, unfamiliar subject matter, we simply do not comprehend it and so pass it by. On the other hand, if an image is so entirely comprehensible at first glance that it lacks all sense of mystery, we often find it boring. The power of photography to captivate our senses, to teach us something new, to hold a sense of mystery that intrigues us, is contained in the way its balance of the familiar and unfamiliar forces us to extrapolate beyond what we already know." - Galen Rowell, Inner Game of Outdoor Photography
January Blue Hour at Point Judith Light House (Nikon F6, Fujifilm Velvia 100)

Thanks for reading,

See ya next Sunday,

* from wikipedia: "Gestalt psychology or gestaltism (GermanGestalt – "essence or shape of an entity's complete form") is a theory of mind and brain of the Berlin School; the operational principle of gestalt psychology is that the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies. The principle maintains that the human eye sees objects in their entirety before perceiving their individual parts. Gestalt psychologists stipulate that perception is the product of complex interactions among various stimuli. Contrary to the behaviouralist approach to understanding the elements of cognitive processes, gestalt psychologists sought to understand their organization (Carlson and Heth, 2010). The gestalt effect is the form-generating capability of our senses, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of figures and whole forms instead of just a collection of simple lines and curves. In psychology, gestaltism is often opposed to structuralism. The phrase "The whole is greater than the sum of the parts" is often used when explaining gestalt theory, though this is a mistranslation of Kurt Koffka's original phrase, "The whole is other than the sum of the parts". Gestalt theory allows for the breakup of elements from the whole situation into what it really is."

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