Gestalt – Figure and Ground – Artifice


Artifice is another aspect of figure-ground where techniques like object blending, hiding, and visual deceptions work to conceal, or fool the eyes of the viewer. John Pfahl is a well-known practitioner of artifice photography in the form of visual camouflage, is most known for his “Altered Landscapes” series. In his images, we see an exploration of creating ambiguity of space and scale within the two dimensional space of the image.

Jerry Uelsmann practices a form of psychological artifice with his masterful blending of portions of different, unrelated negatives into prints of extraordinary beauty and mystical content. His work has led to a whole genre of digitally manipulated photographic images. Partly because of his masterful technique, but mostly due to the surrealistically logical imagery in the scenes, most of his images are immediately readable.

Artifice occasionally influences my own work, probably due to looking at too much Minor White over time. I find it can come in two forms visual and emotional.

Visual artifice, like the scene below, tricks the brain into seeing something other than the object photographed. In this instance, the effect is strengthened by the title. The title: “Control of the Oceans – A View of Iron Bottom Sound”, suggests a logical framework for the brain prior to looking at the image.

Emotional artifice comes in the form of strong emotional reactions to images. Anytime empathy for, or personification of an object occurs, a form of artifice takes place. The image below is strongly reacted to by most viewers. Part of a series of images taken over the period of a year and a half, this image evokes differing emotional responses ranging from pity to anger.

Aesthetic Analysis

Formal aesthetic analysis of any creative work usually begins by mapping the visual structure of the image. This is an analysis of the lines, shapes, tones, contrasts etc, found in the image. This analysis is informed by the Principals of Art and the Elements of Design. These in turn are influenced by the Gestalt elements found in the image.

To illustrate lets look again at the image above. What makes this composition work?

Looking at it formally, there are three vertical elements: the wooden upright, the plexiglass rectangle and the rectangular compartment on the left. Each is supported by strong horizontals top and bottom.  These verticals, anchored by the horizontals, create a sense of repose and solidity. The verticals are further reinforced by the fluting of the cardboard backing of the right compartment.

Three verticals elements deliniated by color overlays.

Three verticals elements anchored by horizontals.

If it contained a plain background in the compartment on the left, this composition would have appeared heavy and overly imbalanced to the right. With the broad “barber pole” like diagonals, the image seems comfortably positioned and in balance. The image below illustrates how the space is divided by the horizontal, vertical and diagonal elements.

Division of verticals, horizontals and diagonals within the frame.

An implied triangle running from the top of the larger dolls head down to both sides to just above the horizontal base of the right compartment shown below left.  This triangle strengthens the composition and adds gravity, anchoring it within the visual space. There is also a similarity of the rounded shapes described by the bodies of a both dolls creating an implied circular shape within the frame shown below right.

Other Gestalt elements found in the image include similarity in the shapes of the doll heads, and the rectangular forms of the left and right vertical compartments.

The implied circle within the frame helps strengthen the composition.

The implied triangle adds gravity to an already solidly based compostiion.

All of these steadying components then fall counter to the tension created by the emotional desire to personify the doll on the right as a deceased infant, contrasted with the laughing figure of the impish character on the left .

Keep in mind that these elements were not analyzed as the exposure was being made.  There was though, a decision to include what is currently in the frame. A second composition was made by shooting closer, excluding the left hand compartment. Since I always try to compose to the whole frame (no cropping) the 2:3 format cut into the upper portion of the right compartment in the second framing. Visually, it was unsatisfying and the image felt imbalanced to the eye. I also almost removed the small figure on the left prior to exposure but in the end I left it in. Removing it would have resulted in a weaker overall image, deleting a key component of the emotional artifice.

Again, most of the design influences in framing the shot were not conscious decisions made prior to exposure. But being subconsciously aware of the Principals of Art and Elements of Design would have influenced the overall approach when framing the shot.

Next Time: Grouping


Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.


Gestalt – Figure and Ground – Selection and Boundary

Selection and Boundary


Selection is a key aspect of figure-ground. One shape or the another is selected by the brain according to the task. If you are looking at a series of letters on a page looking for a Z, most of what you see is ground and the Z becomes figure when your eyes pass over one, but only because the task is to find the Z. During the search your eyes may focus for a split second on other letters that are similar to the shape of a Z, but once the search is done it is usually only the Z that can be recalled. The same happens when we are driving; we ignore the multitude of buildings, people and signs yet easily isolate the traffic signals and signs.

A number of diagnostic tests used in human sciences test the selection abilities of the subject. A number of them serve to illustrate the strength of figure-ground in perception. The most common example is the slat fence drawings below.

In the instance above, the lines are of equal spacing from one another. Depending on which space (slat) you are looking at, every other slat from that one will seem to be figure, in a space closer to the viewer. The other spaces will be perceived as ground, in a space farther from the viewer. It is possible to see the focused slat as ground but it requires time or effort to see the effect. The brain wants to see the object focused on as field.

In the second drawing, the lines are no longer evenly spaced. Do you see the wide slats as field or ground, how about the narrow slats? Most people will see the narrow groupings as figure and the wider groupings as ground. This makes it easier for the brain to hold the initial grouping it perceives, but the field and ground still reverse with a little effort. What you see as figure at any moment is the result of selection.

If we added an additional line to the right or left we would introduce more ambiguity because all of the elements would no longer be paired and “grouping” would influence perception. The closer elements are together the more likely they will be seen as figure and related. This is a result of “proximity grouping”, discussed later.


Boundary is an component of Gestalt showing how common edges can affect the perception of an object. A single expressive line can create multiple shapes that the brain associates with known objects creating a “contour rivalry”. Contour rivalry creates a tension within the frame as the figure and ground flip flop. Closure of one shape or another can help resolve the conflict. Closure is discussed later.

Above we see the classic example of boundary effect on figure and ground in the “Rubin Vase”. What do you see? Is it the shape of a goblet or a profile of two faces or what? Which did you see first and how long did it take to see the other? The second example is the same but with added information. So you still see the same forms that you did in the first example?
Boundary is a common element found in graphic symbols and logo design. Corporations and graphic designers often use a boundary element when creating logos as shown below. Here the brain perceives a sphere where none actually exists, only a series of horizontal lines.

Next Time: Artifice

Gestalt – Figure & Ground

Figure and Ground

The instant you introduce any visual element into a Ganzfeld things begin to happen. A Figure-Ground relationship appears in the frame. Figure-ground is a duality between the object placed in the frame and the balance of the image, the part that remains.

Figure-ground is the spatial relationships between an object and what exists around it. Recognition of these spatial relationships illustrates how perception depends on figure and ground. Figure and ground may manifest itself through selection, boundary and artifice.

There are observations to make about figure-ground:

The most striking being that both figure and ground cannot be “seen” (brought to the fore) simultaneously. The brain only resolves one or the other at any moment. Figure and ground can be seen sequentially though, meaning the image flip-flops like a good politician. This depends on your point of focus or the brain synapses at the moment. In the figure below if you focus on the black circle, the white periphery becomes secondary and appears as ground. If you focus on the white periphery, the black circle becomes secondary and appears as ground.

The second most striking observation about figure-ground is that they do not appear to exist on the same plane within the frame. Ground is perceived as receding into the frame while figure is seen as projecting forward. In the image above, it might appear as if there is a black hole in a white surface one moment and a black disc on top of a white surface the next. Without further visual reference, the brain cannot resolve the conflict. Again, the figure-ground relationship can change state. Color and its components will easily affect the depth relationship within a figure-ground construct.In the following illustrations the blue seems to recede into the grey while red seems to lift from its surface, even though the two colors are of the same approximate value.

Third, we observe that figure usually occupies a smaller space within the frame than does ground. But this isn’t always true. See the two figures below. It is easier for the brain to accept the circle as ground (a hole) in the first instance than in the second. In the second, the larger circle resolves easiest as a disc (figure) on the surface of the white area (ground).

Fourth, figure is perceived as having contour, or shape, while ground is not. In a sense, ground is usually what is left over. The existence of figure-ground is subject solely on the existence of contrast and is a selective process within the brain. Both illustrations below are the same except the values of the shapes and background have been reversed. In both cases, the rectangles read as figure and the balance is ground.

Last, neither figure or ground can exist without the other. The moment something is placed into a field, it creates a figure ground construct.

Figure and ground have a direct correlation with signal to noise, and positive and negative spaces. They are simply terms sharing a similar definition within different disciplines.

Below are examples of effective figure-ground usage in graphic design. Both use the figure and the ground as parts of the design’s elements.

Figure and ground (Positive and negative space, signal to noise) can be a result of contrast from lite to dark, large to small, cool color to warm, or other contrasts. The positive and negative can conflict and may flip flop as we have already seen in boundary and selection. In the figure below, it may be questionable as to which direction the arrows point, in or out, and whether the arrows are blue or orange.

In most circumstances positive is seen as figure, and negative space as ground. For some outstanding examples of using positive and negative space in photography, one can look to the work of Andre Kettesz. In particular see the images Chez Mondrian, Mondrian’s Studio and Poughkeepsie.

Next Time:  Selection and Boundary

Gestalt – Ganzfeld


Ganzfeld, means “complete field” in German, is an affect where the brain seeks differential information from the senses. It notices changes. For instance, if an area has a bad odor, the brain will eventually filter out the odor and it will become bearable. This is why garlic does not bother the person eating it. Fingers detect changes in texture or temperature. Music holds the attention because of the constantly changing sounds. For most people, and therefore the brain, the majority of sensory input comes from vision throughout the day, and it is rarely static.

Imagine being in an plain evenly lit room and having translucent covers over each eye. The color does not matter as long as they are similar. There will be nothing visible in your field of view except the color of the covers. Because there is nothing to differentiate one detail from another, the brain would get tired of attempting to differentiate details and would eventually shut down your vision allowing the brain to make up its own visions. These visions can be color or tonal changes where none exist, or hallucinations accompanied by general disorientation. This reaction by the brain is called the Ganzfeld affect.

So Ganzfeld is a blank space, an homogenous field with no differentiating details. Here is an instant where the mind truly becomes boggled… by nothing. This fact leads us to understand one of the mental forces behind the eyes jumping around an image seeking details to hold onto.

This Ganzfeld Effect is the idea behind sensory deprivation chambers and other similar contrivances. It has been the subject of a number of studies and therapies in Psychology over the years. Extended periods of sensory deprivation may lead to psychosis and hallucinations since a blank field leaves the mind desperately seeking details. Short periods lead to a sense of relaxation and well-being.

What this all  comes down to is that the brain, through the eyes (and other senses), is always seeking some form of stimulus. Once it receives the stimulus it tries to make sense out of it, tries to create a logic for what is perceived. Keep this in mind as we explore this thing called Gestalt, seeking logic is what motivates the brain to find what is and isn’t important within a frame. It is also this logic that informs the elements and principles we will cover as we move forward in this exploration of Composition.

Next Time: Figure & Ground


Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.

Understanding Visual Perception through Gestalt

Once the western world began to claw its way out of the middle ages, artists and scientists began to study and describe those common elements found in painting, drawing and sculpture that contributed to the beauty of a work of art. A number of the more observant of these people wrote about their observations, the result of which allowed them to formulate the Elements of Art and the Principles of Design, which we will discuss later. Late 19th and early 20th century science, particularly human psychology, turned away from the purely visual and inward to the mind, and how the human species perceived its world and therefore its art. Inherent in this was why the Elements of Art and Principles of Design worked. They found there was something within the subconscious that accepted these foundations as more than just visual signals. There were qualities common to the elements and principles that could be laid out, anticipating how the brain would likely react to certain input. These qualities were codified into the principles of Gestalt. It should be noted, that Gestalt tells us what happens but cannot tell us why. There is no science demonstrating physiological triggers for what happens. This is seen as a shortcoming to the psychologist, but that is not our focus here, perception is. So we must accept the empirically proven principles of perceptual Gestalt to understand artistic perception.

To define Gestalt we turn to Wikipedia’s quote from the writings of David Hothersall:

Gestalt psychology or gestaltism (German: Gestalt – “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 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.”

The Wikipedia article goes on to explain:

“The concept of gestalt was first introduced in contemporary philosophy and psychology by Christian von Ehrenfels (a member of the School of Brentano). The idea of gestalt has its roots in theories by David Hume, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, David Hartley, and Ernst Mach.”
Max Wertheimer’s unique contribution was to insist that the “gestalt” is perceptually primary, defining the parts of which it was composed, rather than being a secondary quality that emerges from those parts, as von Ehrenfels’s earlier Gestalt-Qualität had been.”

Pay attention to this last sentence. It means that the principles of art and the elements of design are by-products of the “Gestalt Effect”. Without the effects of Gestalt on the mind we probably wouldn’t have the visual arts in our world. It is the profound influence of our minds quest for order and logic that allows us to view an image and find balance, beauty, motion and emotion within the walls of the frame. Not everyone is as acutely aware of these harmonies as others, and those of us who understand the need to create beauty should feel fortunate and grateful for the gift.

The study of Gestalt in imagery is the investigation of how visual information is segregated and grouped, in the mind. For the photographer it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Approach them concepts allowing the formation of the Principles of Art and Elements of Design. They are not a set of guides on improving the success of an image. The Principles and Elements are. One should use the ones that work for that moment, in that image, and ignore the others. They are all choices on can make to improve the message.

It needs mentioning here a bit about the way the human eyes interact with scenes in the field of view. To begin, only a small area of what we see is in focus at any one time. Detail only exists in the central few degrees. This area centers on the middle of at what our eyes are pointing. All other information becomes more out of focus the farther toward the periphery of our vision it gets and the farther it is in depth from the focal point. We only see indications of large shapes and color in the periphery. We imagine we see everything in focus because the eyes are constantly moving about and focusing on various small parts of the scene as they do so. This allows us to construct a more complete scene in our brain, but unless we have eidetic memory, it is never complete. This is why we think we know what a scene was like but can never recall all of the elements of the scene. For now, the important thing to remember is that the eyes are constantly shifting from one point to another and seldom stay in one place for more than a fraction of a second. The usefulness of understanding this will become apparent as we move on.

Next Time: Ganzfeld


Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.