In the early twentieth century, Gestalt psychology was founded by German and Austrian psychologists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler. Gestalt psychology has greatly influenced our modern study of human perception, claiming that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It initially arose as a countermovement to the structuralist mentality of atomizing each individual part of human perception, leading way to a more humanistic study of the human mind instead of the purely scientific approach used at the time. But why is this important and what does it even have to do with photography? When you look at a picture for the first time, how do you remember it? Do you recall all the various pieces that fit together into its composition or simply the picture as a whole? While the eyes dart back and forth across the image, they take bits and pieces of it and construct a unified image in the brain’s short-term memory. This is why optical illusions are possible or why people see a triangle in empty space within Kanisza’s triangle.
Photographers have also appropriated the teachings of this theory by taking advantage of this unified perception with composition. Gestaltism involves seven laws to explain human perception: the law of proximity, when an association is formed between two visual elements based on their closeness; the law of similarity, how visual elements can be grouped based on similar content or form; the law of closure, how the mind always seeks completeness even in the absence of information; the law of simplicity, when the mind simplifies an image; the law of common fate, when the mind sees many as one; the law of good continuation, which explains how the mind sees shapes and lines beyond the frame; and the law of segregation, how a figure can only be perceived if it stands out from the rest. As you can tell, the creation of groups rests at the core of Gestaltism, which psychologists call “chunking.” To illustrate how some of these laws work in practice, I’ll analyze some pictures I’ve taken lately.
This picture in particular was taken at Ħaġar Qim, one of Malta’s many megalithic temples dating back to 3000 BC. Because these temples were made of limestone, over time the salt winds of the sea have carved several holes in the structures such as these. I was attempting to find some interesting composition for such ancient structures, but this one came about by accident. By hiding behind one of the walls and looking at the holes in the other wall, it created the illusion of a primitive human head, which perfectly fit the theme of a long abandoned human creation. This is a perfect example of the laws of proximity and simplicity, as the lines of one wall blend in with the other’s, thus simplifying the overall image. A structuralist view would simply distinguish the two walls as distinct entities, but humans will most likely see a silhouette of a face.
If this picture seems a bit confusing at first, know that this is actually a reflection of a streetlamp in a puddle. What makes this interesting beyond the focus of the reflection instead of the puddle or the warm orange playing with the neutral black is how the puddle acts as a frame within the frame. Because of the nature of reflection, the streetlamp is bound to the contours of the puddle. However, because the viewer subconsciously knows that streetlamps extend beyond this boundary in reality, the law of good continuation comes into play. With this knowledge, the puddle assumes a certain level of depth as if the viewer was peering into a hole with fuzzy boundaries or a rift between dimensions.
Now this all seems like a lot, and it is. Cracking open Gestalt psychology is one of the most daunting experiences as a photographer. But that’s the point: to challenge oneself and expand to new horizons. Taking into account the mere idea of human perception when constructing composition opens up a whole new dimension for photography that most would never expect. Up until this point, I started to feel like my abilities were stagnating and that I didn’t have much else to learn, but that sentiment has obviously aged poorly. I immediately felt the challenge of incorporating a whole new way of thinking about composition. Fully understanding Gestalt psychology requires a greater degree of patience and observation, but managing it ultimately pays off. So if you do find a seemingly insurmountable challenge, face it, because it will eventually be worth the struggle.