The Role of the Mind’s Eye in Street Photography
Updated: Jan 25
By Vicky Dyson, Braunton Camera Club Member
I really enjoy street photography, especially capturing candid shots of people going about their business. But I’ve done virtually none during the last 18 months. I found it challenging due to travel restrictions, less people around, and a weird aura of suspicion! So I’m out of practice, and I’ve lost my confidence and courage a bit. I know I’ll have to psych myself up again to ‘be brave’, to get out there amongst people, and not just carry my camera around like an accessory!
To give myself a bit of boost in inspiration, confidence and courage, I’ve been having a look through my street photography archive (it’s not vast, I’m pretty much a beginner) and I noticed a theme across a few of my favourite images. There was something in them that I hadn’t captured ‘intentionally’ at the time, that had made the image better, or at least added an interesting dimension. Something unintended. Or was it?!
On a street photography workshop in Chester three years ago with Jane Burkinshaw of Love Your Lens, we were heading back to the car as I spotted an interaction between two people that looked quite tense. I bobbed down and grabbed a hurried shot. After editing the image I sent it to Jane and remarked at how much I loved the poster in the background and how I hadn’t noticed it when taking the shot. Her reply was “yes you did”. I said “no I didn’t”, and she repeated “yes you did” and added “you just didn’t realise it at the time”. What she was saying is that my subconscious had played a part in the decision to capture the moment. Hence, my conscious mind spotted the two people, my subconscious mind spotted the poster.
It happened again when I spotted a cool guy stood outside the cinema in Barnstaple. I didn’t fully register the poster he was stood next to as I took the shot.
I’ve tended to describe my images where this has happened as ‘happy accidents’. But when I read an article on that very topic in the online book ‘Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche’ by John Suler (link below), the author describes happy accidents as something going wrong when you take the photo (e.g. forgetting to change a setting, being jostled, etc) that produces an effect that you hadn’t intended but actually like. He also uses the term ‘serendipity’ for these instances. That’s a word that does feel like it fits for the images where I achieved a positive outcome by chance rather than an accident, per se. Happenstance is another term that might fit. Regardless of what I choose to call it, I’m curious about the part my subconscious plays in capturing the unexpected.
Below are another two images where elements I wasn't consciously aware of turned up in the shot, and gave another angle to the story I was capturing.
When searching the internet for information on the role of the subconscious in photography, I was led to articles about how to make the process of taking photographs more subconscious (or intuitive) by developing muscle memory for changing settings (like learning to drive). Or about taking photographs in a random fashion to capture your subconscious
The closest potentially relevant explanations to what I was looking for were found in articles discussing Gestalt psychology in photography. Gestalt theory looks at how humans perceive, organise, and make sense of visual information. It states that the brain automatically organises visual information into a meaningful whole, rather than perceiving a set of unconnected individual elements. Whilst doing so, the brain looks for patterns and structure to help create a story that makes sense. And it’s a subconscious process.
The Gestalt approach includes a number of principles that can be applied deliberately by photographers (of all genres) to influence how the viewer interprets the story in an image. As such, impacting the viewers initial subconscious processing of the visual information, and affecting if/how they continue to engage with the image. This is achieved through composition. i.e. organising subjects using relevant patterns and techniques.
A number of the principles are described briefly below. I refer to some images from my archive that may demonstrate some of the principles, although I can't claim to have applied them deliberately at the time!
Law of Continuity: the viewer’s eye can be unwittingly led through the image, to/beyond the main subject, using leading lines. You may want the viewers attention to land on a specific element. Or you may want to create curiosity for the viewer by leading them out of the image and have them have wondering what lies beyond the frame. In the image below the eye is first led to the scooter, then to the girl. Is it her scooter? Did she arrive on it? Where is she going?
Law of Similarity: this is useful for suggesting relatedness. When subjects have similar features (size, texture, shape, colours, expressions. clothing, etc) this leads the viewer to perceive a connection between subjects. In the image shown earlier, 'Once Upon a Time in Barnstaple' the subjects are wearing the same style clothes and have similar posture, tying them together in the story.
Law of Proximity: this is also useful for suggesting relationships within the image; placing subjects close to each other can lead the viewer to automatically interpret them as connected. The closeness of the lady and the boy in the image below suggests they are together. There is distance between them and the man in front, suggesting there is no connection to him.
Law of Symmetry: another approach for suggesting relationships. Subjects that are balanced or mirrored are perceived as being part of the same story, even if there is distance between them. Referring again to the image above, it portrays two separate interactions, both intended to be part of the story. The two interactions are composed according to the rule of thirds. The balance in the image could mean it incorporates the symmetry principle as well as the proximity principle to engage the viewer with the intended story.
Figure to Ground Relationship (figure = the subject, ground = the background): What do you want the viewer to pay attention to in a scene; some or all of it? For example, to draw the viewers eye automatically to a specific subject (the figure), you can use techniques to create separation, such as shallow depth of field, contrast, and isolation. If the background is part of the story, how much should be in focus, how is the subject interacting with it, etc? In the image by Henri Cartier-Bresson, it's clear that the young boy with the bottles is the main subject of the story as he is the only element in focus. The background is out of focus, but you can see enough to get context.
In the image with the flamenco dresses, the placement of the woman, and the fact there is eye contact, makes her the main subject, but the dresses and backdrop are key parts of the story, so they are also in focus.
Law of Closure: where an image has elements that are incomplete / obscured, the viewers brain will seek to ‘fill in the gaps’ and complete the picture. This is another method for actively engaging the viewer with your story for longer, allowing them to use their imagination. In a landscape image that might be fog hiding elements of the scene. In the earlier image 'What The Joker Saw' you can't see the face or hands of the man, so we don't know what he is doing, how he is feeling, etc. We're left to guess. What DID the joker see?!
There are other principles, including law of simplicity/pragnanz and law of common fate. I’ve provided links to articles describing all the principles in more detail at the end at the end of the article.
The descriptions and examples above indicate how Gestalt principles have strong relevance for street photography; how people and objects are placed in relation to each other and the background helps to create the story that the street photographer wants to portray. Because of the dynamic nature of street scenes, it also helps to be watching out for precise moments, where people and things interact in the desired manner to fit with the chosen principles.
Street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was a lover of geometry and used dynamic symmetry (a Gestalt principle) to organise the elements within his scenes. He would find suitably geometric locations and wait for subjects to enter the scene. He was renowned for his ability to anticipate how a scene would unfold, and to press the shutter button at the precise moment to capture the intended story. He called this the ‘Decisive Moment’. Below is a classic example. I wonder how much of his process was conscious and how much was subconscious intuition?
Given all of that... in researching how my subconscious mind is getting involved in choosing what to capture and when, I’m still not sure what the answer is! I've actually learnt more about how the subconscious comes into play for the person viewing the image than the person capturing the image. I’ve enjoyed learning about the Gestalt approach and how photographers can apply the principles consciously to influence the viewer subconsciously. I’m going to practice using these more deliberately.
I just hope I haven’t ‘overthunk’ it and put my subconscious at a disadvantage for spotting the added extras! If you have possible explanations, and/or similar experiences, please share in the comments.
To explore the topic in more depth and see other examples demonstrating the principles, follow the links below. They include chapters in a free online book:
Serendipity (Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche; John Suler, 2013)
The Decisive Moment (Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche; John Suler, 2013)
Article index for all chapters - Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche (John Suler, 2013)
Harness the power of Gestalt theory in photography
Gestalt theory in street photography