From Death Valley – more on visual language – Part 4 in the series

In my last post, Part 3 from my Death Valley experience, I was writing about the differences between visual and verbal language. When we consider visual vocabulary there are countless finer points having to do with visual expression that we may consider as well.

Notice how quickly we see the red Lady Bug.

Take for example “paredolia”. There’s another word I never used before. We can’t say Guy didn’t have any impact on me, can we?

Wikipedia defines paredolia as a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus (an image or a sound) by perceiving a familiar pattern where none actually exists. We’ve all experienced this, for example when we see a shape in the clouds that looks like a bird or a dog, or even a human face. We’ve seen it in sand dunes when we perceive certain shapes and textures as sensual. Over the millenia our brains have been “programmed” by experience to recognize the human form, so when we perceive it in a rock formation or even an individual rock, in tree bark, or as has happened in, a burnt slice of toast we react even when we know that what we perceive is not really there.

So, it’s not difficult to understand that we’ve evolved to respond differently to different stimuli. If we see something that’s red, for example, we’re likely to react instinctively because we know it could be dangerous on one hand or maybe edible on the other. Either way we respond to the color. We know instinctively, too, that something that’s blue isn’t likely to bite us. It’s all part of how we’ve evolved to associate certain meanings with certain visual stimuli.

While we also quickly notice the photographer in red, we’re also moved by the size compared to the towering rock walls of the canyon.

So, since we know that the brains of the viewers of our images have evolved to pay attention to certain stimuli which, depending on how we design our images, we can control to a greater or lesser extent, the viewer’s reaction or response to our image. If we know that someone will pay attention to something red, then we have to pay attention to how we use that color in our images. If we have many red things in an image, we may want to make one thing more red, (or maybe green), or bigger or closer to impact viewer reactions. Indeed with study we can learn to use a whole list of things that will affect our viewer’s attention.

I used the word gestalt for the first time in Part 3 of this series. Let me reiterate. Gestalt means “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.” Gestalt psychology has come up with a list of “rules” or “laws” about how the brain makes sense of things. For example there’s the Law of Similarity which states “items that are similar tend to be grouped together” by the human brain.  So a batch of flowers off to one side of an image will draw our views attention. Make them red flowers and they’ll attract more attention than a similar patch of blue flowers. Put one red flower in a group of yellow flowers and red wins.

It follows that we tend to group things together based on similar aspects (shape, color, texture, etc.). Further, while our brain will tend to group similar shapes together it will often try to attach meaning to the grouping. If we know this, we can use shapes to influence how viewers of our images respond. If that grouping is in the

Just sand dunes, but the lines and texture attract us because of the “human feel” in the composition.

shape of a heart we can anticipate a favorable response because we know that humans respond warmly to this shape even if we know it’s not really a heart at all. We can even take a number of similar items, such as fence posts, and know that our viewer will recognize this is a line and the eye will tend to follow it or be stopped by it depending on how we use it in our image.

We can go further when we recognize that a number of things can cause us to see something totally different and “connect the dots” to see something that’s not totally visible. If we see what looks like the white tail of a deer and nearby what looks like a piece of an antler and somewhere in between a vertical element that could be a leg, we likely will construe that there’s a buck in the woods or at the very least the three will heighten our senses to the possibility. This phenomenon is called the Law of Closure.

As Guy Tal noted, our visual system didn’t evolve to create artful photographs it evolved to keep us alive. That doesn’t mean we cannot use it to help us design meaning into our images.

Despite the hard, red, rock, the green schrub adds a sense of easiness or softness to this scene.

There’s also the Law of Symmetry. This is the gestalt law that says that elements that are symmetrical to each other tend to be perceived as a unified group. Symmetry doesn’t just happen, so we assume the grouped elements are all related. 

The Law of Common Fate assumes that if a number of things are grouped together, or all moving in the same direction, or all part of pattern, then they are all part of one thing. So we’ll assume this is a flock of birds, not just a bunch of birds that happen to be in the same area.

There’s much, much more that we could explore in this discussion of visual language, but for this discussion I’ll let it suffice to note that visual language, essentially, is how we attract and/or control the attention of the viewer so that when the viewer looks at our image we know what they are going to look at, feel, understand, react or respond.

This leads the to concept of visual weight and that’s what Part 5 of this series will explore.

A SPECIAL NOTE: I went to the opening of the Syracuse Camera Club’s Annual Show, Art in Aprillast night. I’d suggest you get on over there if you possibly can. Besides getting the opportunity to see some real fine photography there’s nothing quite as enjoyable as spending an evening with others who enjoy photography. I really appreciated the opportunity. The exhibit is at the May Memorial Unitarian Church, 3800 E. Genesee St, Syracuse.

Another subject that I could use your help with. It was suggested during conversation last night that I might have a problem with the comment section of this blog. So, if anyone has had a problem leaving a comment, I hope you’ll drop me a note at: [email protected] and let me know what the problem was, so I can get it resolved.  Thanks.