subtext

I think that it was during a trip to northern Scotland in 2006, that my photography – indeed, my way of seeing – experienced a growth spurt of sorts.

Throughout our lives, but especially salient with regards to photography and media in general, we tend to frame situations – it’s an inherent perceptual tendency we have in order to make meaning of, and act “appropriately” in, a given situation: to define what is “important”  and thus deserves our attention relative to what is “noise,” and thus undeserving of our limited attentional resources (this evolved out of our ancestors’ need to define food/not food,
mate/non-mate, threat/non-threat, etc.).  In Gestalt psychology, this perceptual dichotomy is known as figure/ground (and advertisers use this principle to try to convince you that their product is “fun and exciting” – generally trying to elicit – and thereby associate their product with – an excitatory sensory response through the use of intense music, vivid colours, and other excitatory sensory cues, such as an attractive person –  relative to the banality of your
everyday life as experienced in a relatively homeostatic physiological state.)


classic old woman/young woman Gestalt
figure/ground example

The “immature” photographer tends to take “obvious” pictures of subjects that are “eye-catching” or pretty: colourful flowers, sunsets, ornate buildings – those things that are usually immediately foregrounded as “figure” according to
our perceptual evolution.  However, figure/ground also refers to convention, to the learned or inferred interpretation of a situation.  Thus, if we are told that someone is “important” (e.g., a politician), even if they don’t present any sensory cues to that effect (e.g., they do not stand out physically), we still tend to grant that person extra attention – they become a “figure” against the “ground” of the ordinary people around them.

So back to Ullapool, Scotland, 2006.  There I was, standing among the other tourists and locals mingling along the shoreline of this tiny coastal town, when some traditional Scottish parade started down along the street  – a clear, attention-grabbing figure against the ground of the otherwise “uneventful” scene, and, predictably, all the tourists, including myself, began pointing their cameras towards the spectacle.  There is a time when any photographer, or person really, becomes dissatisfied with the status-quo and decides to expand their awareness beyond the “sanctioned,” the “expected,” or the “conventional” frame of the situation – a time when he sticks his head up from
the flock and actually looks around to see that there’ is, in fact, an infinite variety of intriguing things going on at any given moment, at any given place – and that the “official” version of the situation isn’t actually any more interesting than anything else, except, perhaps, as a sociological curiosity in its own right (it’s of course a life-long process to
continually remind oneself to stick one’s head up and look around).

Photographically, I learned that day that in a crowd of people, there’s bound to be an incidental subtext of a situation that is more intriguing than the ostensible frame.

Figure/ground reversal: Here I photographically foregrounded a couple of people who were fooling around at the edge of the parade – I think that the young man with Down’s Syndrome was copying his friend who had put her hood up (I think there was another friend there, too, who was doing the same) – and all having a good laugh about it:


Ullapool, Scotland, 2006 – Jonathan Woods

Here are some examples that I’ve pulled off the web in which the “official” figure of the situation is maintained in the photographic frame, but an “incidental” occurrence breaks the ostensible frame and challenges for “figure” status in our
perception – they vary, of course, to the degree to which the “incidental” occurrence is detached from vs. part of the ostensible frame (click on each image for a larger version):

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