John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche
When you look at this image, what do you see? What stands out for you immediately and what do you notice afterwards? Where does your eye linger the longest? Make a mental note of these things. Maybe even write them down.
There are many ways we could study what just happened with your perceptions. The creation of photographs, including composition, is all about influencing how people view an image, so we might make some good guesses about your perceptions based on how this particular picture was constructed. However, regardless of how intentional the composition, people differ in how they explore an image, especially when it’s complex or ambiguous, such as this one. The eye-tracking equipment often used in research on vision could give us some objective data about where you looked and for how long, but it couldn’t tell us exactly what you were responding to in that area. We would need you to tell us that.
Here’s where the classic inkblot test known as the Rorschach might be helpful to us. Contrary to popular opinion, the modern technique for using this test doesn’t rely on some arcane or mysterious interpretation by psychologists, as if they can peer into your psyche based on some particular thing you see. Instead, the test is all about “response styles” – i.e., the different tendencies in how people notice and react to various aspects of the inkblot. Even though some people nowadays are very skeptical of the Rorschach’s validity as a psychological test, research shows that different response styles are associated with particular personality characteristics.
Some responses to an image may be unconscious: you don’t realize that you are focusing on some aspect of it - or if you do, you can’t exactly say why. These unconscious dimensions of response style could say something about you. However, interpreting the results of the Rorschach relies more on what you can verbalize about what you see. When you reflect upon your reaction to an image, can you put into words what it is that you noticed? Psychologists consider this ability to articulate your perceptions to be an important dimension of your psychological resources.
So let’s try applying some of the insights from the Rorschach to photography. Ideas about this test can help us understand how our personality styles are reflected in the way we create images as well as in how we react to them – because the things you tend to notice about photos tend to be the things you strive to create in your own. What’s also helpful about these insights is that they make intuitive sense. As I mentioned earlier, they’re not based on some kind of obscure psychobabble theory that only professionals understand. In fact, many artists and visual designers will intuitively understand them.
When you look at an inkblot, or any image, you might take notice of large or obvious elements of it, small or unusual details, or the whole thing in its entirety.
In this image, if you focused on what looks like the shadow of a hand or the curly shapes in the background, a Rorschach psychologist would call that a “large detail response.” When people notice large or obvious elements of an image, they are seeing what many other people will probably see. It’s practical, realistic thinking, the ability to see the obvious and conventional, and “sticking to the facts.”
Sometimes people will notice much smaller or unusual details. In the image above, did you see the flower shapes embedded in the swirls, or the tiny inkblot near the lower right corner (which I just had to include, to tip my hat to the Rorschach!). These “small detail responses” suggest vigilance, attentiveness to detail, the ability to see the unusual - or, if this perceptual tendency becomes too extreme, it might indicate a preoccupation with trivia, obsessive thinking, and sometimes paranoia.
Getting the big picture of what an image is about, or at least trying to, can be a sophisticated psychological endeavor. For many photographs you might not find it too difficult to determine what the entire scene is about. But when looking at complex, abstract, or ambiguous images, formulating the “big meaning” requires some brainpower. Taking into consideration all its various features, did you try to come up with some idea or story to make sense out of the image above? Multiple exposure and composite photos really challenge us in this way. Some people try to determine the relationship among the various elements of the image in order to figure out the big picture; some don’t. Rorschach psychologists say that “whole responses” reflect the ability to plan, see relationships, and synthesize things. The whole response might indicate creativity, abstract thinking, and efforts to achieve.
In most photographs it’s easy to identify the objects in them. There’s a car, tree, dog, person. No big deal. It’s when the elements of an image become more indistinct that things start to get interesting. What exactly is that blurry area, that thing hidden in the shadows, or that unusually shaped object?
The Rorschach test consists of inkblots that aren’t anything in particular. They’re just inkblots. But the various shapes in the inkblots might look like something. If what you see is what most people see, that’s called a “good form response.” You react to that particular shape like lots of people do. That’s a sign of healthy reality testing. You’re able to resonate with how most people react to the world. You recognize the normal and conventional.
On the other hand, if you see a particular shape as being something that people usually don’t see, that’s a “poor form response.” In small doses it might be a positive sign, perhaps indicating creativity and individual uniqueness in perception. But if a person persistently sees things that others usually don’t, it might suggest eccentricity, stubbornness, rebelliousness, poor reality testing, and even psychosis.
In the image above, did you perceive that shadowy shape as a hand? Many people probably do. That’s good reality testing. If you saw it as legs, cow utters, or a sideways crown, maybe you’re a creative or idiosyncratic thinker. If someone perceived it as Elvis riding a golf cart, we might worry about his reality testing. It just doesn’t look like that.
An inkblot and a photo are static images. Unlike a movie, there’s really nothing moving in them. But if you perceive motion, that’s a rather sophisticated projection of what you create in your imagination into what you see in front of you. Psychologists say that perceiving humans moving in an inkblot is a sign of mature thinking, intelligence, and creativity (as long as it’s a good form response). Perceiving animals in motion indicates underlying needs and drives, while perceiving the movement of inanimate things reveals stress and anxiety.
I’m not sure how well all of these principles translate into photography. Sensing motion in realistic photos that clearly portray the movement of people, animals, and things requires some imagistic knowledge of how action looks, but not the same kind of cognitive versatility as seeing movement in inkblots. Perhaps these principles might apply to abstract pictures, ambiguous images, or photos in which people, animals, and things are not obviously in motion but one might perceive them that way.
A skilled photographer knows how to use compositional techniques to create the sensation of movement – for example, receding lines and visual rhythms created by repeating patterns. We might question whether focusing on these elements of composition indicates underlying anxiety and stress, as a Rorschach psychologist would conclude about perceiving inanimate movement in an inkblot. But I don’t think we would question the idea that photographers who create or notice such motion in an image are operating at a higher or at least unique level of cognitive sophistication than those who do not. Surely, it’s a sign of visual creativity and intelligence, as well as an indicator of subtle kinesthetic sensitivities.
If you take any of these ideas about movement that make sense to you, how would you apply them to what you noticed about the image above? Did you perceive motion in the shadowy hand, the fabric surfaces, or the flowers and curly abstract shapes?
It probably comes as no surprise to anyone interested in the visual arts that we humans associate colors with emotions. So too Rorschach psychologists suggest that reacting to the colors of an inkblot indicates a tendency to be aware of and express emotion. We might notice the same tendencies in people who respond to color when examining photos or who focus on it when creating their images.
Psychologists also suggest the importance of how people combine color and form responses during the Rorschach test. When people emphasize the shape of an inkblot and then mention its colors, that’s a good sign. They have a clear picture of reality, into which they appropriately infuse emotion. If they react to the colors first and then mention shape, or they talk about colors without mentioning shape at all, perhaps emotions dominate over rational thinking in their lives. If they never mention color, they might suppress their awareness or expression of emotion.
How might these ideas apply to photography? Are colors clearly bounded within shapes, or do they run past those boundaries? What’s the difference between pictures that are all about color with very little or ambiguous shapes (as in some abstracts) and pictures that contain no color at all? Think about how you reacted to the image above, whether the shapes and/or colors stood out in your mind.
These ideas might be useful when thinking about the differences between color and black-and-white photography, and people’s preferences concerning them. Although some enthusiasts will argue strongly for the emotional superiority of black-and-white photography, color photos do tend to express more emotion for many people, whereas black-and-white images tend to emphasize shape while creating a more serious and rational atmosphere.
When you looked at the image above, did its shading stand out for you?
While responding to the Rorschach, some people focus on shading. In both colorless and colored areas, shading is the change in lightness and darkness of the inkblots. It’s related to what photographers call “grayscale” or “tonal range.” These shading responses, as well as dwelling on the “blackness” of the inkblots, tend to associated with stress, anxiety, or depression.
Here we need to be cautious about over-generalizing this conclusion as it applies to photography. People who notice tonal range and shading aren’t necessarily stressed out, anxious, or depressed people. However, these states of mind might be important for people who focus intensely on shading or blackness when they create and react to images. If you want to construct an image that conveys a depressive or anxious mood, you might consider emphasizing its shading and blackness.
One particularly interesting type of shading response on the Rorschach is the texture response. It’s when people look at a shaded area of the inkblot and use tactile sensations to describe its surface – such as smooth, rough, grainy, sharp, furry, and bumpy. Research suggests that such perceptions correspond to the particular type of stress associated with loneliness and a lack of contact comfort. People separated from their loved ones tend to show an increase in texture responses on the Rorschach. When people focus on texture in photography, might they have a sensitivity to tactile stimulation, contact comfort, and moods related to isolation?
A person taking the Rorschach is asked to look at the inkblots and say what it might be. Sometimes people instead focus on the white space between or around the areas of the inkblot and tell you what it looks like. It’s a very subtle and usually unconscious way of defying the instructions for the test, which is why a white space response might indicate oppositional, passive-aggressive, or rebellious tendencies. It also might also reflect an ability to notice the unusual.
In photography the correlate of white space is “negative space” – the seemingly unimportant or empty areas around and between the main elements of the image. What does it say about people who concentrate on white space in creating and viewing photos? I’d be cautious about saying they are oppositional or passive-aggressive, unless they make a habit of focusing on negative space while paying little attention to the subjects of the image - or, when friends show them a picture of their baby, they immediately start talking about how they find the blurry shrubbery in the background interesting.
Photographers and artists will tell you that the ability to see and work with negative space is crucial to good composition, but it’s an advanced skill. Indeed, it requires cognitive dexterity in noticing the unusual, in focusing on that which is not supposed to be the focus but which intrinsically shapes the intended focus.
During the Rorschach test the psychologist hands the inkblot card to the person in the standard upright position. Many people keep the card in that orientation when they give their responses. However, some people, after offering their perceptions of the card in the upright position, then turn it sideways or upside to see what it looks like in those orientations. Such people like to experiment with different perspectives on viewing the world. Some photographers also enjoy rotating their photos vertically or horizontally to create a unique and often unusual perspective on the scene.
Because inkblots are created by splattering ink on paper and then folding the paper in half, they are symmetrical. Most people don’t explicitly comment on this symmetry, but those who do tend to be self-reflective and introspective. Might this also be true of people who enjoy creating symmetry in their photos or who focus on it when viewing the images created by others? Photos containing symmetry do tend to convey an introspective feeling, especially images of reflections in water, glass, and other surfaces.
I’ve talked about each of these aspects of the Rorschach individually, but what does it mean when people incorporate many of them into a single photo they created, or when they notice all of them in a photo taken by someone else? When a single perception of an inkblot includes form, movement, color, and shading, psychologists call it a “blend.” They consider blends a sign of complex, sophisticated thinking. The person has the ability to draw on a variety of perceptual resources. This might also be true in photography.
Extensions and Limits of the Insights
The Rorschach is considerably more complex than the few ideas I mention in this article. An accurate interpretation of the test results involves a sophisticated process of analyzing patterns and trends across the whole set of responses a person gives to all the inkblots. Any one response to any particular inkblot may not mean anything. This conclusion probably holds true for photography as well. Patterns and trends will tell us more about a photographer than any one image they create or to which they react.
These patterns and trends are not easily controlled by conscious effort. They’re intrinsic to one’s unique perceptual and personality style. For this reason, understanding some aspects of the Rorschach will probably not make a big difference in how you would respond if you actually took the test. You can only see what you see. In photography as well we tend to react to images the way our lives and psyche have conditioned us to see them. To improve our skills in photography, we become more aware of that conditioning. We learn how to expand the range of our perceptual repertoire. By doing so, we probably change as people too.
The Rorschach is designed to explore an individual’s perceptual and personality style. In this article I’ve suggested that we can use photographs for the same purpose. I’d also like to emphasize how these insights from the Rorschach can be applied in shaping the experience that a photo might create in its viewers. We can produce a limitless range of moods and sensations in images by the wide variety of ways we might combine form, movement, color, shading, texture, negative space, and symmetry. That’s what photography is all about.
Of course, we don’t want to be too authoritative about these insights from the Rorschach. They aren’t facts carved in stone that are true for everyone. People are just too complex for any such rigid rules. But there’s no doubt in my mind that these ideas provide some interesting and useful points of departure to explore photography, and ourselves.
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