John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

- The Mind as Associations -

the mind as associations associationism

Associationism in philosophy and psychology maintained that the mind works by learned associations. A sensation, idea, or feeling is linked to another sensation, idea, or feeling according to how they are similar, with very complex chains and clusters of associations determining the processes of the conscious and unconscious mind.

We're all familiar with the notion of a light bulb going off over one's head to signify the popping of an idea. This photo capitalizes on that cultural symbolism. The bokeh bubbles of light from our Christmas tree served beautifully to represent the complex world of associations within the human mind. They're all at least slightly different, vibrating with energy, forming all sorts of chains, clusters, and patterns, some blurry or fading back into darkness, while others push forward with bright, sharp clarity - just like I imagine the dynamics of sensations, thoughts, and feelings within the psyche. The black background on the sides represents the realm of the unconscious, where the light bubbles remain hidden, while the dark vignetting along the inner edge of the image layer conveys the sensation of being inside the mind. Some psychologists, like the famous William James, talked about consciousness as a "field." I think this photo effectively conveys that concept.

When my wife and I took my daughter Christmas shopping, we told her she could get anything she wanted as a present for herself (within reason). She picked this styrofoam mannequin head. It would seem like a strange choice, except for the fact that she's a design student. Although I might have used a real human as the subject for the photo, this mannequin intrigued me as it did my daughter. It looks so thoughtful, calm, and introspective - perfect for the concept of this image. Centered in the photograph with that peaceful expression, the head helps ground and unify the busyness of all the bokeh light bubbles, just as the "self" serves as the intrapsychic center that unifies the field of consciousness. Rather than being a particular person, the mannequin's minimalist face stands for all people, male and female. I chose side-lighting to emphasize the inner versus outer (dark vs light) sides of the head, and to draw out its texture that echoes the dots of light.

I find mannequins to be very cooperative and patient subjects, although they have a hard time changing their facial expression. I'd highly recommend getting one for the study of portrait lighting techniques, and just because they are fascinating subjects. Their usually ambiguous expressions can acquire a variety of subtle meanings depending on how and where you photograph them. They're perfect if you want to encourage viewers to project their thoughts and feelings into the mysterious mannequin subject.


Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this image in flickr?

Here are some other articles in Photographic Psychology that are related to this photo and essay:

Symbolism: What does it mean?

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche