John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Black Holes

black hole

The Virtual Pit Experiment

Scientists studying virtual reality have experimented with what they call "the pit." Subjects wearing VR goggles find themselves in a room with a large, seemingly bottomless hole in the floor. A plank stretches across the pit. When the scientists suggest to the subjects that they cross over the plank, many of them simply cannot. Even though their rational mind tells them this scene does not actually exist, that they are inside a virtual reality where nothing can hurt them, a more primitive part of their brain warns them with a burst of anxiety and frozen legs that this situation poses a great danger.

The sight of a black hole weighs heavily on our human mind as a deep archetypal symbol. It conjures up ideas about a portal to mystery, danger, evil, or nothingness. It invites, lures, or sucks us into the unknown, into the unconscious, into the mystical void. As an ominous pit at our feet, it signals the danger of a long, perhaps eternal fall through helplessness. We might stare into it with a mixture of both temptation and fear.

The Photography Black Hole Experiment

We photographers can shoot scenes that contain black holes in order to capture such atmospheres. If not, we can easily create them artificially in almost any photo editing program. Although we might intend a believable result, as if a hole really did exist in the scene, I would like to suggest an exercise in which we set aside such concerns about realism.

Select any photo at random, or one in particular that presents itself as an interesting candidate, then drop a black hole into it. Experiment by changing its size and location. Reflect on how these variations have different impacts on the feeling of the image. How do those variations alter the emotional effect imposed by the black circle? The hole possesses great symbolic power, but in this experiment you get to control it. You get to tinker with how a powerful symbol affects the psychology behind composition.

Four Holes

Consider the images on this page. The hole feels arbitrary in the color shot below, in part because I placed it rather randomly, but also because a pure black circle looks very anomalous in a colorful image. In that photo the black spot offers no particular meaning, other than perhaps creating the impression that someone punched a hole in a 4x6 print for some odd reason - which in itself is an interesting effect, because our mind opts to see the hole as leading to another dimension of space, rather than our simply seeing a black dot.

By contrast, consider the hole in the wall of the building. It looks like it could actually be a window or portal of some kind. I deliberately incorporated it into the photo to create a triangular composition, where the eye moves between the hole (which tends to be the first thing that catches the eye - yet more evidence of its power), the man on his phone, and the garbage pail. What psychological role does it play in this scene? How is the black portal similar to a garbage pail? How is being on the phone like a portal leading to darkness?

Despite the potentially trepidating qualities of the black hole, the cat seems to be having little problems with it. In fact, she appears to be unaware, indifferent, or even taunting her circular companion. Had I placed the hole in front, behind, or below her, the psychological effect would have been different. She would be jumping into the hole, out of it, or over it like the cow who jumped over the moon.

In the "Un-Picnic" image, I worked a bit harder to incorporate the foreboding archetypal symbol. In addition to softening its edges to look more like an actual hole in the ground (which I also did for the cat), I flattened it to create the illusion of perspective. Would anyone be fooled into thinking there actually was a hole in this picnic area? Did it suck up the people who once sat at the tables? Will those people, or perhaps mythological creatures of some kind, spring forth from the hole to enjoy a feast? Even though the rational mind might reject the contrived realism of this scene, our imagination cannot help but offer fanciful interpretations.

black holes

If you enjoyed this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also like these:

Insights from the Rorschach Inkblots
Negative Space
Symbolism: What does it mean?

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche