John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche




In the ancient world, two tablets containing paintings, carvings, or notes carved in wax were sometimes hinged together so they could be folded face-to-face, in order to protect their surfaces during storage and transportation. No doubt ancient artists also considered the aesthetics of this side-by-side arrangement. These hinged works were called “diptychs,” from the Greek meaning “folded in two.”

In the modern world, the term refers to an artistic work consisting of two separate parts, usually paintings or photographs, placed next to each other as a pair in order to convey an idea or feeling.

According to the Gestalt principle of “proximity,” when we see two things next to each other, our mind assumes some kind of relationship between them. Otherwise, why would they be together? That assumption deepens when viewing artistic works, because we believe the artist placed the two pieces together for a reason. The meaning of the juxtaposition might be obvious. In other cases, we might find ourselves scratching our heads.

Simply by the fact that they consist of two parts joined together, all diptychs imply some kind of duality, binary, polarity, or analogy. The questions then become:

“How does this compare to that?”
“How are this and that alike, or different?”
“How do these two things interact with each other?
“What holds these two things together?”

The answers come from different directions. The purely visual aspects of the images – such as color, contrast, brightness, texture, movement, shading, and composition – provide obvious or subtle evidence about how the two photos relate to each other. Consider also the conceptual, psychological, and emotional relationship between the two parts of a diptych. Doing so will exercise your mental muscles for free association and abstract thinking. In the black-and-white diptych of the Design and Media Arts building at UCLA, the images visually emphasize lines and conceptually emphasize "progression."

Straightforward diptychs - where the relationship between the two images is obvious - might strike you as either redundant and downright boring, or as quite clever, powerful, and emotional when executed well. On the other hand, ambiguous diptychs that provide no obvious relationship between the two parts might be annoyingly inscrutable, or they might create a delightful puzzle that challenges the realms of intellect, imagination, and feeling. Titles and descriptions for the diptych can provide the clues for understanding the relationship.

When exploring the binary system of the diptych, you’ll realize how this seemingly simple group of two can take you many places. Taoism states, “The two becomes 10,000 things.” In this article I'd like to explore some of those things.

Here and there

Some diptychs involve a shift in viewpoint. We look at the scene from here and there, this way and that way. From the left, from the right, from up, from down. We're close up we’re far away. In the black-and-white shot of the Design and Media Arts building at UCLA, first we see a young woman (my daughter) climbing the steps, then we pull back to see the building from a further distance.

When you take the photos for a diptych, shoot the subject from a variety of distances and viewpoints. See which shots work well together as a pair.

Split one image into the two parts for the diptych. The results might simply look like you cut one photo into two, which indeed is what you did– like dividing in half the person in a portrait. That “divided in two” becomes part of your statement. For a wide angle shot – as of a city street or a countryside vista – you might be able to carefully split the image into two parts, probably non-contiguous parts, that will create the illusion of having actually taken shots of the scene by moving from one viewpoint to another.

Pay attention to exactly where these kinds of splits and crops take place in the original image. Each part will have its own unique composition. How does that composition relate to the other one? Where the divisions in the original image occur might also have symbolic meaning as well as a sensory/emotional impact. After all, you are dividing something up into parts

Here’s another possibility. Use the original image for what will appear to be a long or medium distance shot, and a tight crop onto some specific area for a second image that suggests a close-up. Once you resize the two images so they have the similar dimensions for mounting into a diptych, viewers might not even be able to tell that the two parts actually came from one shot. In the sepia tone shots of the street performer playing a drum, the tight crop onto her face, with a horizontal flip of the image, might appear to be a completely different shot in which I zoomed or moved in for a close-up.

Then, now… now, later

A diptych conveys temporality by comparing the same subject at what appears to be different points in time. Think of the two images as frames in a camera filmstrip or LCD display. We know the shots were taken at different moments.

Time moves from the past, through the present, into the future. The temporal shift between the two parts of the dipytch might suggest “then to now”… “now to later”…“before and after.” For example, imagine a shot of Joe coming into his surprise birthday party, next to one of him being cheered by his friends… Imagine a shot of a woman reading on a park bench, next to one showing her walking away into the busy city street…. Imagine a shot of a child with long hair, along with one of her hair cut.

In some diptychs the shift in time might be more subtle. For example, in the “here and there” type, the movement from one perspective to another across the two shots suggests that the photographer was here for one shot and then moved to there for other. That could feel like seconds, as in the photo of the street performer. For a long shot of a mountain next to one taken from it’s base, that could feel like hours.

If we sense a change in time when viewing a diptych, we might also sense the LAPSE of time. What exactly happened between the first and second shot? Sometimes the space between can be as or more interesting than the two images.

In the diptych of the mountain scene, an herbalist (my other daughter) wanders further down the trail, stops, then turns to examine a plant. The change from color to black-and-white suggests a change in mood or attitude as she journeys into the wilderness.

It’s moving

Diptychs come in handy for expressing movement. Motion will come to mind if we perceive the two images as frames in a movie camera. Also, the here–and-there as well as the then-now-later aspects of diptychs suggest activity occurring between here to there and in the progression from then to now and now to later. Shifts in viewpoint and time suggest movement. In the diptych of the herbalist, we can see that she’s walking in the color shot, but it’s the addition of the second black-and-white photo that give us a more tangible sense of movement and distance covered.

When the images are placed side-by-side or one above the other, the diptych creates sensations of left-right or up-down. More so than in a single image, the eye will be moving back and forth or upwards and downwards. Visual elements of the photos that lead the eye from one to the other and back again, such as sweeping lines that connect across the two images, will enhance the feeling of connection and movement. In the herbalist diptych, the elongation of the trail on the right side, along with the connecting sweep of the mountain ridge across the two sides, conveys a feeling of her moving further into the mountains.

Tell me a story

Like the frames in a movie film strip, or illustrations in a book, a diptych can tell a story. Impressions of movement, transitions from here to there, and then-now-later scenarios all imply a story being told. Some diptychs also imply a “cause and effect,” as in a shot of a glass of milk on a table followed by one of a guilty looking child standing next to the glass split on the floor. In some cases what happened between the two shots, the empty space that separates them, can be a very interesting and perhaps even mysterious part of the story.

Opposites attract

Some diptychs play with opposites and contrasts. Right versus wrong. Good versus bad. Morning versus night. Dirty versus clean. Color versus black-and-white. The list could go on and on. In the Christian history, diptychs contained a painting of a living person next to one of someone who had died.

The interesting thing about opposites is that they attract each other. They form a polarity in which some underlying force holds them together in their dynamic relationship. Right and wrong is about morality. Morning and night are about times of the day. Life and death are about the progression of the spirit. These underlying ideas might be the artistic statement.

In the black-and-white diptych of the palm tree and skyscraper, we might see nature versus man. We also see that both rise upwards towards the sky.

How are an orange and banana alike?

Some dipytchs suggest similarity. The degree of similarity might be obvious. An extremely colorful picture of flowers next to an extremely colorful picture of bottle caps is clearly about color. A diptych also might challenge you to find the similarity. If you imagine a photo of a child playfully leaping through the air along with one of another child quietly reading a book, you might conclude the diptych is about the behavior of children. But if you examine the photos closely to discover that the their faces contain distinct similarities, you might realize that the diptych is about the differences between siblings.

Diptychs based on analogy pose the question, “How is this like that?” A photo of a couple kissing next to a shot of lightning blasting through the sky says that their encounter is electrifying. It’s a metaphor or simile. While some diptychs quite clearly illustrate how this is like that, others might be much more illusive and thought-provoking. In the black-and-white diptych showing a cat with her play boxes, how is that scene like the one of a rock surrounded by plants?... hm…

You can approach a diptych that poses an analogy in either a concrete or conceptual way. A diptych of a beautiful orange and banana might make you think of eating them. That’s a concrete reaction. Any response based on our physical senses and behaviors would be concrete. On the other hand, you might also think of “fruit” and “nutrition.” These ideas are concepts, requiring abstract thinking. In fact, many well-known tests of intelligence use analogies such as “How are a banana and apple alike?” While concrete answers get you some points, you will score higher if you can come up with an abstract reply.

So how are the cat and the rock photos alike? Well, both shots are in black-and-white, both have a triangular composition, and both emphasize texture. That’s a rather concrete sensory comparison. If you know anything about cats, you might also arrive at the more abstract idea of “hiding places.”

What’s the same, and what’s different?

It’s possible that two parts of a diptych are the exact same image. In that case the artistic or conceptual statement might be about such things as repetition or duplication. In all other cases, however, the two images will be different, maybe a little or maybe a lot. The question then becomes one of comparing and contrasting them. How are they the same, and how are they different? Depending on the sophistication of the diptych, the answer to that question might involve a few or many concrete as well as abstract ideas. It’s this interplay between similarities and differences that makes the diptych interesting.

Two sides of the same coin

Rather than implying similarities or contrasts, the diptych can also portray two ways of looking at the same subject, or two aspects of the same subject. The diptych comes to us a jewel with two distinct facets. A good example are diptychs showing us the same person with different facial expressions, body language, or clothes, or in different situations. Or a city during the day and at night.

You might also create a diptych out of one photo post-processed in different ways, as in the shot of the boulders in a dry river bed. Moving from foreground-up to background, one image fades from dark to light while the other fades from light to dark, with one of the images flipped horizontally so the dark boulder and its light counterpart bump heads.

When two become one

The diptych shows us two subjects somehow related to each other. The relationship is a common ground of some sort, a particular thing the two share, even if it’s the idea of “opposite.” What particular idea or feeling comes to mind when seeing both sides? That’s how two become one in a diptych.

Folded in two

That’s the Greek translation of “diptych.” As you look at the two parts, can you see how one folds into the other? Where is the hinge? What results when the two parts close together and come to rest, both in composition and concept? What is it like to unfold the unified face-to-face images into its two distinct parts, as if it’s emerging from a protective cocoon? When we fold the boulders into each other, light bends into dark. When we fold the diptych at the very top of this article, the woman comes to rest on the path while the foliage surrounds her.

Left-right, up-down, all around

Diptychs can place their images side-by-side, top and bottom, or the more atypical uneven and off-kilter arrangements.

The side by side version offers the natural movement from left to right (in cultures that read that way; eyes moving from right to left feels more jagged and resistant)… the progression of time from then to now or now to later… the sense of before and after, first and second, being alongside… and the overall feeling of horizontal movement.

Diptychs placed vertically conjure up ideas of top and bottom, superior and inferior, ascending and descending, and standing on top or lying beneath. In the diptych of the surreal colored glasses on top of the rich wooden floor aimed at a pair of feet, we get a sense of cool water rising, of wood sinking into the ground, and a person looking for some balance in the process.

Off kilter arrangements pose a challenge to viewer, as in the diptych containing the square photo of a leaf on a forest suspension bridge next to a shot of a knotted rope. Why aren’t the images relating to each other in a more straightforward way? What is the nature of this diagonal or titled posture they have towards each other? These unusual arrangements for a diptych will draw activate the negative space around them, while making us wonder what type of hinge holds them together as well as how they might fold and unfold.

Two is better than one

Gestalt psychology tells us that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, or at least different than the sum of its parts. That means the two images combined in a diptych give you something that they lack individually. Separate photos of a man and of a woman tell you about a man and a woman, but as a diptych they speak to gender and gender relationships. Any two images that work well as a team in conveying an idea, story, association, or relationship – something that neither photo alone reveals - could be fodder for a diptych.

If you ever have a shot that looks OK but really doesn't have enough visual, emotional, or conceptual power to stand on its own, consider diptyching it with another photo, perhaps one that also searches for a synergistic partner.

Dividing one into two

A shot might be ripe for a diptych all by itself, simply by dividing it in two. This strategy will work better for some photos than others. Look for a break in the image that makes sense visually, conceptually, or emotionally. Obvious crops emphasize the feeling of separating, rupturing, and splitting, as in a portrait in which the person’s face is divided in two. In the purple-tinted photo of silhouetted figures at the beach, it's division into a diptych emphasizes the separation of that one person from the group. Other shots, such as wide angle landscapes and street scenes, might be turned into in diptych without the viewer realizing the two came from one.

Natural diptychs

Some scenes provide a visual barrier that you can use to create a simulated diptych – such as poles, columns, and tree trunks, which serve as the dividor or hinge between the two parts. Compose the shot so that barrier separates the image into two interesting sections, either horizontally or vertically. In the street photo of the younger and older woman about to cross paths, the utility pole divides them into their discrete sides, while also reminding us that they share the same boundaries of “city streets.” The world speaks to us through these natural diptychs. It tells us that, depending on our point of view, life sometimes separates out into distinct but related parts.

It’s the space between and around (or not)

Most of the time we tend to ignore the space between the two images. The hinge underplays itself. It serves only as a partition. For some diptychs you might want to draw attention to that negative space, to “activate” it, especially if you want to emphasize the invisible time, activity, and transition that occurs between the two images, or if you want it to add some extra shape, idea, or feeling to the diptych. The negative space then becomes another unique character in the story or comparison being made. It has something to say.

You can draw attention to that space by giving it a color or texture, by making it larger than the usually unnoticeable dividing space, by making the images different sizes or dimensions, and by setting the images off-kilter if you raise, lower, or tilt one of them. When using these techniques, the space around as well as between the images might be activated, which draws even more attention to it. Different sized and shaped images, as well as images off-kilter, will result in either boxy shapes of different dimensions or unusual triangular shapes.

In the diptych containing the square photo of a leaf on a forest suspension bridge next to a shot of a knotted rope, the tautness of the rope, the tilt of the leaf image, it’s invasion into the other side of the diptych, and the three triangular black spaces all add up to uneasiness and tension.

Ideally, such activations of the negative space enhance the concept and feeling of the image, rather than just being visual tricks with no particular meaning or intent. Embellished negative space can upstage the images. A large, textured space might look like an eye-distracting wall behind the photos, or like an over-bearing frame or container for the photos. If the images lose their sense of connectedness when the space between them is too large, or when off-kilter arrangements causes them to spin off into different directions, the sense of a related “pair” might evaporate.

What happens when no space appears between the two images, when they are right up against each other, as in the diptych of the cool glasses and warm wood? The hinge is nowhere to be seen. In those cases the attraction between them appears so strong that they cling together like magnets, even though the two sides may be very different. That in itself is a statement. “You can’t see the light of day between us.” Continuity of lines, shapes, and colors between the images will enhance the illusion of one image. Some diptychs of this type can fool the eye into thinking it’s actually one image, sometimes with puzzling, anomalous, and humorous results. Imagine ashot of a cat sleeping in a blanket, mounted on top of a close-up portrait of a man: the cat will strike us as a very odd hat. In the street photography diptych of the store window mannequin next to the side of parking building, the two sides, despite their differences, seem to blend right into each other.

What happens when the images overlap, when part of one rests on top of the other, as in the diptych of the leaf and rope? The one on top appears closer. It’s coming at us, while the other remains in the background. We tend to think of now/later, before/after, front/back, and surfacing/hiding.

What happens when we carry the intimacy of the two photos even further? What if they blend together, as in the diptych of the woman in a yellow poncho next to a shot of the suspension bridge on which she’s walking? The images are so drawn or pushed into each other that they are becoming one. Their identities begin to merge. In those cases the diptych dips its toes into the realm of composite and double exposure effects. As long as the image retains the feeling of “TWO” – and, ideally, “folded in two” – then it is still a diptych.


Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche