John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Reversals in Photography

reversals in photography

Sometimes we choose to focus on a particular aspect of photography. “I do black and white” ... “I take photos of people”... “I’m into macro.” After all, photography covers a very broad territory. People like to carve out their niche, specialize in a particular type of photography, and hone their skills in that area, rather than become a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none. They want to develop their individual style and establish their unique identity within the vast territory of people doing photography. In some cases, people are purists about sticking to what they do. They’re sure their type of photography is the real thing.

We also slip into certain habits without even realizing it. Maybe you’re always shooting outdoors, or from a standing position, or using a high contrast method of post-processing. Usually they’re methods that produced good results in the past, so you keep using them. If it ain’t broke, then why fix it, right?

Habits limit you

I’d like to suggest that these routine behaviors might limit our skills and visions as photographers, whether we’ve deliberately chosen these areas of focus, and especially if we’ve slipped into habitual patterns without even realizing it.

Stated simply, it’s good to try something new. Not many people are going to argue with that suggestion, unless they’re hardcore purists, stubbornly elitist, narrow-minded, or afraid to try something different for fear of failing.

The more important issue is this: how do you go about trying something different?

What are your habits and style?

The first step is to identify your habits and style. It will be relatively easy to make a list of the subjects and methods that you’ve chosen consciously, deliberately. The harder task is pinpointing your routine behaviors that have developed without your realizing it. You might ask your colleagues for feedback. They often can see the habitual patterns in your work that you don’t. If you also look at the photography of other people, you’ll discover subjects and techniques that are very different than your own. Make a note of how their work is different than yours, even if you don’t like what you see.

Do the opposite of what you do

Then you could start experimenting, in whatever way strikes you as interesting. Do something that’s different than what you typically do. If you’re using other people’s photos as a guide, you’ll be tempted to emulate the photos that you like. But don’t limit yourself that way. Also try to recreate the images that you didn’t fancy.

That last point is important, because it leads to the idea that I’d like to emphasize in this article: REVERSALS. When you identify a particular way that you’re doing photography, reverse it. If you always shoot color, try black and white. If you prefer portraits of people, start shooting non-human subjects. If all your photos maintain horizontal lines, try shooting with diagonal tilts.

You might reverse your shooting techniques, your post-processing methods, or your subject matter. Reverse one element at a time, or several at a time.


Why do reversals help?

There are interesting psychological as well as philosophical reasons why I’m suggesting reversals – reasons why it might be a better method than simply experimenting on a whim. Our mind operates based on polarities. We understand color because we know what black-and-white is. We recognize sharpness because we've seen blur. If you don't understand and appreciate one, it's hard to fully understand and appreciate the other.

The dynamic relationship between opposites runs deeper than these mechanisms of perception. Consciously, we dislike and avoid something, but on an unconscious level, there’s often something about it that entices us, or that we need, even though we might not think so. If you're always creating peaceful, soft-focus photos of nature, might there be something about sharp conflict situations that you need to understand and embrace? If you've always insisted on shooting black and white, what is it about color that you might be overlooking, that might benefit you? Eastern philosophies like Taoism, as well as some western psychological thinkers like Carl Jung, talk about how a healthy personality embraces the interaction and balancing of its internal opposing forces, like love and hate, strength and submission, happiness and sadness. We become stagnant, locked up, and limited in how we think, feel, and perceive when we repress one side of the dynamic polarity. Allowing ourselves to open up to the expression of opposing forces results in fresh insights and a wider field of view. Dialectical philosophy would describe it as challenging a premise with a counter-premise in order to arrive a higher truth that synthesizes the best insights of these opposing views.


Tricky reversals

Figuring out a reversal can be a challenging and instructive process unto itself. For example, what’s the opposite of doing sports photography? Shooting people who are cooperating rather than competing, or perhaps people who are engaged in some quiet, relaxed, solitary activity? Often there will be more than one way to create a reversal. Try them all. If you usually use sepia tones, try different color tints, black-and-white, or full-spectrum color. If you like nature photography, try shooting buildings, machines, and people. By identifying different ways to reverse what you usually do, you will be exercising your artistic, technical, and conceptual muscles by activating the polarities of your photography mind.

Tackling the conceptual reversal will be particularly rewarding in understanding what your photography means to you. If you specialize in portraits of children, the obvious reversal would be shots of adults. But consider what “child” means to you. Youth, innocence, play, a need for love, protection, or nurturance? Reversing those ideas will enrich your understanding of why and how you do your usual type of photography.

The end result

As a result of your experimentations, you might decide to continue exploring these other styles of photography. Or you might not necessarily like the photos that emerge from your reversals. In fact, some people who know your photography won't like them, even if you do, because they expect certain types of images from you. Try not to let that discourage you from experimenting. If you do decide to go back to your familiar way of doing things, that’s OK. You nevertheless will learn from the reversal process. No longer a slave to your old habits, you will expand your range of seeing, shooting, processing, and understanding. You will find that you’re bringing new insights and skills that will enrich your old way of doing things. Allowing the polarities of your photography mind to engage each other will teach you not just about your work, but about yourself and why you’re a photographer.


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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche