John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Image Sequence

image stream

We tend to think of a photograph as a moment captured and frozen in time in order to record some scene or express an idea. But how often does anyone take just one photograph? Unless they shoot once, put down the camera, and never again pick it up for the rest of their lives, people take a series of shots – perhaps of this particular situation, or of others later on that seem important. Images always occur in a sequence. That sequence reflects over time how a person sees, thinks, and feels.

The image sequence of a shoot

After a shoot, it’s interesting to study the series of images that roll out of your camera. What caught your attention, at first, then later on? The sequence of photos reveals how you approached the situation and what you tended to focus on: color, texture, shapes, people, objects, animals, details, the big picture. You’ll start to see patterns. You might notice a shift in how you were thinking and feeling about the situation. When you switched lens, shutter speed, focal length, and aperture, or shifted to a different perspective, what was changing in your mind about how you conceptualized the scene? What you neglected to shoot may say as much about your attitude as what you did shoot. Why so many shots of trees? Why did you begin with many shots of Joe and then took only a few of Sally?  The sequence of what and how you shoot – or forget to shoot – is really a reflection of how your mind works and what you find important.

There is almost always a link of some kind between one image and the next. It might involve continuity in color, perspective, texture, focusing technique, composition, or subject matter. However, photographers may not be aware of these unconscious habits and preferences. Although they consciously decide how to make the next shot different, they also may overlook some of their underlying motives to change the image they are trying to capture. In the sequence of images, some things change, some remain the same. Some of these things are conscious, some are not. If you study the sequence of your own images, you’ll discover these patterns.

The long term sequence

These ideas are also true of images created over long periods of time. Scholars study the periods of great artists for a reason. You can see how their artistic style, personality, and life changed over time, as well as what remained constant. The way a person does photography now may be quite different than how she or he did it years ago. As people and their lives change, the images they create change.

Sequence in online photosharing

In online photo-sharing communities, the ongoing sequence of images uploaded by people provides a glimpse in the evolution of their lives and personality. Unfortunately, in this rather ADD, multitasking, media bombardment age of ours, very few people pay attention to their own image stream, no less the image stream of other photographers. Despite the stop-and-go tendency of viewing, "liking," and commenting on photos in these communities, take a few minutes once in a while to look through a person’s whole collection. The ebb and flow of the photographer’s personality and artistic style will become much more clear. Any particular image also is best understood when viewed in the context of the images that came before and follow it. In fact, sometimes the essence of an image is completely overlooked when viewed out of its position in the history of images

If you want some deep insight into your own photography, go backwards to look at your own image stream. You will learn something important not just about the style and subject matter of your photography, but also how the various events and stages of your life affect your image stream. Your image stream is, after all, a reflection of the flow of your own life. Ask yourself these questions:

- How is my subject matter changing over time?

- How are my shooting techniques changing?

- How are my post-processing techniques changing?

- Where do these changes occur in my photostream?

- What stands out?

- What are my thoughts and feelings about these observations?

When answering these questions, you'll see that some aspects of your photography are changing while others do not. What does that tell you?

Our stream of consciousness

A sequence of images is like a stream of consciousness. It might flow this way or that. It might pick up speed, slow down, run shallow or deep. But it is continuous, with each image connected - in sometimes hidden, fascinating, and mysterious ways - to the images surrounding it. The human psyche itself is a swirl of memories, ideas, sensations, and feelings, all linked to each other in complex chains of associations. A series of images in a photographer’s collection is a glimpse into that intrapsychic world and into the person’s reflections on his or her life.


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Categorizing Images
Visual Riffs
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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche