John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche



Synesthesia is when the stimulation of one sensory system leads to an experience in another system. For example, you see colors when you hear music. Or a texture triggers a taste in your mouth. Think about those computer programs that translate music into shape-shifting patterns and colors that dance across the screen.

Reports of synesthesia are common when using psychedelic drugs, but it also occurs naturally in people known as “synesthetes.” Although the phenomenon seems unusual, some researchers believe it reveals the potential of the mind to process any particular sensation in a variety of ways. In fact, researchers who study mental imagery don’t apply the term “image” to only visual experiences inside one’s mind, but also to sounds, smells, tastes, and body sensations within one’s imagination. Their research reveals how one type of mental image often can trigger another.

Many artists often talk about their work in a synesthetic way. They use words related to sounds, textures, and body sensations to describe their work. My piano teacher, for example, mentioned the colors he associated with different notes and key signatures, sometimes colors with flavorful qualities, like “coffee.” In fact, we often use words associated with sound to characterize colors, like loud, soft, harmonious, and discordant. Colors also arouse tactile associations, as when we say some appear dry while others seem wet.

Sometimes the influence of these sensations on the creative process is unconscious. There is the story of the photographer who noticed a pattern surfacing in his images: a visual repetition of three elements in a row, followed by a forth falling distinctly below the other three. After wondering why he was favoring such compositions, he suddenly realized that he had been listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The four ominous notes of Fate knocking on one’s door had been shaping his visual experience, without his even realizing it.

Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from synesthesia. To improve our photography, we might think about the visual experience as more than what we see. If we develop the awareness of our ears, nose, tongue, and fingertips, we may also enrich the awareness of our eyes.  How might a sound, smell, taste, and body sensation translate into something visual? Maybe playing an instrument, sipping wine, and doing yoga are all opportunities to better understand the image.

So why not wiggle your fingers through a bowl of water, drop a handful of spoons into the sink, or roll a crumpled up ball of newspaper along your arm. If someone asks what you’re doing, say, “photography.”


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