Role Perception Plays on Composition of Photographs

Gestalt’s Principles in Life at the University of Richmond

Trail by Westhampton Lake. (2018)

Everyone perceives things a little differently. The world is a chaotic jumble of different stimuli rushing at us from every which way, and we can either get stuck trying to dissect it little by little, or let our brains take over and make sense of it for us. This is summed up as perception, and an excellent framework for understanding it is through Gestalt’s theory. Wrapped up in seven principles, Gestalt’s theory is essentially a formula for how the brain perceives images, such as photographs, depending on the characteristics of the image’s components. Being principles, they are easily replicable and found most anywhere, so they can be captured in a photograph and employed so the viewer will perceive the photograph in a desired way. In my case, I used Gestalt’s principles of continuity and pragnanz to help those who view my photograph understand how overwhelming and exciting it is to be a freshman at the University of Richmond.

In my pursuit, I chose to photograph a trail alongside Westhampton Lake. The most obvious of Gestalt’s principles present in the photograph is continuity, which describes the tendency of the viewer’s gaze to move beyond the nearest object and follow through, as if on a path. In this photo, the viewer begins at the wall’s aged planks and follows the curve of the trail all the way until it splits on either side of a lamppost. Continuity is critical here, because it represents the message that jumped out at me when I first saw this scene: keep moving forward. Aligning with the principle of continuity, the lamppost at the end of the visible path does not necessarily mean the end of the path entirely. To a freshman, that lamppost represents graduating college and the beginning of the rest of our lives.

When I came upon this scene, I wanted to shoot it because it reminded me of what I see in my future, andwhat I see in the present. Looking at the trail, I perceived the dense foliage above the path as a group; this is an example of the pragnanz principle, which means that we find simplicity in scenes rather than focusing on the fine details. Gazing at the path ahead, it’s unlikely that we’ll stop to look at each leaf or tree trunk individually; instead, we see all of the leaves and tree trunks at once, and appreciate the picture in its entirety. Having the viewer group all of the individual leaves into groups was important in getting the message across that although it may feel like freshman year is a bombardment of new people, extracurriculars, and classes, it all comes together into one amazing experience that only makes sense when looked at as a whole.

Our unique perception of images wouldn’t exist without Gestalt’s principles, because we wouldn’t be able to do things like visually group similar objects together or follow a path. Our brain’s ability to break images down according to those seven principles, quickly and efficiently for our viewing pleasure, is no small feat. We wouldn’t be able to tell stories through photography, such as the story of the whirlwind that is freshman year. So when admiring a picture of a serene landscape or a bustling city, remember that our brains are constantly assigning meaning based on these principles, to aid us in our search of deeper meanings.

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