Photo of Yellowstone River within the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Pink Smoke, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

My initial impetus for making this exposure was the high angle view, the blue reflected light on the water, and principally pink smoke emitting from the fumarole creating a subtle warm cool palette. I knew the light was flat, but in both color and black and white flat light can be your friend.

Most go there with only a single purpose, to photograph the falls, hopefully when it is producing a rainbow. They completely miss the bigger theme, the canyon itself. The colors of the canyon are varied and mixed. There are what appear to be 60+ degree loose scree slopes with outcrops of pastel yellow, aqua, orange and green. The yellows pick up sunlight reflected from the opposing sunlit canyon wall and appear gold in shadow. The stone outcrops vary from neutral, to browns, to purple. If you can ignore the Lower Falls it would be easy to spend hours with a long lens capturing numerous abstracts of the canyon walls.

Later, when hastily viewing the thumbnails this image group stopped me. What was it? From the small size of the thumbnail I couldn’t see the detail, just a blue slash as figure on a brownish ground. Opening the image to size I saw it. The illusion produced by a figure and ground confusion in the brain.

Figure-to-ground, in visual perception, is analogous to signal-to-noise, or positive and negative space in design. It is, at its most basic form, what happens when an object is introduced into an empty field – a blank canvas, a photographic space, or blank paper – what psychologist called a “Ganzfeld”. Figure-ground is the duality between a subject in a frame and the balance of the image – the part that remains.

According to Gestalt theory of visual perception, there are observations to make about figure-ground:

“Figure-ground is the spatial relationships between an object and what exists around it. Recognition of these spatial relationships illustrates how perception depends on figure and ground. Figure and ground may manifest itself through selection, boundary and artifice.

There are observations to make about figure-ground:

The most striking being that both figure and ground cannot be “seen” (brought to the fore) simultaneously. The brain only resolves one or the other at any moment. Figure and ground can be seen sequentially though, meaning the image flip-flops like a good politician. This depends on your point of focus or the brain synapses at the moment. In the figure below if you focus on the black circle, the white periphery becomes secondary and appears as ground. If you focus on the white periphery, the black circle becomes secondary and appears as ground.

The second most striking observation about figure-ground is that they do not appear to exist on the same plane within the frame. Ground is perceived as receding into the frame while figure is seen as projecting forward. In the image above, it might appear as if there is a black hole in a white surface one moment and a black disc on top of a white surface the next. Without further visual reference, the brain cannot resolve the conflict. Again, the figure-ground relationship can change state. Color and its components will easily affect the depth relationship within a figure-ground construct. In the following illustrations the blue seems to recede into the grey while red seems to lift from its surface, even though the two colors are of the same approximate value.

Third, we observe that figure usually occupies a smaller space within the frame than does ground. But this isn’t always true. See the two figures below. It is easier for the brain to accept the circle as ground (a hole) in the first instance than in the second. In the second, the larger circle resolves easiest as a disc (figure) on the surface of the white area (ground).

Fourth, figure is perceived as having contour, or shape, while ground is not. In a sense, ground is usually what is left over. The existence of figure-ground is subject solely on the existence of contrast and is a selective process within the brain. Both illustrations below are the same except the values of the shapes and background have been reversed. In both cases, the rectangles read as figure and the balance is ground.

Last, neither figure nor ground can exist without the other. The moment something is placed into a field, it creates a figure/ground construct.*”

If you are still reading you may have figured out the image by now, not that it is that difficult to resolve, the brain did that quickly on first viewing. But you may have only have discovered the affect after you had read this.

If you still haven’t, look at the image again. Pay attention to where exactly the center of the gaze is resting. Is it on the area of the two sides, or is it on the area of water in the middle? When gazing at the edges, they become figure and the water becomes ground. The canyon walls rise up from the level of the water as in reality. Now shift your gaze to the blue water while catching the canyon walls in the peripheral vision. You will notice that the canyon walls appear to recede away from the level of the water. If you are not seeing this, move your gaze to an area of water right along the edge where the water and rock meet. Now you should be able to perceive the affect easily.  

Adding to the effect is the warm/cool relationship in the image. According to color theory, warm colors usually seem to advance spatially while cool colors recede spatially within a frame. In this image, depending on your point of gaze, that rule in color theory is not holding true. The rule is unimportant, except to the extent that it is happening. Rules can be broken, theories are effective generally but as you can see they can be manipulated.

I don’t always know why I take a photograph of an individual scene. It is often a physical response to a visual mental trigger: something recognized, associated, or remembered in my field of experience.

There are times that I am purposely working with a known idea and goal when making the exposure. There are times when I only perceive the goal or idea later while processing the image. This image fits the latter of the two. Though my brain was processing the field of view through the viewfinder, and making decisions based upon feel and experience, the reasoning behind the image didn’t appear until later. It was in the development process that the visual illusion presented itself and demanded treatment.

An accident? Perhaps, perhaps not.

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