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Chaos & Complexity

The sort of photography that often is preferred within Photo Club events follows certain formulae that are used by judges to determine what makes a good or not so good image. Much like the ‘Pritchard Scale’ for poetry as depicted (and derided) in the film, “Dead Poet’s Society”. It appears to me that amongst these rules is the Gestalt Psychology concept of ‘figure and ground’ – in that there needs to be something on which the eye must be able to rest – and I have heard judges use exactly these words. Images that appear ‘confusing’ are not welcomed because they are not easily understood in that judge’s eyes.


However, to me, that is not representative of the world within which we live. We do not live in Edwin Abbott’s “Flatland” – where the world is reduced to just two dimensions; but one in which there are many different dimensions. To my mind we try far too much to reduce everything down to as simple a construct as possible. Many photography theorists and commentators have tried such reductions – such as Szarkowski’s five essential elements; whilst others try to impose different amounts or essentials on us, from three to twelve! All of these are very well illustrated with examples of images that conform, and so ‘work’.


All of this removes us from the reality and connectivity of the world around us and of life itself. At least Szarkowski saw that his five essentials were actually “interdependent aspects,” but unfortunately aspects of a “problem” that had to be solved - in his case for photography to be accepted by the art world of the time. But any and all of these delineations, by their very listing create both a dislocation and also an order of preference. Not necessarily within the author’s mind but certainly within the mind of many who follow. An interesting question here is what happens if you change the order? What happens though if we start to think, and view, in terms of systems? What if we start to recognise and honour the complexity of the world around us? What might that do for photography?


Complexity theory encourages us to think in terms of the interaction of the various components that make up a system and whilst there may not be a discrete definition (something of an oxymoron in this case perhaps) Wikipedia (whilst not the best source at times) gives us the following definition for complexity science from Neil Johnson (a Professor of Physics at George Washington University in Washington DC):


“the study of the phenomena which emerge from a collection of interacting objects”






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Mike Kitson

Photographer & Questioneer