Or how to make people look at my pictures.
“Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel… for [amateur photographers] a beautiful photograph is a photograph of something beautiful… The image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.”
Susan Sontag – Sobre la fotografía
Street photography tends to have a weird reputation with shooters from other genres for it’s pedestrian aesthetics, seemingly accidental images and whimsical compositions.
What is this rarified obsession? What is the importance of compositive and thematic extravagance in Street Photography? The initial effect is, certainly, bewilderment; a slight cognitive or perceptual shock. This “friction” or initial difficulty to understand an image provides a sudden satisfaction when it’s figured out.
In my opinion this inclination stems both from the huge role of chaos and luck in street photography and the obsessive-compulsive tendencies in most street shooters. This manifests itself in the abundance of images showing objects lining up, repetitions, reflections, superpositions and perfect geometric compositionts as confirmations of the validity of reality.
A Cognitive Friction Scale for Street Photography
Juan Jose Reyes (founder and director of the Miami Street Photography Festival) proposed in 2013 the idea of using a a "Cognitive Friction Scale” as an aid to edit (select) his work: the more “friction” an image has the better it is. In a hierarchy of 5 levels he proposes a way to weed out pretty but ordinary images from “strong content” ones.
The idea is that “stronger” images are complex so they change depending on the viewer’s mood and are not immediately obvious:
- Minimal. Elicits interest.
- Low. Elicits joy.
- Medium. Elicits surprise.
- High. Elicits distress.
- Máximo. Elicits a combination of distress and surprise.
Level 5 images are identified as “tough to like, tough to see, tough to make, the tougher they were the more beautiful they became” (Joel Meyerowitz).
Images from levels 1 and 2 are easy to figure out and appeal to most people, they are safe and pretty but easily forgettable. Images from levels 3 to 5 are supposed to be for the image surfeited elite: difficult and troubling, they are not “pretty” and require superior interpretation skills to be understood but become the most beautiful and memorable once deciphered.
How does Cognitive Friction works?
Alan Cooper, an influential design thinking writer, coined the term in 1999 to refer to the difficulty in understanding an interface which behaves in counterintuitive or unexpected ways.
Cognitive Friction is mostly bad in interface design where the goal is to help people navigate or complete tasks in software requiring the least of their attention and mental energy as possible by relying on conventional and familiar ways.
But when you want to retain people’s attention (as in your photographs) perhaps it is better to deliver the unexpected rather than the familiar.
Perception, the mental process of making sense out of physical stimuli, is basically a guessing game. If the interpretation of an image is obvious then interest and attention fades instantly. Obvious images are not even scanned completely but only their prominent parts as to identify the thing and skip the task. Here you can find a list of topics to avoid.
If the image contains novel, dissonant or unexpected elements the mind will enjoy the process of making sense out of it dedicating intense interest and attention to it’s interpretation and storing it in memory as a reference for a new cognitive category. This is the kind of images that remain interesting and can be increasingly enjoyed over time.
Finally if the image is extremely convoluted or unconventional as to making it too hard to make sense out of it it will be interpreted as noise (senseless interference) and be discarded and forgotten shutting interest and attention immediately.
I believe Juan Jose Reyes made a very important contribution by bringing this concept into street photography’s lexicon but I’m not convinced of the innate superiority of obscure and distressful images which may as well be disregarded as noise.
Is Cognitive Friction any Good?
My conclusion is that a healthy dose of cognitive friction and serendipity are the lifeblood of street photography but puzzling audience’s minds too hard for the sake of it has certainly been overdone and is damaging and rarifying for the genre.
Let’s keep in mind that humanity (not deviousness) is the grand theme of street images.
Cover image by Lee Friedlander