Introduction to Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition is easy to do when you know how but isn’t particularly common in everyday photography, increasing the degree of difficulty.
You can use it to varying degrees of effectiveness depending on how obvious you make it. It’s a really good way of making what could have been a boring photo into something much more interesting.
What is Juxtaposition?
Juxtaposition happens when there are two or more elements in a scene that either contrast with each other, or one element contributes towards the other to create an overall theme.
It’s all about making the viewer wonder why we chose a certain viewpoint for the photo and why we decided it was good enough to share with others.
To create a point of juxtaposition, the photo must contain at least two elements with strong visual weight. The viewer looks at both of these at the same time, coming to their own conclusion about the purpose of each element.
What makes juxtaposition such an interesting compositional tool is that it’s largely based on chance appearances of two elements, although it can be forced at times.
If you have a look at the photo below, you’ll see a drunk man walking past a sign offering a discount for double measures of alcoholic drinks. If you’ve read my post on visual weight, you’ll know that both the eyes of a face and writing have very strong visual weight; we tend to notice both equally.
This use of juxtaposition takes a rather boring photo of a drunk man walking and makes it much more interesting. This photo happened by chance so is a little bit rarer, but could easily have been forced – we’ll get to that later on.
When you take two elements that reinforce the theme of a photo, you make it much stronger.
The photo below was shot in Croatia. It was very hot, hence the two men have their tops off as they put wristbands together for a festival. I noticed that they were sitting under a painting of a heart, so I took a photo.
The juxtaposition was no accident: the framing of the photo is based mainly on the painting and I went unnoticed so that they didn’t look up, which would draw the visual weight elsewhere.
The idea was that the viewer looks at the heart, then notices the two topless men and sees the correlation between the two, which has proven that it works.
Some photos with juxtaposition require context to work.
Looking at the photo below, you might not see any but, if you knew the title of the album being performed, you would have. This photo was taken at Gay Pride so, instantly, the rainbow in the photo takes on a whole new meaning.
This sort of juxtaposition can work really well in the right circumstances but you need to make sure that the viewer is aware enough of the relevant information to understand it.
When you start to include contrasting elements in a scene, things become a little bit more complicated. This is often where you’ll see forced juxtaposition.
The plane flying above the Lincoln Memorial building below evokes very obvious feelings in a post 9/11 world and, when you consider that the plane is very low to the ground, these feelings are heightened.
Again, this was a chance occurrence but I knew what I was doing when I took the photo and, because of the obvious juxtaposition, people tend to spend a lot longer looking at it.
This is surprisingly easy to do but I tend to find it quite obvious and not very effective.
It’s one thing to be aware that juxtaposition exists when you’re taking a photo but it’s another to go looking for it.
Anyone can sit outside a big bank and wait for a homeless person to walk past to take a photo, – that’s a matter of time, not skill. The more you know about composition, the more you understand a scene just by looking at it; understanding composition is the basis behind taking a good photo.
When you look at the photos used in this post, the most subtle cases of juxtaposition, such as a two men sitting under the heart, result in the stronger photos. The more obvious the juxtaposition, such as the drunk man, the less effect it has on the photo.
By ‘effect on the photo’, I mean the amount of time we spend looking at a photo.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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