Introduction to Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition is easy to do when you know how, but isn’t a particularly common occurrence in everyday photography, so that increased the degree of difficulty. You can use it to varying degrees of effectiveness depending on how obvious you make it, and 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 is two or more elements in a scene that either contrast each other, or one element contributes towards another 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 have at least two elements in the photo that contains strong visual weight, so that the viewer looks at both at the same time and comes to their own conclusion about their purpose in the photo.
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 the eyes of a face and writing have very strong visual weight, so 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 it’s a little bit rarer, but it could have been easily forced, which we’ll get to later on.
When you take two elements that reinforce the theme of the photo, it instantly become a much stronger photo. The photo below was shot in Croatia where it was very hot so the two men had their tops off, while putting wristbands together for a festival, but I noticed that they were sitting under a painting of a heart, so I took a photo. The juxtaposition was no accident, I framed the photo because of the painting, and I went unnoticed when I took the photo so that they didn’t look up and draw the visual weight elsewhere. The idea was that the viewer would look at the heart and then notice the two topless men and see the correlation between the two, which has proven that it works.
Some photos with juxtaposition require context to work, so by looking at the photo below, you might not see any, but if you were to see the title of the album that it was in, then 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 has the most basic, but relevant information to go along with it.
When you start to include contrasting elements in a scene, then it can get a little bit more complicated, and 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, those 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 know that juxtaposition is taking place 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 just a matter of time, not skill. The more you know about composition, the more you understand a scene when you’re looking at it, and it will provide you with the knowledge to guide you into taking a good photo.
When you look at the photos used in this post, the most subtle uses of juxtaposition (such as a two men sitting under the heart), the stronger the photo is, and the more obvious (such as the drunk man), the less the effect has on the photo. And by this I’m talking about the amount of time we spend looking at a photo.