Laws of Form in Street Photography

Another article after a long time. I would like to revive the blog and in the future I will regularly write articles about philosophical and psychological issues when taking photos on the street.

I will start with an article on the application of the Laws of Form by George Spencer Brown ([1] ) and the effects on the act of photographing, post-processing and viewing the photo.

Draw a distinction

Law 2: Draw a distinction

When we take a photo just before we press the shutter button, what is going through our minds? Do we think “oh, the person is smiling” or do we think “great scene” or do we think nothing at all?

In any case, we make a decision. The decision to capture this moment as a still image in the form of a photo. We make a decision. And with that we also make a distinction!

Because before it is the course of life in the form of a river. Consistently without a caesura and coherent.[2]

By pressing the shutter release button, I want to capture exactly this moment, pull it out of the flow of life and thereby distinguish it from other moments.

What happens through this distinction?

First of all, this distinction works like a cohesion: All people and objects in the photo are summarized in this photo and are trapped in a relationship to one another for the duration of the photo’s existence. The photo binds the elements of what is seen, the content of the photo, this one moment.

At the same time I exclude through the photo: All events, people and objects that were not captured in the frame of the photo, but were present in this moment of the flow of life, are not part of the moment.

Through this cohesion of what is banned in the photo and the parts that are not visible, a boundary, a distinction was made through the frame of the photo.

This boundary is physical, because the invisible is not a physical part of the photo, as well as temporal, because the moment is captured, but life went on.

Overcome boundaries

With some distinctions, borders are permeable and enable a transition. Is this also possible here?

The temporal separation makes this almost impossible, because the moment is the past, irretrievable.

But what happens if one of the people who are not shown in the photo, but who were present in the moment of their lives, sees this photo?

“Oh, I was there too! It’s a shame that I can’t be seen. And besides, it was completely different: the person on the right laughed. You don’t see that here. “

This could then be a comment and a kind of interaction takes place afterwards, through viewing.

Otherwise the limit is fixed, isn’t it?

A look at the post-processing is permitted at this point: In post-processing, we can give the limits of what is seen and the captured moment a new meaning by cropping the photo.

This makes the border variable, but not permeable. What remains is the distinction between what is depicted and what is invisible. Only the act of cutting is a second moment in making a distinction. And with it the drawing of a new border.


Where there was no distinction before, pressing the shutter button turned into one, as we had seen.

Then what is my role or function as a photographer? Am I an actor, am I part, am I an observer? Maybe everything and yet nothing.

I am part because I was present in the moment of life. But I’m not part of it, because I’m not in the photo.

I am the actor, because I took the photo, so made the distinction. But I am not an actor, because my action was not documented in the photo, but only through it.

I am an observer because I look at the photo, for example in post-processing. I am not an observer, because when I publish the photo, others are the observers.

The concept of the observer plays an important role in dealing with the work of George Spencer Brown. [3]

In this case of the example with the photo, too, it becomes clear that the observer – be it the photographer himself or a third party – has an important role to play.

The photo itself is irrelevant if no one is looking at it. Its existence becomes aware only in its contemplation. This means that the moment captured with the photo is only important when looking at it.

The third observer may not have been present at the moment of the flow of life. And this gives him a great opportunity: because looking at it enables him to reinterpret what he has seen. This act of interpretation gives the captured moment a new meaning and, if necessary, also puts it in a different context.

The observer himself creates something new through his observation and thereby becomes part of the whole.


Later in the timeline: I’ll come back to the location of the photo days later. The situation is different now. New people, new objects, new processes.

And yet the photo taken has an effect on me. The memory of the past moment is present. Comparisons to the here and now arise and merge with the memory.

The photo is the documentation of the past, what I see, the moment, what will the future show when I return to the place?

When you look at the photo again, the past becomes present again and thus the continuance of the now.


We live in systems.

We street photographers use these systems. All the time.

With our photos we create sections of these systems and make distinctions.

These distinctions enable third parties to interpret as observers and thus to become part of the system.

[1] George Spencer Brown, Laws of Form, Bohmeier Verlag, sixth edition 2015.             

[2] I am following Democritus’ view of “panta rhei” – everything flows. Eleats may think differently …             

[3] Take, for example, the works of Niklas Luhmann, who has dealt intensively with the Laws of Form.             

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