eric kim three men escalator square

Dear friend,

Today I want to teach you about ‘Juxtaposition’ — a fancy word that a lot of art school kids like to throw around.

What does it mean?

April 19, 1971. Chicago, IL / Photograph by Vivian Maier. Note the 'juxtaposition' between the fat man on the left, and the skinny man on the right.
April 19, 1971. Chicago, IL / Photograph by Vivian Maier. Note the ‘juxtaposition’ between the fat man on the left, and the skinny man on the right.

The word ‘juxtaposition’ is just a fancy word for ‘contrast.’

To be specific— juxtaposition is when you put two opposite things together, and the contrast of those two things becomes interesting.

For example:

  • Fat person next to skinny person
  • Tall person next to short person
  • Dark colors next to light colors
  • Circles next to rectangles
  • Old people next to young people

Generally with ‘juxtaposition’ — you are making a statement through the contrast of elements you put in the frame.


Examples of juxtaposition in photography

Here are some examples:

1. Person and shadow:

Note the juxtaposition between this woman, and her shadow. Who is real, who is fake? Why does the shadow have a pinocchio nose; and why does the woman not?

2. Subject and background

There is one menacing eye in the background, and a man in the foreground. There is a juxtaposition between the background figure and the foreground figure.

Who is real, who is fake? What is the juxtaposition of emotions, or facial expressions, or feelings you have in the frame?

3. Male vs female

There is a juxtaposition between the surrealism in this photo. There is a man (main subject), but the hand coming out from the side is mysteriously female. A juxtaposition between the man and the female hand:

eric kim street photography - the city of angels - black and white-5-nails-sweat-downtown-la

4. Past vs present

In this image, note the juxtaposition between Cindy (real person) and her parents in the far left (past). There is a juxtaposition between the past and present. There is a juxtaposition between the photograph on the far left (false reality), and the real person (Cindy, real reality):

eric-kim-photography-cindy-project-film-35mm-leica-mp-kodak-portra-40060

5. Diptych

If you put two photos (that are similar) next to one another, they call it a diptych. Diptych comes from Greek:

From the late Greek ‘diptukha’ (putting two writing tablets together; folded in two).

This is a diptych of my mom and me. We are both lying down, in similar positions, looking like we are in a coffin (dead). Note the juxtaposition of me and my mom — how we are both meditating on death:

eric kim mom soul memento mori death

6. Juxtaposing directions

Note the juxtaposition in this painting by Raphael — how the graces are looking in “juxtaposing” directions:

7. Juxtaposing emotions

Note the juxtaposing emotions between the kid in the bottom-left (happy), and the kid in the middle of the frame (upset)
Note the juxtaposing emotions between the kid in the bottom-left (happy), and the kid in the middle of the frame (upset) / Photo by Vivian Maier

8. Juxtaposing activities

Note this juxtaposition in this photo by Garry Winogrand— the kids playing in the background, and the parents calling a cab. Their activities are juxtaposed in this frame:

garry winogrand kids playing

9. Juxtaposing social circumstances

Note the juxtaposition between the able-bodied men, and the man without legs on the ground, in this photo by Garry Winogrand.

garry winogrand legless

Also in another photo by Winogrand, note the juxtaposition between the homeless man on the far left of the frame (in wheelchair), and the beautiful ladies walking by:

garry winogrand women walking down boulevard

10. Animal vs human

See the juxtaposition between the couple, and the monkeys (juxtaposition between human and animal) — in this photo by Garry Winogrand:

garry winogrand monkey


7. How to say the word: “juxtaposition” in a sentence

Some ways you can say ‘juxtaposition’ in a sentence:

  • I love the juxtaposition between the man and the woman in the portrait. I can feel the man’s pleasure; while the juxtaposing emotion of the woman is in pain.
  • To make a stronger photograph; juxtapose two different emotions in the frame. For example, juxtapose an old man looking sad, next to a young boy looking hopeful.
  • I went to India for the first time, and the juxtaposition between the extremely wealthy driving around Bently’s was horrific compared to the untouchables living in extreme poverty, homeless.

8. How to create more juxtapositions in your photography

Keep it simple. Take two different elements, or two different subjects, and put them next to one another in a frame.

Assignment 1: Reflection, shadow, or mirror:

Capture a juxtaposition in your photo by capturing a reflection, shadow, or mirror of your subject:

eric kim three men escalator square

Assignment 2: Put two juxtaposing images together

Find two photos of yours that is similar; and put them together. Like these two photos of hands– the juxtaposition between the woman’s old hands (90 years old) vs the woman’s fingernails (real):

Assignment 3: Look for a juxtaposition between the subject(s) and background

Note in this photograph; the background image– the people from the past look like they’re having fun. The bored couple in the front aren’t having fun– yet they are the ‘real’ people:

Assignment 4: Shoot a selfie

Shoot a selfie of yourself– juxtapose yourself, your own mirror, and the subject in your frame:

Conclusion: Keep it simple

Note the juxtaposition between the kids and Ho Chi Minh in the back
Note the juxtaposition between the kids and Ho Chi Minh in the back

Don’t let these fancy art people talk down on you, by using their big words. Study juxtaposition in art (study Leonardo da Vinci), and from the masters of photography. Study images, don’t just look at them. Try to understand how and why certain juxtapositions work, and why others don’t.

When in doubt, substitute the word ‘juxtaposition’ with ‘contrast’ or ‘comparison.’

When you’re starting off — trying to create juxtapositions in photography, keep it simple. Start with two figures, and figure out how you can create some sort of tension in your image.

Have fun,
Eric


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