Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography


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English has borrowed the German word Gestalt, though without the capital letter that German uses on all its nouns (and that English used to). Here’s how the Cambridge Dictionary defines the word as used in English: ‘something such as a structure or experience that, when considered as a whole, has qualities that are more than the total of all its parts.’



I’ve noticed that each plant species has its gestalt, its characteristic way of looking. As an example, take the sand sagebrush, Artemisia filifolia, that drew my attention at the Boca Negra Canyon section of Albuquerque’s Petroglyph National Monument on October 15th. Once you’ve seen sand sagebrush, you’re not in doubt when you see it again.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman





Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 18, 2022 at 4:30 AM

17 Responses

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  1. I had no idea this word is used in English. Is it used for people too, as it is in German?


    November 18, 2022 at 5:12 AM

    • Yes, people are included. Here’s the definition from the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary: ‘a set of things, such as a person’s thoughts or experiences, that is considered as a single system that is different from the individual thoughts, experiences, etc., within it.’ Another dictionary quotes critic Pauline Kael as an example: “When he gets rolling, you’re not responding to single jokes—it’s the whole gestalt of the movie that’s funny.”

      As for pronunciation, I’ve heard the al in the English version pronounced the same as the English word all. I see that dictionaries also attest to the pronunciation ahl, as in German.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 18, 2022 at 6:55 AM

    • It’s not only used for people, it’s the term for a form of psychotherapy — Gestalt therapy — that still has its adherents.


      November 18, 2022 at 9:09 AM

      • Ah, I’d forgotten about gestalt therapy, which I remember was quite the thing 50 years ago.

        Steve Schwartzman

        November 18, 2022 at 9:15 AM

  2. It took me a while to find my comment, but in my recent post about the Caracara, I said to a commenter, “Once you’ve seen a Caracara, it’s not hard to identify the next one.” As with flora, so with fauna. That’s exactly the point you made about the sagebrush. Beyond that, I’ve found that once I find and identify a plant, it’s far easier to find more of its kind. It’s like learning a new word, and suddenly reading or hearing it everywhere.


    November 18, 2022 at 9:20 AM

    • Your caracara’s a good example. I’ve noticed, as you did, that “once I find and identify a plant, it’s far easier to find more of its kind.” I’ve also noticed the opposite, that years go by and sometimes I’m still not sure if a four-nerve daisy I’m looking at is Tetraneuris linearifolia or Tetraneuris scaposa, both of which are common in my area.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 18, 2022 at 9:54 AM

  3. In a spiritual sense, gestalt may be considered a prophetic vision. Another one of my crazy jumps of thought!

    Peter Klopp

    November 18, 2022 at 9:31 AM

  4. Lovely Images of the Sagebrush. I hadn’t given much thought to Gestalt but, investigating Gestalt today, I discovered that there are Gestalt Principles of Design. https://www.toptal.com/designers/ui/gestalt-principles-of-design


    November 19, 2022 at 12:38 AM

    • I’m glad you provided that link. I’d never noticed the arrow hidden between the E and X in the FedEx logo.

      As for the sagebrush, you might say that for it every day is a bad hair day.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 19, 2022 at 5:19 AM

  5. Gestalt is difficult to translate.

    Alessandra Chaves

    November 19, 2022 at 8:47 AM

  6. Interesting reminder to photographers (like me) who concentrate on close-up photography not to forget about the characteristics of the plant as a whole… 🙂

    Ann Mackay

    November 20, 2022 at 4:47 AM

    • I who likewise take so many closeups also have to remind myself to pull back now and then for an overview.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 20, 2022 at 6:20 AM

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