Intentional distortion to emphasize shapes and color.

Say what? It is probably a word you have never heard. Ostranenie (good luck on the pronunciation) is a Russian word that refers to “defamiliarizing” scenes so we can see them new. I think it has application to art.


The term was created by the Russian writer and critic Viktor Shklovsky in 1917. He was originally referring to poetry as opposed to normal writing. His point was that poetic language was intentionally different from our normal language by being more difficult to understand. By being formal and different, it gives us a different perspective on the world.

The concept was fairly influential in Europe for a time, known as Russian Formalism. It was picked up in various forms by other writers and playwrights. Even Freud referenced it in his notion of the uncanny.

How it works

The Russian Formalists maintained that habit is the enemy of art. Therefore the artist must force the reader (in their case) outside of their normal state of perception.

The problem with this is that it ends up relying on shock value. But shock wears off and becomes a norm. Then it becomes a degenerate spiral because things have to become more and more extreme to provide shock. Just look at most Amazon Prime or Netflix productions.

Displacement, alternate reality, removal of what is known – these can become pretty heavy-handed psychological manipulations.


A slightly softer definition is “Defamiliarization or ostranenie is the artistic technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar or strange way so they could gain new perspectives and see the world differently.” This is actionable and a reasonable artistic device.

It is easy to see in literature. Science Fiction sets things in a different time or place or it creates environments that do not exist in our world. This lets them make observations about us from the outside. Fairy tales give us great insights on the real world by creating fictional situations. Plays, movies, and poems all do it to some extent.

How about the visual arts? One artist I see doing this is Brooke Shaden. She creates dark and mysterious scenes to ask questions about our situation. I don’t necessarily resonate with her work, but I respect her artistic technique a lot. And she is a very good instructor. Catch some of her classes on Creative Live.

Even a simple thing like very long exposures can be a form of this, because it changes what you normally see into something different. My friend Cole Thompson does this well. He sometimes uses long exposures to drastically change what you expect to see in the scene.

As an unlikely example, black & white photography is kind of this. By removing all color from images our perception is dramatically changed. It is familiar, but unfamiliar. It is definitely a new perspective on the world.


In my own timid way, I like to do this sometimes. Black and white is one example. I am a closet B&W artist. I love it, even though most of my work is dramatically colorful. One of the things I love is its ability to present a new viewpoint on the familiar.

Time exposures are another common process for me. I like its ability to change our perception of what is happening by shifting the time reference.

Intentionally distorting a scene to change the way we see it is another technique I like. The image with this article is an example. This is a straight shot, no Photoshop magic. One day I was having lunch in a favorite restaurant a couple of blocks from my studio. I noticed that some of the old windows in this 100+ year old train station were very distorted. If I photographed through them at a certain angle it enhanced the distortion in desirable ways.

This shot is a view of my downtown. The distortion reduces it to shapes and color while adding an intriguing texture. I like it. Luckily, the manager is a friend and didn’t mind me exploring to my heart’s content.