Elements of Design – Shape and Form

Shape

Shape describes two-dimensional space. The actual defining of shape is done by other elements of design: line, space, value, or color. In combination, these other elements form the shapes we see in a work. Shape occurs when tone or color fills the area between lines. Shape is the brains attempt at resolving an object as recognizable (logical) to one’s experience. In the two-dimensional world, there are three simple geometric shapes – the square, the triangle, and the circle. All other geometric shapes are some combination of these three.

There are also more the more complex organic shapes we see in natural and man-made objects, such as the silhouette of leaves, trees, cars or other everyday objects. Shape is the foundation of form.

Form

Form is the three-dimensional counterpart to shape. Shape is to form as a square is to a cube. In the three-dimensional world, the basic geometric forms are cube, sphere, pyramid, cylinder and cones. Form is shape with dimension or volume. To change a shape to a form, dimension must be created by the addition of tone or color transitions within the shape. This results is the illusion of three-dimensions in a two-dimensional space.

In the first decades of the 20th Century photography was moving away from Pictorialism, the trend of photographers attempting to imitate painterly effects in photos, mostly through soft focus and romantic subject matter.  Some of the influences drawing photographers away from Pictorialism were Dadaism, Cubism and a move toward images in sharp focus. It was during this transitional time that Edward Weston took this early masterpiece of composition, Attic, Glendale, California, 1921. This is clearly a transitional piece borrowing from Pictorialism and touching on elements of gestalt. It also seems to  echo some of the modernist notions of space that were explored in the two decades leading to the production of this image.

This is an image that uses shapes almost exclusively in its design. The framing of the image presents the viewer with an ambiguous space where we don’t know if the central dark form is projecting forward into the space or receding toward the left due to the the figure-ground flip-flops. Is the woman, Betty Katz, leaning against the wall? Or is she looking at it head-on, while being separated from another space on the far side of the projection? A third reading could be of the entire wall being perfectly flat with an abstract design painted on it. The woman’s organic dark form counters the geometric lines and lighter tones of the space. Her size and placement within the frame balance the otherwise expansive mass of shapes and tones.

Edward Weston, Attic, Glendale, California, 1921Tone map of Westons, Attic.

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In this image, Weston is obviously playing with the shapes as geometric planes in space. Texture is non-existent and  any volume in the image is generated by tonal changes determined by the angle of the surface.  The tone map indicates a simple, yet appealing set of lines and tones.

Below is another famous photograph,  this time by the Master Photographer Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946. Even if you don’t know that Stravinsky was one of the 20th Centuries greatest composers, the shapes within the frame leave no doubt that he was connected to music in some way.

Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946

Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946

Tone Map

Tone Map

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This is a very graphic design and just an outline of the shapes would be interesting. Here is another instance where creating a tone map breaks the image down into a collection of shapes without any form or other information. The arrangement of shapes within the frame is interesting for its own design.

Below is another Newman portrait, this time of Alfred Hitchcock, the famous film director/producer and master of the psychological thriller and suspense genre in the middle of the last century. Newman, master of the environmental portrait, has him sitting quite far forward so that his body seems detached from the head in a way that the head seems magically attached yet ready to roll down front by its own weight. Notice the simplicity of the image with only 3 objects in the frame: the forms of the body and head, and the background shape. The graphic quality of the image being obvious.

Alfred Neuman, Alfred Hitchcock, date unk.Image Source

Returning to Weston, during the middle of his career Edward Weston’s work often concentrated on finding the “essence” of is subject matter. His work by then had evolved from the Pictorialist soft focus image to the sharp, maximum focus practices of the F-64 Group. Now everything possible was in focus and finding the composition leading to a deep connection with the subject was paramount. Form now became important when photographing a subject and the details found in the local contrasts of objects became important. The essence of the object itself became the subject, as well as what the image by itself could elicit emotionally.

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

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In this shot of sand dunes in on the Central California Coast, we see a study of lines, shapes, forms and textures. Weston is using nature’s ever-present design as a subject of its own. This image can be viewed in numerous ways. It can be seen as a realistic study of the land, with all of its details sharply delineated from the foreground to the mountains in the far distance. Alternatively, it might be viewed as a counter-comment to a realistic reading of the image, abstracted into nothing more than a study of shape, form, line, and tone. Still others may see it in a spiritual sense, as an equivalent to a deeply felt personal event or other experience from life. Regardless of Weston’s original intent, he was highly aware of the formal elements of design within the ground glass and used them to his advantage.

Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern

Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern

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The image above, Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern contains some of the elements we have discussed over in the past few posts. See how many of the items you can pick out.  Include any Gestalt elements you might recognize. As a starting point realize the photo is a picture of leaves in front of a white wall and the shadows they cast on that wall.

Don’t think that all of this discussion about line, form, shape etc. is just “old bunk” that no longer applies. Practiced every day, the Elements of Design still hold true and in the worlds of design, publishing, photography and Art. Familiarizing yourself with, and utilizing these concepts, but not letting them control your vision, is one of the best ways to improve your photography. As an exercise, spend the next few photo outings looking for designs in nature or at man made locations, they exist all over. When you find them, spend some time considering the best way to frame them in a way that the design becomes  part of the subject of the image. You will find that over time, your brain will start to connect more with design and you will be utilizing it naturally without effort. The end result will be improved vision and better photographs.

 

Next Time: Space

 

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.

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Elements of Design – Line

Line

In his popular art appreciation book, A World of Art, Henry M. Sayer writes:

One of the most fundamental elements of art is line. If you take pencil to paper you can draw a straight line or a curved one. Straight lines can be vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Curved lines can be circular or oval (or segments of circles and ovals), or they can be free-form. Lines can abruptly change direction, in an angle or a curve. They seem to possess direction – they can rise or fall, head off to the left or to the right, disappear in the distance. Lines can divide one thing from another or they can connect things together. They can be thick or thin, long or short, smooth or agitated.”

A line is the mark a moving point describes. A line can vary in weight (heaviness of the mark) and width. A line can also vary in shape, it can have smooth edges, or jagged edges, they can be sharply pointed or blunt. Lines create psychological and emotional responses in the viewer. It can communicate as a symbol or as a motion, by way of its direction. Each of these qualities contributes to the expressiveness of the line.

Lines vary in width. In a pencil drawing, lines are measured in both length and width. A line separating the sky and the edge of a building or horizon I measured by length, it has no width. It only delineates a border. These lines are created by contrasts, changes in color or value.

Martinique, Andre Kertesz, 1972

Image Source

An example exists in the image above, you see a photograph composed entirely of lines, shapes and tones. The line created by the horizon has no width, it is a boundary line, a line delineating two shapes. As mentioned above it is created by a change in contrast.

The wedge shaped strip of ocean above the handrail creates its own flat toned shape and becomes a line. The verticals just below the handrail create a counterpoint to the preponderance of horizontal lines and create a rhythm contrasting with the other flat toned areas in the image. The lines of the handrail and the thin cloud in the middle of the frame both converge toward what is assumed the subject of the shot, a human form behind the glass. It could be argued though that this image is not about the human behind the glass, but purely a study in design. Imagine removing any one element in the image; the glass, the railing the human form, the sky or the ocean.  Would it have the same visual power?

Ask yourself, what would you do to improve on the image given the subject matter? Squint your eyes and look at it as a collection of darks and lights. Does the image seemed balanced in use of line? Also, notice how the image does not seem to use the “rule of thirds” as a compositional device, instead Kertesz successfully uses an “L” armature for the placement.

Lines can be explicit or implicit. A traffic lane line in the middle of the street is explicit. It can be seen, and is an object within the space. A line that is “suggested” by placing objects near each other is an implicit or implied line. In the illustrations above, an implied line exists between the circles. In the first instance, there is an implied line between the two circles. In the second instance there are implied lines running between all three circles, creating a triangle.

An implicit line might also be a line suggested by “motion” within the frame as you see in the image below.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var department. Hyères. 1932.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var department. Hyères. 1932.

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Major line map in Cartier-Bresson image

Major line map in Cartier-Bresson image

In this Cartier-Bresson image, Hyères, France, 1932, the bicyclist is in motion creating an implied line from right to left. The handrail sweeping in from the right reinforces the implied line and directionality of the motion. The bicyclist seems to be in a frenzied hurry. This frenzy is accentuated by the swirling of the handrail starting on the left and connecting visually with the spiral pattern of the steps and the handrail coming in from the right. The steps coming up from the street visually appear to run down to an unknown lower level. All of the swirling lines create a vortex shape enhancing the frenzy. The white line sweeping along the curve of the curbing in the upper part of the frame seems to pen the bicyclist in and hurry him along, squeezing him out of the frame.

Types of lines

Horizontal lines express repose or rest, weight and gravity, and can become the dominant lines in a composition.

Vertical lines express lightness, soaring, spirituality and grandeur, illustrated by looking at both the outside and insides of gothic cathedrals.

Perpendicular lines strengthen the feeling of grandeur and can overpower adjacent horizontals. Combining vertical and horizontal lines create stability, permanence, safety and solidity.

Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903.

Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903.

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Both horizontals and verticals  create a solidity relative to gravity, as seen in this image by Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903. Here the massive steps leading to the portal heavily anchor the image. The open archways and vertical relief columns add height to the overall feel, yet retain the solidity needed in the ”sea” of undulating and foot worn steps.

Curved lines express qualities dependent on the amplitude of the curve.

Low amplitude, slow, shallow or soft curves evoke feeling of calmness, relaxation, comfort and safety. They can be familiar and comfortable like old friends. We see these types of line in the natural world on animals, landscapes, plants and ourselves; they are familiar and sensual. They suggest calmness, like a calm sea.

Oceano, Photograph by Edward Weston (1936)

Oceano, Photograph by Edward Weston (1936)

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High amplitude, deeply curved, angular or complicated lines on the other hand suggest confusion, anger, disorganization, stress or frenzy. Consider the shape of a turbulent ocean and you will understand the idea.

Leaf Pattern, Imogen Cunningham, 1928

Leaf Pattern, Imogen Cunningham, 1928

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Diagonal lines create instability, tension, motion, direction or depth. A diagonal might create implied movement when isolated; it will appear to be falling in the direction of the lean due to gravity and will create a psychological tension and anticipation. This feeling increases if the diagonal is in proximity to a vertical or horizontal line implying a base.

Using diagonals can give the feeling of distance and perspective like in a photo of a long straight road disappearing in the distance. Used in combination, diagonals effectively create a sense of motion or depth. Diagonals are one of the major tools for creating a three-dimensional feel on the two-dimensional space of the photograph.

Consider the image below titled, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951. In this image Cartier-Bresson applies diagonals throughout much of the frame enhancing the sense of depth in the image. The procession of women and girls in the foreground creates a crossing counterpoint to the strong diagonal running from the lower right to the mid left side of the image.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951

Henri Cartier-Bresson, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951

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Notice also the use of similarity in the repeating form of the two arches coming off the handrail and the black forms of the women in both the foreground and background. Of these two groups note that the groupings also run at the same approximate angle to each other and the iron rails they align with. Each of these elements adds an amount of coherence to the image, making it a stronger composition and allowing the brain to find logic and beauty within the image. Below are image maps of the major lines and tones in the image. Note how tone maps can mimic semi-abstract paintings. In this one we can see the tone masses and how they carry am implication of a thought out design.

Diagonal lines used in non-symmetrical groups create tension, motion, apprehension, disorganization or clutter. Paul Outerbridge, another Master of Photography, understood almost immediately the importance of design in photography. Much of his work shows a heavy concern with composition of tone, shape and line.

The Triumph of the Egg, 1933, Paul Outerbridge

The Triumph of the Egg, 1933, Paul Outerbridge

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Next Time: Elements of Design – Shape and Form

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.

Gestalt – Figure and Ground – Artifice

Artifice

Artifice is another aspect of figure-ground where techniques like object blending, hiding, and visual deceptions work to conceal, or fool the eyes of the viewer. John Pfahl is a well-known practitioner of artifice photography in the form of visual camouflage, is most known for his “Altered Landscapes” series. In his images, we see an exploration of creating ambiguity of space and scale within the two dimensional space of the image.


Jerry Uelsmann practices a form of psychological artifice with his masterful blending of portions of different, unrelated negatives into prints of extraordinary beauty and mystical content. His work has led to a whole genre of digitally manipulated photographic images. Partly because of his masterful technique, but mostly due to the surrealistically logical imagery in the scenes, most of his images are immediately readable.


Artifice occasionally influences my own work, probably due to looking at too much Minor White over time. I find it can come in two forms visual and emotional.

Visual artifice, like the scene below, tricks the brain into seeing something other than the object photographed. In this instance, the effect is strengthened by the title. The title: “Control of the Oceans – A View of Iron Bottom Sound”, suggests a logical framework for the brain prior to looking at the image.

Emotional artifice comes in the form of strong emotional reactions to images. Anytime empathy for, or personification of an object occurs, a form of artifice takes place. The image below is strongly reacted to by most viewers. Part of a series of images taken over the period of a year and a half, this image evokes differing emotional responses ranging from pity to anger.


Aesthetic Analysis

Formal aesthetic analysis of any creative work usually begins by mapping the visual structure of the image. This is an analysis of the lines, shapes, tones, contrasts etc, found in the image. This analysis is informed by the Principals of Art and the Elements of Design. These in turn are influenced by the Gestalt elements found in the image.

To illustrate lets look again at the image above. What makes this composition work?

Looking at it formally, there are three vertical elements: the wooden upright, the plexiglass rectangle and the rectangular compartment on the left. Each is supported by strong horizontals top and bottom.  These verticals, anchored by the horizontals, create a sense of repose and solidity. The verticals are further reinforced by the fluting of the cardboard backing of the right compartment.

Three verticals elements deliniated by color overlays.

Three verticals elements anchored by horizontals.

If it contained a plain background in the compartment on the left, this composition would have appeared heavy and overly imbalanced to the right. With the broad “barber pole” like diagonals, the image seems comfortably positioned and in balance. The image below illustrates how the space is divided by the horizontal, vertical and diagonal elements.

Division of verticals, horizontals and diagonals within the frame.

An implied triangle running from the top of the larger dolls head down to both sides to just above the horizontal base of the right compartment shown below left.  This triangle strengthens the composition and adds gravity, anchoring it within the visual space. There is also a similarity of the rounded shapes described by the bodies of a both dolls creating an implied circular shape within the frame shown below right.

Other Gestalt elements found in the image include similarity in the shapes of the doll heads, and the rectangular forms of the left and right vertical compartments.

The implied circle within the frame helps strengthen the composition.

The implied triangle adds gravity to an already solidly based compostiion.

All of these steadying components then fall counter to the tension created by the emotional desire to personify the doll on the right as a deceased infant, contrasted with the laughing figure of the impish character on the left .

Keep in mind that these elements were not analyzed as the exposure was being made.  There was though, a decision to include what is currently in the frame. A second composition was made by shooting closer, excluding the left hand compartment. Since I always try to compose to the whole frame (no cropping) the 2:3 format cut into the upper portion of the right compartment in the second framing. Visually, it was unsatisfying and the image felt imbalanced to the eye. I also almost removed the small figure on the left prior to exposure but in the end I left it in. Removing it would have resulted in a weaker overall image, deleting a key component of the emotional artifice.

Again, most of the design influences in framing the shot were not conscious decisions made prior to exposure. But being subconsciously aware of the Principals of Art and Elements of Design would have influenced the overall approach when framing the shot.

Next Time: Grouping

 

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.

Gestalt – Figure and Ground – Selection and Boundary

Selection and Boundary

Selection

Selection is a key aspect of figure-ground. One shape or the another is selected by the brain according to the task. If you are looking at a series of letters on a page looking for a Z, most of what you see is ground and the Z becomes figure when your eyes pass over one, but only because the task is to find the Z. During the search your eyes may focus for a split second on other letters that are similar to the shape of a Z, but once the search is done it is usually only the Z that can be recalled. The same happens when we are driving; we ignore the multitude of buildings, people and signs yet easily isolate the traffic signals and signs.

A number of diagnostic tests used in human sciences test the selection abilities of the subject. A number of them serve to illustrate the strength of figure-ground in perception. The most common example is the slat fence drawings below.

In the instance above, the lines are of equal spacing from one another. Depending on which space (slat) you are looking at, every other slat from that one will seem to be figure, in a space closer to the viewer. The other spaces will be perceived as ground, in a space farther from the viewer. It is possible to see the focused slat as ground but it requires time or effort to see the effect. The brain wants to see the object focused on as field.

In the second drawing, the lines are no longer evenly spaced. Do you see the wide slats as field or ground, how about the narrow slats? Most people will see the narrow groupings as figure and the wider groupings as ground. This makes it easier for the brain to hold the initial grouping it perceives, but the field and ground still reverse with a little effort. What you see as figure at any moment is the result of selection.

If we added an additional line to the right or left we would introduce more ambiguity because all of the elements would no longer be paired and “grouping” would influence perception. The closer elements are together the more likely they will be seen as figure and related. This is a result of “proximity grouping”, discussed later.

Boundary

Boundary is an component of Gestalt showing how common edges can affect the perception of an object. A single expressive line can create multiple shapes that the brain associates with known objects creating a “contour rivalry”. Contour rivalry creates a tension within the frame as the figure and ground flip flop. Closure of one shape or another can help resolve the conflict. Closure is discussed later.

Above we see the classic example of boundary effect on figure and ground in the “Rubin Vase”. What do you see? Is it the shape of a goblet or a profile of two faces or what? Which did you see first and how long did it take to see the other? The second example is the same but with added information. So you still see the same forms that you did in the first example?
Boundary is a common element found in graphic symbols and logo design. Corporations and graphic designers often use a boundary element when creating logos as shown below. Here the brain perceives a sphere where none actually exists, only a series of horizontal lines.

Next Time: Artifice