All photos are in a rectangular format. Our photographic window to the world has a geometrical shape. We are so used to this, that one has to think for a moment to realize that this is a rather strange state of affairs. When we look around a landscape our outlook (literally) hasn’t any shape and there are few to no rectangles or squares in nature.
In a way, the rectangular shape of the view in a photo indicates already that there is a person looking. Somehow, consciously or unconsciously, a photographer has to take this into account, when taking a photograph.
One way to respond, is to use geometrical forms inside the frame. Indeed, different geometric forms harmonize well with each other. Including lines, squares, circles and triangles has therefore been a proven approach to fill the frame rectangle – both inside and outside of landscape photography. Michael Kenna, for example, often employs geometry even in his landscape work. As a further example, see how van Gogh employs geometry and geometric forms like circles in his The Starry Night.
In the photograph above I played around with a natural geometric form without showing the photo frame – which works here as the photo background is as white as the background color of the post. Somehow the result seems to me quite unsettling; there is no (frame of) reference to attach the reed-triangle to and it appears strangly suspended in nothing…
It seems to me that introducing geometric elements in a picture makes the photograph more “readable” for the viewer. The pattern recognition apparatus in our brain just loves geometric abstractions. Mountains can become triangles, the horizon is a line, a tree can be a circle and a line. Water makes circles (end ellipses), too:
On the other hand, I find that there is a danger in messing up the message of a landscape photograph, if the play with geometry is overdone. Nature can lose its organic, fractal feel if it starts to look like a formal French garden. There is somehow a fine line between bringing order into a composition and turning nature into something artificial.
To somehow escape, or rather: manage, this dilemma, I often turn to studying a form of garden design that tries to solve a similar problem: Japanese gardens.
Japanese gardens are often built around views from a rectangular frame or window in a house:
They also play with other geometric forms, like the circles in the gravel above or the shaped bushes and square stones below:
Still, the overall feel for a garden is supposed to be “organic”:
There are other things, one can learn from Japanese garden designs, e.g. how to create visual depth on a flat viewing plane and how to select/represent views in a landscape.
In this series on methods how I train my “photographer’s eye”, Japanese garden designs rate therefore very high. Luckily a lot of information on the topic is available both online and in books. And as a bonus, the gardens are often just gorgeous, so studying them is a lot of fun.
They also introduced me to a very elusive concept: that of elegance and graciousness in natural forms. This is very hard, if not impossible, to describe and easier to show. But if you start to develop an eye for it you’ll notice that it is all around us.
See ya next time.