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Monday, July 20, 2009

Be Aware (and Beware!) of Shapes

When I was a sophomore in high school, one of my favorite classes was, surprisingly, geometry. I say surprisingly because most of my friends that were a year ahead of me convinced me that the class would be a nightmare that would lead only to frustration, boredom and ultimately many moments of humiliating failure. They also convinced me that the teacher (Mrs. Pitt) was a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West and a Marine drill sergeant.

In fact, geometry became one of my favorite courses and Mrs. Pitt was one of the best and most fun teachers I've ever had. I think the reason that I liked geometry is partly because I had a great teacher, but also because I really enjoyed learning how shapes were constructed and how they could be combined in interesting ways. I also began to get an insight into how some artists like M C Escher were able to take relatively simple shapes and create extraordinarily complex designs. Once I discovered the fun and power of shapes, I began to find--and photograph--them everywhere in both the manmade and natural world.

I still love looking for and photographing shapes. And as silly as it sounds to say it, shapes come in all kinds of shapes and sizes--some easy to spot, some a bit more difficult. Some shapes, such as circles, squares, diamonds, rectangles, cones, triangles are obvious and predictable. (Take a look around the room you're in right now and you can probably spot a half dozen distinct shapes within a few feet of where you're sitting.) Other shapes--particularly those in the natural world--are also distinct, but are often more freeform: leaves, spider webs, lilypads, frog's eyes and even a big old trout all have recognizable shapes. And some natural shapes even do some wild shape-shifting: clouds, sand dunes, ripples in a sandbar, etc.

Often too, a shape can have significant meaning: how much more threatening is a snake coiled to strike than one stretched out and sunning on a rock? And everyone knows to be wary of electrical danger when a lightning bolt shape is used on a sign.

Whatever the source of the shape, the more you isolate it from distracting surroundings the more powerful and dynamic it becomes as a design element. The key to isolation, of course, is just getting closer: walk closer, use a zoom, or pick up the object (not the snake, I hope) and bring it home to photograph it. Repetition (like the repetition in the Iowa farm buildings shown here) is another way to emphasize shapes. By including three rounded buildings instead of just isolating one, the shape becomes more of a theme than just an individual structure. Another way to isolate shapes, of course, is with by turning the subject into a silhouette. I've blogged about creating silhouettes earlier but I'll talk more about them in a future posting.

Finding shapes is a good self-assignment, so next time you're out looking for something interesting to shoot, forget the specific subject and instead hunt out the shapes from which they're made.

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