Circles as Symbols in Photography


Seen at Two Sisters Vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake

This past week I’ve been doing a short course on creating mandalas by the wonderfully creative Julie Gibbons.

Gibbons describes the etymology of the Sanskirt word mandala – ‘manda’ meaning essence and ‘la’ meaning container.

A mandala circle is a container of essence.

As someone who’s always exploring essence in photography, I love that definition.

Circles in general can be found everywhere; in the moon, the sun, our earth, the pupils of our eyes, wheels, flowers, and fruit. Start looking and you’ll see them.

And, like lines, they have symbolism attached. The circle can symbolize inclusion, wholeness, universality, equality, unity, harmony, infinity. There is no beginning or end. Circles create a centre of focus.

Life has many circular themes, daily sunrise and sundown, and the rhythm of the seasons.

“No straight lines make up my life;
And all my roads have bends;
There’s no clear-cut beginnings;
And so far no dead-ends.”

~ All My Life’s A Circle, Harry Chapin. Listen on YouTube.

Think of the Olympic rings – overlapping circles that symbolize harmony and unity.

Circles draw us in. According to Jungian psychology, the circle represents the psyche or the whole Self.

“To the Greeks the circle was a symbol of the divine symmetry and balance in nature. Greek mathematicians were fascinated by the geometry of circles and explored their properties for centuries.” ~ Circles, Circles Everywhere

See this article for more circle symbolism.

Circles in Photography

Lately, I’ve been doing visual journaling with certain images. It’s a way of bringing a little more self-awareness to  why I photograph what I do. I created a Flickr album containing images that include circles, whether defined or implied.

In his online book of photographic psychology, John Suler says:

“A circle indicates unity and eternity. Carl Jung, the famous psychological theorist, called these images “archetypes.” They represent universal patterns of human thought that reside in our collective unconscious. Instinctively, we react to these images, even though we may not always be conscious of that reaction or the underlying meaning. When you incorporate some of these basic symbols into your photography, there’s a good chance that many people will respond to that universal meaning.” – John Suler Photo Psychology

Below are some examples of circles in photography. See if a universal meaning comes up for you when first looking at the three images below. Don’t think too hard about it.

1. The Lone Circle

In the first image, the universal meaning for me is about being different and unique. I see a tiny, colourful circle amidst lots of lines. Yet, the circular plant seems to be thriving and growing where it is.

2. Implied Circle

These children were dancing round and round as the music played. The two in the centre are creating a closed circle within the bigger circle, their hands clasped. The older one is helping the younger one. There is a sense of fun, relationship, and equality.

3. Circles within Circles

While the texture of this prickly cactus may stand out, it was the circular shapes within the circular container that drew me to this photograph. My eye starts at the lower left and goes around in a spiralling way towards the centre.

The universal meaning for me is of being held or contained; of belonging.

You may have come up with similar meanings or something completely different. The purpose of this exercise is to get you thinking about and looking for the circles around you and tapping into their meaning.

Circles are powerful. Knowing how they affect us psychologically and emotionally can be helpful when composing an image, as well as reflecting on it later.
Also see: Lines as Symbols in Photography, On Balance in Photography, and Look for the Spiral.

I’m currently working on a new workshop on visual journaling with Sally Gentle Drew. We plan to start with a small group of about 25 early in the new year. If you would like to be among the first to receive information about this workshop as it evolves, please add your email address to this interest list.


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A Daily Contemplative Photo Walk Can Heal Mind, Body and Spirit

Almost every day, I like to get out for a contemplative photo walk. No agenda, no destination. No problem to be solved in my mind. It’s meditative; one where I focus my gaze and my breath on the world around me.

Contemplation is often confused with reflection. However, the two couldn’t be more different.

Reflection implies thought, usually about something that’s happened in the past or anticipating what might happen in the future. Reflection has its place.

The literal definition of contemplation is to “consider with attention.” To go deeper, it’s about experiencing life in a way that brings mind, body, and spirit together, where thoughts of the past or future disappear.

“Stop looking and begin seeing. Looking means you already have something in mind for your eyes to find. But seeing is being open and receptive to what comes to the eye; your vision total and non-targeted.” ~ Thomas Merton, Song for Nobody 

Contemplative photographs come from this meditative space. I photograph what comes up and don’t know what that will be.

Qualities of a Contemplative Photo Walk

* The senses are active.

I often pick two senses to focus on, for example, listening to sounds and feeling my feet touch the ground. This helps me to stay present and to see more than I normally would if lost in thought.

* There’s no agenda or destination.

I let my intuition guide the route, so it’s different every day. I’m open to whatever comes to my attention, and that includes objects or situations that might not be considered beautiful, interesting, or acceptable.

* The mind is at rest.

Thinking, thinking, thinking taxes the mind, especially the left side. In her book, Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor says that our culture cultivates left brain dominance.

“Statistics vary, but generally everyone who is right handed (85% of the U.S. Population) is left hemisphere dominant. Over 60% of left handed people are also left hemisphere dominant.” ~ Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight

By experiencing the reality of life as it is, we give the left side of our brains a rest and tap into the right side, where we can develop its qualities of spatial awareness, intuition, and creativity (UCMAS, Mental Math Schools).

I see contemplative photography as one tool for stimulating the right side of the brain (see Photography for the Right Side of the Brain).

Beneficial Side Effects of a Daily Photo Walk

* Fresh air and exercise is always good for the body and soul.

* Sometimes, when I’ve given my mind a rest, a solution to a problem will emerge out of the blue. It bubbles up from my unconscious mind.

* A daily photo walk can make us feel more connected to the place we inhabit, including the natural world and the people in our community. The more connected we are, the more invested we are.

* More than anything, my daily walk makes me more appreciative and aware of the life I’m living and my place in it.

Do you wonder how you can fit a contemplative photo walk into your day? It doesn’t have to be long – 15 minutes or so – and you can do it anywhere; on your way to work, walking the dog, going to lunch, or on an afternoon break.

Do you already take a daily walk (with or without your camera)? If so, what effects has it had on your life? If not, will you try to fit one in?


Related Reading

On Looking – Ideas for Photo Walks
Cultivate Seeing
Maira Kalman on Walking as a Creative Device
Photography as Meditation

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I’ve Looked at Clouds


Clouds’ Illusions

I’d originally planned for today’s post to be about a trip to Chicago this past weekend. And, although I took a few photographs in the windy city, it was the clouds outside the airplane window coming and going that really drew me in.

As you’ll see, the classic Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now (listen below) describes the experience beautifully.

Clouds are endlessly fascinating and especially so from an airplane, where we see them from a different perspective. They’re constantly moving and changing, and so are we. New compositions appear every second.

Going to Chicago on Thursday morning, the view was one of blue skies above fluffy clouds that looked like cotton balls. It felt as if we were bouncing all the way to Chicago, in anticipation of a fun weekend ahead. I felt carefree and relaxed.

“Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere,
I’ve looked at clouds that way.”

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

Coming home mid-afternoon on a snowy Sunday, the clouds looked very different, quite mysterious in fact. They were mostly blocking the sun and the blue sky, not fluffy like cotton balls, but more like a soft, snowy landscape.

Amazingly, the second stanza in Both Sides Now fit perfectly.

“But now they only block the sun,
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done,
But clouds got in my way.”

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

As we began our descent, down through the clouds and back to reality, I felt as though the clouds were slowly enveloping me (and the airplane). It was time to get my head out of the clouds and start thinking about the practicalities of the week ahead.

Again, Joni speaks to me.

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

Joni Mitchell wrote this song as a young, twenty-something woman on the edge of stardom. In this interesting article by Brad Wheeler for the Globe and Mail, he quotes singer-songwriter Catherine MacLellan.

“Both Sides, Now is, at first, a meditation on clouds, the whimsical way a child sees them, as “ice-cream castles in the air,” but there are two sides to everything, and as we mature, we stop seeing clouds for their simple beauty, but as a sign of rain or bad weather. It is like that with all things that seem at first so simple and beautiful, such as love and life. We start out with such natural optimism as children, and then as adults we tend to learn a bitter pessimism or brutal honesty, seeing clouds/life/love for what they are.” – Catherine MacLellan, PEI singer-songwriter

It’s best to be able to see both sides. Listen below.


Related Reading

Cloud Symbolism

Alfred Stieglitz – Clouds as Equivalents

A Short Film Reflection on Clouds from The School of Life


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