“A clear horizon … invites fresh perception, new inspiration.” ~ Alexandra de Steiguer, Small Island, Big Picture
Lately, I’ve been doing visual journaling weekly with certain images, trying to uncover themes and patterns and bring a little more self-awareness to understanding why I photograph what I do.
One theme I’ve noticed recently is that of (mostly horizontal) lines. See my Flickr album on Horizontal Lines.
In this post, I’d like to explore the symbolism of lines, especially for photography. Sally Gentle Drew, who is collaborating with me on a workshop in visual journaling (more on that below), had this to say.
For me, horizontal lines provide a quiet contrast to the busyness of other lines. The horizontal line seems to say, ‘here, let me organize that content for you’ or ‘let me serve as a boundary so you can better see where this begins and that ends. The horizontal line can also be an edge, heightening my awareness to the present moment – alerting me that a decision may need to be made, a risk may need to be taken, a contrast may exist, a line may or may not need to be crossed.’
Vertical, diagonal and zig zag lines carry a more dynamic energy; they rise, they fall, they say, ‘hey, let me hold that up’ or ‘look here, now there, wait – maybe up here, and down there, and through this’, etc.
When my eye rests on the stable dependability of the horizontal line, something inside feels the space to breathe, feels the time to drift, to imagine, to contemplate potential. I appreciate the quiet encouragement to move at a pace that feels most comfortable to me in that moment; in the knowing that I’ll catch up with the other lines, and the activity they represent, when I’m ready.
In his online book of photographic psychology, John Suler says that the line is the most basic visual element and it has two main purposes: to create a sense of direction or a boundary between two spaces. All lines lead the eye. There is a destination.
- Thin lines – fragile, elegant, delegate, ephemeral
- Thick lines – strong, bold, make a statement
- Horizontal lines – restful, calm, quiet, relaxed comfort, stable, secure. absence of conflict, earth bound things
- Vertical lines – potential energy, dignity, strong, rigid, accentuate height, formality
- Diagonal lines – unbalanced, restless and uncontrolled energy, convey action and motion, dynamic, create tension and excitement.
- Curved lines – soft, graceful, less definite and predictable than straight lines, express fluid movement, calm or dynamic
- Zigzag lines – similar to diagonal lines, convey confusion, nervousness, can imply danger and destruction
I’ve identified three types of lines that show up again and again in my photography.
1. The Horizon Line
The horizon is defined as “the line at which the earth’s surface and sky seem to meet” and “the limit of a person’s mental perception, experience, or interest.”
The horizon draws our attention. It speaks to a vastness or bigger perspective. It points to mystery, what is beyond our known world. Perhaps the horizon represents our deepest longings, some of which may still be unknown to us. The horizon symbolizes somewhere we’d like to be.
“The unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big far beyond my understanding — to understand maybe by trying to put it into form. To find the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.” ~ Georgia O’Keefe
I’m a future-oriented person, and currently feel as if I’m the horizon of a new phase in my life and business. The future is unknown, yet pregnant with possibility.
2. Lines as Edges
We live in a world of boundaries. borders, and edges – things that separate and things that connect. Stanley Plumly, in his book, The Marriage in the Trees, writes,
“In ornithology there occurs the phrase, the abrupt edge, which is the edge between two types of vegetation… where the advantages of both are most convenient.”
Plumly says that natural edges can be very gradual or more abrupt, like a forest’s edge. On the edge can be found the greatest diversity, chaos, danger … and opportunity.
I was blown away when I first heard this quote by Plumly. The edge is where things happen.
In many of my photographs, there are lines that are edges where things meet or connect – like earth and sky, land and sea, built and natural, inner and outer. They show how two come together to create a whole. I think this comes from my desire to see how everything is connected.
The edges in my photographs tend to be very thin, and the concept of “thin places” is a whole other subject. See what Patricia Turner shares about “thin places.”
3. Lines as Openings
Many of my photographs of lines are actually cracks in a surface and they’re not often straight lines, but curving or zig zagging. Cracks are imperfections, often caused by time or external forces. Yet, they’re also openings; places of shelter or possibilities. As Leonard Cohen wisely said,
“There’s a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen, Anthem
Seeing openings and possibilities in the unlikeliest of places is a mission of mine. We have to be paying attention. They’re out there. They’re everywhere.
Knowing how lines affect us psychologically and emotionally can be helpful when composing an image, as well as reflecting on it later.