What’s Your Line? Lines as Symbols in Photography

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“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.

“A line is a dot our for a walk.” ~ Painter Paul Klee (via Sally Gentle Drew and Brainy Quotes)

Summarized from The Meaning of Lines: Developing a Visual Grammar:

  • 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

 

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Southbrook Winery and Sky

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

 
Crack

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.

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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How to Know if you’re Contemplative

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I recently read a book about the Enneagram (personality typing) called Enneagram Spirituality: From Compulsion to Contemplation by Suzanne Zuercher.

The simplified gist of the Enneagram is that we all come into life and/or are formed to have an instinctive view or outlook. This way of being can become a compulsion. Our path to contemplation means being aware of this compulsion and knowing that we have choices.

“The Enneagram can move us toward that contemplative life which is the destiny of the human person. To become a full human being we need to become contemplative, alert, and aware of inner and outer reality as it becomes known to us moment by moment.” ~ Suzanne Zuercher

The Enneagram is one of my favourite subjects, one that I’m not going to get into here, but if you’re interested in learning more, there are links for you to explore at the bottom of this post.

What I want to address here is the author’s description of a contemplative person. Below is a summary of the qualities described in the book.

P1130023* Confronts and accepts the world just as it is, neither avoiding the dark nor lingering in the light.

* Lives life with real zest.

* Knows that life cannot be controlled.

* Is open to surprise and goes with the flow.

* Does not bemoan what is or try to make it better.

* Loves truth and acts confidently.

* Even their bodies seem to flow with life.

* All of their senses are activated. They take everything in.

* They’re curious, not judgmental.

* Their emotions are real and immediate.

* Their insights are clear.

* They seem grounded and intimate with their intuition.

* They are truly graceful people.
 

Can you think of someone in your life who has some (or all) of these qualities? Which qualities do you have and which could you use more of?

 

As a 5 on the Enneagram (the observer), I’ve become more aware of my need to hide and withdraw into the safe world of knowledge and perception. I practice being more aware of sensations and emotions in my body.

I notice what energizes me and moves me out into the world (photography and connection).

I know that it’s important for me to share what I learn and not wait until I have all the facts.

I know that I need to risk making mistakes and letting them go when I do. At the same time, I embrace my need for solitude, reading, and research and realize that not everyone will “get it.”
 

Which one (or more) of these qualities struck a chord with you, in terms of “I could use more of that?”

 
Make that your intention for the next week or so.

For example, if you’re not feeling much zest for life, think about what does make you come alive, and work some of that into your schedule this week.

“If we use the Enneagram as just another personality theory, it yields much valuable information for assisting self-appraisal and coming to self-awareness. At another and deeper level, however, the Enneagram can assist conversion and transformation by radically confronting deception.” ~ Suzanne Zuercher

More on contemplative living – The 9 Habits of Contemplative Living, Are you a Contemplative? Take the Quiz.

Another good book on the Enneagram – From Fixation to Freedom by Eli Jaxson-Baer

Online Enneagram Resources – Enneagram in the Narrative Tradition and The Enneagram Institute
 

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On Setting Intentions in Photography

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“You are what your deepest desire is. As your desire is, so is your intention. As your intention is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.” ~ The Upanishads

Tara Brach is one of my favourite writers and speakers. And, she freely offers a weekly talk and meditation through the Insight Meditation Community she founded in Washington, D.C.

In a recent talk called “Nourishing a Liberating Intention,” Brach began by quoting Richard Baker Roshi, who said that the keys to healing and being awake are “intention” and “attention.”

I talk a lot about attention on this blog. And I did write about The Power of Intention awhile back. In this post, I’d like to focus more on the application of intention to photography.

Brach explains that there are egoic intentions (based on fear or surface desires) and nourishing, liberating intentions (based on our deepest desires).
 

We want our intentions to be nourishing and liberating.

 
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Illustration by Kelly Ort

 

How do we know our deepest intentions?

 

Via Tara Brach

1. The content is in line with who we are innately.

2. We feel a big yes in our body.

3. There is a sincere, innocent quality to it.

4. It is about the present moment, not a future goal.


 

Intentions in Photography

 
We can apply these same principles to our photography. Intention precedes attention.

Egoic intentions in photography are based on fear – wanting to be good, noticed, approved of. Our choice of subject is based on what others will like. We have to have all the latest gear. Our photographs are staged to achieve a certain aesthetic or to win a prize or to be sold.

Note: There’s nothing wrong with wanting any of these things, but it’s important to be clear on what type of intention it is.

Photographs that come from a nourishing, liberating intention feed our soul, reflect who we are at our deepest level, express the essence of the moment, and often come by surprise.

A nourishing, liberating intention in photography comes from a deep desire to know ourselves and how we connect with the environment around us.

It tends to be broad, for example, an intention to opening and awareness of the senses. It can also be more specific, for example, being open to colour. But, once we set it, everything that comes afterwards is up for grabs. 

Not being attached to outcome is an important aspect of a nourishing, liberating intention.
 

There is no looking for, only seeing (and receiving) what is.

 
Here’s one example that I wrote about recently on this blog.

I noticed that I had taken a few photographs of store window reflections and wanted to explore this subject further. I set an intention to go out for my photo walk and only photograph store window reflections. I did this because seeing window reflections as they are requires a different way of seeing and I wanted to be in that mindset. Yet, I had no preconceived ideas about what I would find.

When I went to Star Island to facilitate a workshop, I had an outline and experiences I wanted to share. My intention was that each person have the experience of contemplation on this island. Of course, I had no control over whether that would happen for them. I could only set the stage.

One part of my outline was that we would meet and discuss the essence of place at 1:30 on Sunday. In the meantime, I found out that the winter caretaker of Star Island, who had published a photography book about winters on the island, would be speaking and showing her photographs at 1:30 on Sunday. How serendipitous was that? We changed the plan to take in her talk, which was on the essence of Star Island.
 

How do you set intentions?

 
Watch the video of Tara Brach’s talk here. Access all of her talks here.

Read: The Power of Intention

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