In geometry, a “point” is a single location. A “line” is an extension of a point, an elongated mark, a connection between two points or the edge of an object or situation. Artist Paul Klee said, “A line is a dot out for a walk.” Practically speaking, lines serve to define length, distance, and shape. And aesthetically, they indicate boundaries; they create separation. Below, the “line in the sand” marks a length, along which the visual element on one side differs from the other.
Lines are delineated according to path, thickness, evenness, continuity, sharpness, contour, consistency, length, and direction. They make shapes, create visual variety and rhythm, simulate texture, separate colors, suggest movement, and create the illusion of depth.
Because the eye tends to follow lines, the artist can use one or more of them to direct the viewer’s attention, ideally to elements of interest. Note also the telephone lines, the railroad ties are lines, and the horizon is a line.
Several lines together can create or reveal a pattern,.
The sensibilities of structure, mass, and volume can be enhanced by framing architectural and other subjects so the lines, both vertical and horizontal, are dominant.
“Organic lines,” those that are broken or vary in thickness, texture, shape, or color, help to describe edges, define a subject, or evoke a variety of sensibilities. Shadows are lines, so also are lines that make letters, for instance in italicized words that stand out from regular type to create emphasis.
Lines can also be ephemeral, for instance, a ray of light, an airplane vapor trail, or a line of fog in a valley. In this instance, the sunlight streaking through windows at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England consists of lines. The dome itself displays a series of concentric lines.
Our everyday lives are visually permeated with lines: squares, rectangles, triangles, circles, and triangles. Putting such lines to aesthetic use in photography is mostly a matter of becoming aware of them in the environment—or arranging them in the studio—and then making them a dominant or important part of the image. In my own work, I go looking for “strong geometries.” Depending on the objective, the reason for making a photograph, lines can be framed to convey information, express an emotion, or both.
Vertical lines are rigid, stable, and strong—trees in a forest, electric towers receding into the distance, statues, architectural columns, windmills, and mountain peaks.
Horizontal lines are restful, calm, and serene. They suggest gravity—converging railroad tracks, rolling hills, and meadows, a line of fences, a sprawling farm, a thin stream meandering through tall grass and weeds.
Vertical and horizontal lines that intersect suggest strength, equilibrium, and durability, as in the office building above.
Diagonal lines are dynamic. They express the energies of activity, restlessness, drama, and opposition—wind-blown trees, a severely tilted barn, an uplifted rock face, contemporary architectural features, and an ascending airplane.
Thick and bold lines shout. Small and thin lines whisper. Squiggly and irregular lines are frenetic.
Lines of light are generally distinctive, especially against a dark or black background, as in this New York street scene.
Straight, sharp and bold lines are assertive. Curved, thin, and continuous lines soften. It’s one reason why, aesthetically, straight lines are considered “masculine,” and curving lines “feminine,” particularly in architecture.
And lines can be imaginary. Photographers are aware of “sight lines,” the direction people in the frame are looking. We generally don’t want a line of sight to lead the viewer out of the frame, and we prefer to have a person direct their gaze either toward the camera, another person or an important object. Film directors concern themselves with “looks,” (another name for sight lines) the direction an actor is looking because they want smooth transitions between edited shots.
Contemplating Lines in Personal and Social Contexts
We all draw lines in life. How and where we draw them is an expression of our beliefs and values. And the lines we draw communicate these to others. Often, lines can trigger an emotional response—people stand in line, waiting for hours in the rain or cold for something to happen, putting patients and health “on the line” for a positive outcome. Sitting in a line of traffic for a long period tests the patience of drivers, at times to the brink of road rage. We’re “sold a line of goods” by Robo callers, encouraged to follow a “line of thinking,” and “fall in line” behind a leader. In these and other such linear situations, the choice is social alignment. And we often decide whether or not to follow a particular line of thought, conform to a request or behavior. We want to know if it’s in line with our values?
How and where society draws its lines reveals the perception of both itself and the world. In anthropology and sociology, the phenomenon of drawing lines around groups of human beings is referred to as “stratification.” Its how we position ourselves relative to the groups we identify with relative to other groups. We draw lines by kin, tribe, caste, race, geography, economic status, and intelligence to name just some of the larger groupings. These lines are actually circles. Psychological or physical, the purpose of such lines is to enclose and exclude, often as a matter of preferences or security. The intent is to keep “our people” in and “others” out.
Photographers in the United States are severely restricted because every bit of land is enclosed by buildings or fences. Landscape photographers have to photograph in national parks or ask permission to access private property. Even then, the landscape is filled with fences, phone poles, electric towers and wires, microwave, and cell phone towers. What does that say about us? In rural England, it’s very different. While the land is owned, fences in most areas have gates for the express purpose of allowing people the opportunity to walk the property without needing to ask permission. And, there’s strict regulation on where poles and towers can be placed. It’s a photographer’s dream. Remember I said that lines speak? So what does that say about British society? It seems to me it has everything to do with trust and how we perceive those around us. Perceptions are reflected in the lines we draw, and they have consequences.
On a research trip to Guatemala, I followed a Maya guide on walking paths through hills and valleys where vegetables were being grown. One of the notable features was the lack of fences—anywhere, for miles. Individual plots were marked at the four corners by a pile of stones or a tree that only grows five feet tall. My guide explained that the walking paths through the fields were open to anyone, and were often used as shortcuts to various destinations. Geographically, the lines they drew were imperceptible, horizon to horizon. Where there is trust, there’s no need to draw a line.
Given the current immigration situation, the real challenge is how to identify migrants who can be trusted as contributors to society as opposed to those who would threaten it. In my opinion, since migration is an information challenge, not a physical one. The solution then is a matter of re-envisioning the immigration process so systems, not fences, can be put in place to effectively and efficiently manage the borders. Systems failures require systems upgrades. In the current situation, information gathering, processing, and sharing should be a top priority.
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