A shape is an enclosed space, a two-dimensional form that has length and width. In many instances in photographs, it’s the element that first catches the eye to reveal the subject’s identity. Students learning to draw begin with the fundamental shapes—circles, rectangles, triangles, and ovals. From these, all forms can be drawn by adding and then erasing lines that don’t belong to the subject.
In the early two decades of the twentieth century, single-image “modernist” photographers moved away from the soft focus, painting-like quality of “pictorialism,” preferring sharp focus, clean lines, an emphasis on shape, form and interesting viewpoints that better lenses made possible. Notable photographers in this movement, particularly for their images of objects that emphasize shape, are Ed Weston, Ruth Bernhard, and Paul Caponigro.
If the purpose of an image is to inform or to communicate quickly, an emphasis on shape is ideal, because it immediately suggests a subject’s size and importance relative to the environment and other visual elements.
On the other hand, if the purpose is to express a feeling, an emphasis on shape is again warranted, but now with an emphasis on lighting in a way that makes the subject fascinating or unusual. And it’s important to pay attention to the background so it doesn’t compete with the subject. Expressive images need to have an impact, and that’s mainly accomplished by out-of-the-ordinary lighting—in many instances, just one light.
There are three types of shapes: Organic, geometric, and abstract
Organic shapes are natural, generally consisting of ovals and curves. They’re rarely straight or hard lines, eliciting the sensibilities of order, flow, and beauty.
Geometric shapes often consist of straight lines, usually with clearly defined edges. Unlike organic shapes, they can even be symmetrical.
Abstract shapes are obvious creative constructions. The value of such images is the fascination they provide by being either unreal or a variation on the real.
In the few books I’ve read on drawing, one of the first lessons is an emphasis on learning to really see a subject, beyond looking at it. The advice to accomplish this is to observe the subject without naming it or even thinking of its function. Instead, to see it as a shape or a combination of shapes made up of lines with highlights and shadows. This is excellent advice for photographers because it strengthens the aesthetic “eye.”
If the objective is to convey information, several shapes can work together with no problem—aesthetically speaking. But when the objective is to convey a feeling, if the situation can be controlled, it would be better to minimize the number of shapes.
Silhouettes emphasize a subject’s shape by diminishing its detail, which is kept in the shadows. They also tend to separate the space into positive (subject) and negative (background), while contributing to a sense of depth.
A lesson learned from my watercolor painting books is that shapes running diagonally across the frame are more dynamic than those that run in a straight line. They may not make sense, but they capture the viewer’s attention.
Considering Shape in Personal and Social Contexts
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first definition of “shape” is “to give a particular form or shape to (something). Another is “to make fit for a particular use, purpose, etc.” The latter definition is curious when applied personally because it raises the question, “Am I fit, in good enough shape to accomplish what I’m here to be and do—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually? It’s a good question for contemplation, not only to gain some perspective but also to consider our fitness relative to what appears to be on the horizon.
Socially, we can ask the same question—and even more questions. As a people, what shape are we in nationally? Is the social “body” physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually fit, able to perform and create forms that can respond appropriately to change given the possibilities of what lies ahead? Are we planning ahead or spending our time and capital managing real or perceived crises? Are we prioritizing properly? Are our speech and actions reflecting our true values? Are we keeping our “eye on the ball,” not letting ourselves become distracted by the voices of negativity, sensationalism, and hate? While at the personal level these questions appear to be unanswerable beyond opinion or speculation, I think they provide some food for thought.
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