XXII. Unity / Harmony

Aesthetically considered, unity is the arrangement or blending of visual elements in a way that’s pleasing. When it works, there’s a feeling of completeness, order, and wholeness. Not one element is out of place or distracting the eye from the central message, feeling or theme. 

I’m reminded of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s comment to an interviewer who asked if he noticed that in one of his films there was a dog in the background relieving himself in the street. I paraphrase: “Of course I saw it! And I allowed it. There’s not one element in any frame of my films that isn’t there purposefully! I either put it there or allowed it to be there.”

In the third posting of this series I talked about “color harmony.” Here, I’m referring to harmony as a design principle that contributes to unity through the use of similar elements, colors, shapes, lines, textures, and patterns. Like Fellini’s comment, everything within the frame is there on purpose—justified.   


Ordinary perception, viewing our everyday world as part of managing day-to-day living, is characterized by shifts in attention from one thing to another within a dynamic and immensely diverse visual field. We look at what’s in front of us and imagine the rest in relation to what’s happening in our lives. It’s egocentric and normal, necessary in order to survive, grow and accomplish. Although this image is an accurate representation of the scene, it is not unified. It’s also a good example of a “complex” image, composed of many elements—sky, barn, shutters, grass, stone, shadow, silo, windows, wires and so on. It provides a lot of information but lacks any emotion or impact.

On the other hand, conscious perception is a choice. It’s seeing as opposed to looking. And that’s not our usual way of engaging the world visually. It’s an activation of the “aesthetic nerve,” an altered state of consciousness where we isolate a subject from its environment in order to see it with understanding eyes, that is, to better understand and appreciate its being, independent of its identity, utility or benefit other than experiencing or capturing the perceptual experience. It’s what drives the creation of art. Art is the creative act or experience, not the end product, which is an artifact—art after the fact. 

Unity is best accomplished through that kind of perception, first by seeing the subject for what it is in itself, then, possibly, introducing elements that relate to it. It’s a matter of reducing or minimizing complexity and variety in favor of simplicity and focus. That’s not to say a complex image, one with many elements, cannot be unified. It can. But it reduces the experience of impact. Consider the following landscapes, for instance:

Here again, an okay image. There’s lots of information here—hills, grass, sky, haze. But the image lacks impact because it doesn’t express a unified message or theme. It’s important to note: there’s nothing wrong with complex images that lack unity—different approaches depending on what you want to convey. Information or feeling.

Here’s the same kind of subject matter, but now the expression is unified. The image is about ONE THING, and one thing only. Not a lot of information here, but the image has an impact.


Unification involves the gathering together of elements in a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As it says on the dollar bill, “out of many, one.” A unified image communicates one message or expresses a single feeling. Nothing about it dilutes or distracts the eye. And an excellent way to accomplish this is through the application of harmony—choosing visual elements and composing them so they’re in an appropriate relationship to the central message or emotion. As recommended in an earlier posting, accentuate the features that define a subject and eliminate any visual elements that distract the eye from where it should be. The challenge of harmony is to find a balance between unity and variety. 

“Harmony is the reflection of unity on the plane of multiplicity.”

Darryl Jones (Photographer)

All of the aesthetic dimensions discussed in this series are tools that can be used to unify images. In constructing and assessing and editing my images relative to unity, I strive for focus upon a single or “core” feeling with the other elements contributing to it. Basically, I don’t want any elements that compete or distract from that core message or feeling.

Contemplating Unity and Harmony in Personal and Social Contexts

The challenge of unity is bringing diverse parts into right relationship with each other and the whole will take care of itself. And that’s accomplished by ensuring the functionality of every part in the system. Otherwise, “one weak link will break the chain.” It’s the fundamental principle of systems science. 

We’ve mastered this when it comes to mechanical and electric systems. Henry Ford capitalized on it by envisioning the whole, an automobile, and making its constituent parts identical so they were interchangeable and functioned together in harmoniously. It resulted, on course, in the assembly line. The same systems principles resulted in the exponential growth in technologies from silicon chips to the Large Hadron Collider, the most complex machine ever built. Currently, it appears that humanity is undergoing a metacrisis of perspective and values, a series of breakdowns that are demonstrating the failures in our thinking and behaviors since the dawning of the Industrial Revolution. But breakdown precedes and urges transformation. 

We know how to make machines and electronic devices that work. We know their parts are designed so they function in right relationship with each other toward a designed purpose. But social systems are composed of thinking parts, more properly “members,” of larger bodies. And each member has a unique perception of themselves and the whole—and their place within it. 

All system designs begin with a vision of the whole. In the United States of America, that vision has been articulated in the founding documents. In living systems—at all levels—it’s neither desirable nor possible to produce members that are identical. To function effectively according to the vision, attention has to be given to the members—all of them, so there are no weak links. 

This is accomplished in the first place by ensuring the health and well-being of all the members. And critically, each member needs to understand that they are an important and needed part of the system. It gives them perspective and purpose. Also, in order for a member to discover their place in the system, they need guidance and opportunity to discover and develop their unique potentials—what’s in their heart to be and do.

In this, the whole system—community, church, interest group, state, nation—has to draw upon the fully functioning members at the top of the social pyramid to support those at the bottom. At the same time, the smallest social system, the family, plays the critical and fundamental role of nurturing and developing children as healthy, unique and whole human beings. Bringing them into right functional relationship—where members support each other—is both a bottom-up and top-down enterprise. And what makes it all work at all levels is open, honest and respectful communication. 

Knowingly or not, all of us are embarked on a common journey in consciousness whose goal is our full awakening to unity with everyone and everything.

Anna Lemkow (Author)

To learn more about part-whole relationships I recommend a paper entitled How Parts Make Up Wholes by Scott Findlay and Paul Thagard. The science is excellent, complex when they deal with physical systems. Later on, however, they describe family and social systems.

I welcome your feedback at <smithdl@fuse.net>

My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

My Photography Monographs


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