This is the 19th posting in the series, “The Aesthetic Dimensions.” The first, posted January 6, 2019, explains the series and deals with “Abstraction.” To follow it (at no cost), go to davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com and click “Follow” (bottom right corner of the Home page). The postings will show up in your mailbox on Sunday mornings. To find other posts in this series click on “Archives” and select a date.
The word “symmetry” comes from the Greek, synnetria, meaning “Agreement in dimensions, due proportion, arrangement.” As an aesthetic dimension in the arts, symmetry occurs when certain visual elements mirror each other within the frame. The elements don’t have to be identical, as in the image above, but for symmetry to occur they do need to balance in terms of general appearance and physical “weight.”
The appeal of symmetry is the perfect or near-perfect balance, which engenders sensibilities of order, stability, and harmony—qualities we observe in nature. Often taken for granted, or at least not perceived as being symmetrical are the symmetries of motion throughout the cosmos (spheres rotating around spheres), balance in nature’s geometry (animal horns, leaf patterns, the placement of eyes and ears), and sea creatures such a starfish, urchins and manta rays.
And symmetries in these forms are modeled in mathematics and geometry, quantum and particle physics, architecture and city planning. Even thought processes such as logic utilize symmetry. So also, classical music with its “canons,” and jazz with its variations on a theme. When you begin to look for them, symmetries are everywhere.
It’s important to note that asymmetry, the more common visual experience, is also appealing. Differences between related elements often add interest and character, as in trees and faces where no two sides are identical.
If the subject matter or situation has the potential for a symmetrical composition, and if the objective is to communicate information, the elements can be loosely related. The elements can even be different, as long as they maintain a balance within the frame.
If, on the other hand, you want the image to generate an emotion, the greater impact is created with elements that mirror each other more precisely.
Whether you’re walking around with a camera looking for symmetries or constructing an image in the studio by the placement of people or objects, compose the subject by placing the real or imaginary dividing line in the center of the frame. To maximize impact, place both the vertical and horizontal vanishing points in the center of the frame. Besides top to bottom and left to right symmetry, it can also be found in circles—as in the masthead of this blog.
A mirror or reflections in a window can be used to create symmetry.
Images can be combined to produce mirror-like symmetries.
Objects combined like this can produce abstractions. This was a tin can, pressed into the blacktop.
When shooting a person, they can serve as the centerline between converging trees, landscape, boats or an architectural feature as seen here.
Contemplating Symmetry in Personal and Social Contexts
One of the observations in nonverbal communication is the propensity for human beings to mirror each other when conversing. We cross our legs or arms, stand a certain way, even talk differently with different people in order to diminish contrasts and maintain harmony. In Gestalt psychology, a healthy relationship is “symmetrical.” The parties engage in mirroring behaviors including speech, body language, facial expressions, including the sharing of “complimentary” information and ideas, not because they want to be like the other person, but to respect them by reducing contrasts that could diminish the relationship. Sometimes symmetrical or “blending” behavior is criticized for not being “authentic.” But the other extreme—an interpersonal, asymmetrical attitude that communicates, “This is how I am, like it or not”—builds a wall of separation.
Systemically in social systems, competition is asymmetrical, tending toward disorder and discord, whereas collaboration is symmetrical, tending toward order and harmony. Because the former values winning or being right, exchanges tend to be assertive and argumentative, at times caustic. The later tends to value the maintenance of the relationship over and above being right or winning an argument. Psychologists who study these patterns in the context of cybernetics—defined by Norbert Weiner as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine”—remind us that neither pattern is the “right” or best way to maintain a relationship. One of the tenants of cybernetics advises that it’s not constructive to look at the problematic behaviors of a system’s individual members. Rather than judge, complain or place blame, the complimentary posture is taking responsibility for the integrity of the system as an organic and dynamic whole. Of course, this applies to all social systems.
Paraphrasing licensed psychologist and family therapist, Marie Hartwell-Walker, in healthy relationships, both personal and social, the pattern of each person’s behavior is complementary to the other. Each person appreciates the others place, potentials, and contributions. This kind of accommodation requires qualities such as reciprocity, empathy, sympathy, acceptance, tolerance, dialogue and respect.
I found one of the citations for “Symmetry” on Wikipedia interesting. It said, “Symmetrical interactions send the moral message ‘we are all the same,’ while asymmetrical interactions may send the message ‘I am special; better than you.’ Peer relationships, such as can be governed by the golden rule, are based on symmetry, whereas power relationships are based on asymmetry.” I italicized the word “may” because I can think the latter message—seeing oneself as “better” than someone else is too strong, and it doesn’t apply across the board.
Symmetry is the concept that something can undergo a series of transformations—spinning, folding, reflecting, moving through time—and, at the end of all those changes, appear unchanged. It lurks everywhere in the universe, from the configuration of quarks to the arrangement of galaxies in the cosmos.
Stephan Ornes (Science Writer)
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