John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

The Diagonal Line

diagonal line in photography


The line of energy, motion, and triangles

The diagonal line is one of my favorites. Unlike the steady vertical or placid horizontal, it’s the line of dynamic energy and motion. It's the relationship of the diagonal line to the frame edges of the image that gives it energy. Something is going up, or coming down. It’s a rocket shot into the air and the fall of a roller coaster.

A diagonal line tends to create triangular shapes as it interacts with the frame, thereby creating the sensation of  “three’s.” The number 3 is psychologically powerful, sometimes even mystical. Think of parents and child, the love triangle, the Pyramids, the Holy Trinity. Think of the Three Stooges and the Three Little Pigs.

Diagonals are most interesting when they interact with horizontal lines and an opposing diagonal, which creates complex sets of triangles that may converge on an element in the image, lead the eye in different directions, or create an intricate mosaic and constellation of facets, like crystals. Long diagonals may create big triangles that act as arrows that lead the eye to the corners of the image, which may or may not be a good thing.

Although some people think that strong diagonal lines can be too obvious and a bit contrived, they do catch the eye and drive home a point. More subtle diagonals created by delicate lines, background patterns, or psychological connections among elements (like a person’s line of sight), can lend a subliminal feeling of energy to the image.

In the photograph above, the pipe forms one very big and obvious diagonal line that threatens to divide the image in two. But it’s balanced by the horizontal lines of the incoming waves which create smaller triangles that point down along the length of the pipe, thereby enhancing its sense of direction. The horizontal and vertical boards around the pipe create even more smaller triangular shapes that recede down the pipe, creating a visual rhythm that carries us along. The stark geometry of the pipe and boards is softened by the more smooth and irregular lines of the waves.

As a leading line, the pipe is quite dramatic. But to what does it lead?... Nothing, really. It points out to the horizon and the vast space that is the ocean. For me, the composition of this photo drives home an idea about the relationship of humans to nature. We build big, strong, sturdy things, with a sense of purposeful direction, as if we can invade and conquer the world and nature along with it. But in the end, where does that attitude lead us?... Nowhere, really. We can’t conquer nature any more than this pipe can conquer that ocean and horizon.

After posting this image and essay to Flickr, one visitor indicated that this might be a sewage pipe. I’m not sure if that’s true, but if so, all the better, in terms of the symbolism. We humans are notorious for boldly and energetically dumping on nature.


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If you liked this article, I'd also recommend these:

The Line
Circular Compositions
Psychological Lines

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche