John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Geometric and Organic Patterns

geometric and organic patterns

I’d like to suggest that all patterns in a photograph fall into two basic categories: geometric and organic. Some people say that abstract patterns are a third type, but I think they’re just a variation of geometric and organic shapes.

Geometric Patterns: Ordered, precise, logical

Geometric patterns show us straight lines, circles, triangles, rectangles, and polygons, as well as variations and combinations of these shapes – such as squares, ellipses, cubes, cylinders, and pyramids. Geometric patterns tend to be symmetrical.

To understand the psychological effect of these patterns, think back to geometry class during your school years. You had to learn the very precise mathematical principles embedded in these shapes. There was no room for equivocation. Geometry is all about rules. Geometric patterns therefore conjure up ideas about orderliness, formality, certainty, strictness, efficiency, predictability, accuracy, precision, and, thanks to Plato’s concept of Ideal Forms, the striving for perfection. People who embrace rationality, logic, and organization often feel drawn to such patterns.

Most of the time we find geometric patterns in human-made things: buildings, tools, machines. They conjure up ideas about construction, civilization, and accomplishment. Because geometric patterns often involve repetition - as in the windows of a skyscraper and the wheels of parked cars – we feel linearity, movement, and a sense of direction. When the progression of shapes is even and unchanging, it might seem relentless, overwhelming, or boring. Unexpected breaks in the repetition add rhythmic interest. In some photographs geometric patterns are clearly the components of some human-created object or environment – a bridge, shelves holding bottles, a circuit board - while in other cases the image goes completely abstract, as in extreme close-ups where all we see are geometric shapes without the identifiable context of the whole object or environment.

To emphasize the strict geometry of these patterns, shoot straight on, at right angles to the surface, which often results in a flat image that accurately renders the symmetry of circles, rectangles, and triangles. If you shoot down along the surface, you’ll create a sensation of depth, with geometric patterns changing in shape as they recede into the distance, as if they might be growing, shrinking, or, in the case of shallow depth of field, slowly fading away and losing their precise form. As in all types of photography, black-and-white and monochrome images in general tend to highlight shapes.

Organic Patterns: Flowing, free-form, peaceful

Organic patterns are harder to describe. Think about the shapes you see in nature (which is why they’re also called “natural” patterns): leaves, flowers, rocks, the patterns of waves in the ocean, the contours of landscapes, mountains, and shores. With a few important exceptions - like the circular shape of the sun setting behind clouds - you won’t see any pure geometric forms. Some people even say that nature hates straight lines. Instead, the patterns in nature are irregular, uneven, asymmetrical, flowing, unpredictable, gentle, free-form, soft. They are mysteriously “curvilinear” forms, which similar to geometric patterns, go abstract when you shoot them very close up or very far away. Resisting the unconscious urge to inject geometry, artists have a hard time recreating organic patterns that truly look like they came from nature.

Why we humans enjoy visiting oceans, forests, and mountains reveals the psychological impact of these organic patterns: we feel peaceful, calm, connected, and comforted in the presence of the graceful flow around us. We sense Beauty. So too when viewing photographs of nature, which no doubt is the reason why nature photography is so popular.

Modern mathematics attempts to define the patterns of nature in terms of fractals, which are the curious shapes that repeat themselves when viewed from a distance and when we zoom in on them for infinitely closer and closer views. The ancient Greeks described the Golden Ratio (also known as the Golden Section and Golden Mean), which continues to fascinate mathematicians as an elegant concept that seems to explain such naturally spiraling shapes as a nautilus shell. Ancient Chinese philosophy talks about “Li” – the mysterious irregular patterns that we sense in flowing water, colorful autumn leaves, and the petals of a flower, but that we cannot exactly describe. These Eastern and Western explanations point to some underlying, hidden principle or force that organizes the illusive structure of the universe. Indeed, it feels mysterious, infinite, and mystical. This is the psychological power of organic patterns in photography.

Mixing Geometric and Organic Patterns

Any photograph that includes natural and human-made things will entail a mix of geometric and organic patterns. We might not necessarily notice that combination because we live in a world filled with natural and human-made stuff. Any random photo simply captures what we’re used to seeing every day. If you want to emphasize the juxtaposition of geometric and organic patterns in a shot, you can do one of several things. Look for compositions in which a relatively small organically shaped object appears within a larger geometric context, in which a relatively small geometrically shaped object appears within a larger organic context, and in which the shapes of geometric and organic objects balance each other without the distraction of too many other objects.

Mixing these two types of patterns suggests some kind interaction or comparison between human and organic forces. Depending on the composition and processing of the image, they might compete, fight, overwhelm, cooperate, mimic, tease, balance, or dance with each other. As such, your photo can be a commentary on the relationship of people to nature.

Geometric and organic patterns can blend into each other. Human-made things eventually decay, resulting in their geometric patterns slowly returning to organic patterns. Perhaps that’s one reason why some photographers love old, abandoned places and things: the natural world is reclaiming the human-made world. A photograph also intrinsically requires the shaping of purely organic patterns by bounding them in the standard rectangular or square frame. In fact, when shooting organic patterns, the photographer, consciously or unconsciously, might be using the frame along with the composition to infuse geometric ideas into the image. How much should we shape organic patterns using geometric thinking? Of course, that’s a question answered by personal taste as well as the intention of the photo. When trying to manipulate nature’s designs using human-created designs, we might also keep this classic Zen story in mind:

A priest was in charge of the garden within a famous Zen temple. He had been given the job because he loved the flowers, shrubs, and trees. Next to the temple there was another, smaller temple where there lived a very old Zen master. One day, when the priest was expecting some special guests, he took extra care in tending to the garden. He pulled the weeds, trimmed the shrubs, combed the moss, and spent a long time meticulously raking up and carefully arranging all the dry autumn leaves. As he worked, the old master watched him with interest from across the wall that separated the temples.

When he had finished, the priest stood back to admire his work. "Isn't it beautiful," he called out to the old master. "Yes," replied the old man, "but there is something missing. Help me over this wall and I'll put it right for you."

After hesitating, the priest went to the old fellow, lifted him over, and set him down. Slowly, the master walked to the tree near the center of the garden, grabbed it by the trunk, and shook it vigorously. Leaves showered down all over the garden. "There," said the old man, "you can put me back now."

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