Seeing Shapes not Things

Along with Narrative, seeing Shapes, especially Geometric shapes is very important to my being inspired to make an image. I’m not yet sure whether perceiving a pleasing arrangement of shapes comes first, followed by narrative creation. I know shapes are key in the initiation my of “Design” and “Belief” images but I also suspect they are key for my “Intuitive” images as well (see “Image Analysis by Initiative” post, from 13/06/2017). “Spectacle” images are primarily initiated by the quality of light and “Recognition” images by the narrative they have sparked within my memory.

The images in this post were all initiated by “Intuition” and or “Design”.

In trying to understand this feature of my work I have exaggerated the shapes from various images in the way I had perceived them at the time of taking the picture. Examples:

This image of Buchaille Etive Mor and the tree plantation is all about the shapes, balance and the image rotation around the vanishing point. It has very little to do with any potential narrative. There is a bridge in the scene, but it is so small as too be insignificant to the composition.

Garth Ness, Shetland

This is a very simple construction of shapes that I perceived as a two-dimensional scene with no perspective depth. My aim was to enhance this two-dimensional effect thus making the horizon appear like the edge of the world.

As with the previous image there is a single, strong rotational point but, this time, it is not the vanishing point. It is where the side of the building meets the horizon. The positioning and size of the 3 pieces of wood (bottom right) provides balance and weight to that side of the image.

This image has far more narrative potential than the last with its derelict building and the unsettling nature of the apparent void over the horizon.

Lerwick, Shetland

In my mind this image does not have a subject. Instead the landscape, water and the building form a single assemblage of geometric shapes that, again, I perceived to be two-dimensional with no perspective depth.

In this image there is no single rotational point. It is more about the balance and arrangement of various geometric shapes, lines and tones. For example, the way the sea and sky colours are reflected in the glass of the window.

The dark areas of seaweed underwater are the first non-linear elements that I have focused on. They contribute to the balance of the image by adding weight to the base. It was not their shape but their tones that caused me to emphasise them.

Ness of Sound, Lerwick

This image can be perceived in two-dimensions or three. In two dimensions the land horizon implies a deep void beyond.

In three dimensions the sheep track moving from the right side up to the horizon is critical to the arrangement. Along with the sea horizon it guides the viewer towards a point that appears also to be the focus of the concrete gun emplacement. Additionally, it helps create a subservient position for the viewer by emphasising the slope and that the viewer is looking up towards the gun emplacement.


This image is all about triangles, from the folds of the nets, the holes in the nets, to the shards of glass. The soft curves of the dunes and grasses are well integrated with the nets so that, at first, it may be difficult to extricate the shapes that made the composition attractive.

The shards of glass provide both an interest in that area of sand and a source of narrative creation.


A mirror but not quite a mirror.

I find the abstracted version of this image almost as pleasing as the original.

Unst 2

This is the first image where I have interpreted a very amorphous shape, the clouds, as a strong directing element pointing towards the subject of the image, a gun emplacement.

Along with the clouds, the mirror-like water, forming a dais for the subject to sit upon, give it a superiority, making it the key element, the subject, of the image. The other building provides an element of balance but the island is mere detail that could be removed without impacting upon the overall image.

Unst 3

A soon as I saw the potential of juxtaposing the concrete foundations with the old WWII Power house I chose this vantage point to link the two elements. Then I adjusted the camera height to ensure the horizon aligned with the top of the power house, with only the gable end emerging into the sky.

The only essential elements in this image are the foundations, the power house and the horizon. Everything else is just a canvas upon which these elements are arranged.

Unst 4

This final image in the set was also perceived as a composition of lines and shapes. When abstracted down to the key elements the result reminds me of paintings by Wassily Kandinsky.


What I find interesting in this exercise is how often the perception of shape in compositions ignores whether the shape could be a subject or is just part of the background, the canvas. Instead it is the intuitively seen interplay between elements that builds the patterns and compositions that inspire the making of the image. It is also interesting to see which elements have been intuitively ignored and merged into the background.

Most often there are dominant, usually geometric shapes that appear to sit upon a canvas of sea, sky and or land. However, occasionally, the whole scene is perceived as being two-dimensional. In such cases the sea, sky and land also functions as shapes and not merely as a backdrop.

Viewing the scene from a low position, where nothing is visible beyond the land horizon creates an unsettling impression that there is a void beyond. It also helps the image to be viewed in two, rather than three dimensions.

This type of photography depends upon simplifying the scene down to a few basic elements. This is another reason why I am more successful in remote, sparsely populated, usually treeless, locations where achieving a simple composition is much easier.

This area of research is far from complete. I’m sure there are more learnings to be made from these and other images. So, the conclusions may change over time. However, I do believe that my intuition is being highly influenced by how my perceptions of shapes and the juxtapositions of such shapes within the scene is operating.