Functions of Form
“The ideal and the beautiful are identical; the ideal corresponds to the idea, and beauty to form; hence idea and substance are cognate.”
| Victor Hugo
What is “form” in landscape photography and how does it affect your work? When you go back to your archive, which forms do you discover? What do they tell you about you? In this blog post, I’d like to look at the relationship between the artist and its object. If you make it till the end of it, I’ll share an encouraging insight. But first, I’ll have a quick look into the definition and understanding of form and how it relates to “shape”. Afterward, I differentiate between the object and the subject in photography. Finally, I’ll try to discuss some tools by which you can transform any object into the subject of your work.
Shape and Form
“Form is the visible shape of content.”
| Ben Shahn
In the classical book “Art and Visual Perception”, Rudolf Arnheim talked about the difference between shape and form. He argued that our eyes collect visual material and organize it in ways our mind can read. Seeing therefore is a practical and necessary way of orientation in our lives. There may however be a difference between the processes of recognizing and seeing. We recognize when objects enter our eyes, are organized, identified by the visual inventory our mind has created in our path, and finally linked to a word or phrase that describes the object we see. Through that, we are able to say that what we see is a waterfall, a mountain, or a lake. Seeing has a higher quality. It demands more effort. Seeing is an active process of reaching out to an object and a visual exploration of its qualities. Through seeing we identify the unique and remarkable qualities of an object.
One of the characteristics of an object is its boundaries. Without these edges and corners, we would not be able to identify it as distinct from the background. These boundaries define the shape of an object. However, does the shape of a tree always looks the same to us? Of course not, because our perception of shape is also influenced by light falling on the object, the weather conditions but also our own physical characteristics, our past experiences, and our current inner state. Individuals, who are color blind, for example, perceive trees differently. In addition, all our past experiences with trees have helped us to create a visual inventory of trees in their different shapes. It works like an encyclopedia of past images. Altogether, they support us to see and recognize trees as trees. As we all have collected different experiences in the past, we all have a different inventory and, therefore, will see the shape of a focal tree differently. This is even intensified by our inner mindfulness or readiness in a specific moment. It almost occurs to me that this is similar to the aperture in the camera: The more you open it, the more light gets in. For a more detailed description of shape, I refer back to Arnheim, pp. 47. To sum it up, shape describes objects and their visual appearance. It tells us something about the visual qualities of an object.
In any case, however, “shape” cannot be separated from what it stands for. “Whenever we perceive shape, consciously or unconsciously, we take it to represent something, and thereby to be the form of a content” (p. 96). Arnheim emphasizes that whenever we see a tree, we see the shape of that specific tree. But at the same time, this shape also informs us about the form of all trees. Not as a replica of shape, but a deeper understanding of their existence and essence. By observing the specific shape of a specific tree, we learn how the tree reaches out to the sun, by observing its different colors across the seasons we learn something about photosynthesis and why trees shed their leaves in winter. By removing nutrients from the leaves, the tree cuts off its water supply and the leaves eventually fall off. Without the leaves, trees can manage to live quite a long time even with little water. Form however goes even further than just telling us something about the functioning of specific objects.
For now, I’d like to conclude that shape informs us about the visual qualities of a specific object, such as a tree. It is however also representative of all other similar trees and as such it informs us about the form of all other similar trees. The perception of shape is highly dependent on our physical abilities, past experiences, as well as cognitive and emotional state. Arnheim concludes “[…] that image-making, artistic or otherwise, does not start from the optical projection of the object represented, but is an equivalent, rendered with the properties of a particular medium, of what is observed in the object. Visual form can be evoked by what is seen, but cannot be taken over directly from it”, p. 139. At this point, I’d like to refer back to my last blog article on Equivalence.
Object and Subject
“From as revelation of essence”
| Meister Eckhart
In aesthetic theory, we find the divide between realism and idealism, or objectivism and subjectivism. It is discussed whether beauty or aesthetics was present in our world before we humans even arrived (beauty as an asset of an object, objectivism), or if only by our subjective appreciation of beauty it came to live (beauty as observation and valuation, subjectivism). To stretch this divide even further, if we understand art as an expression of ideas, then we may question if our intention to create art may already serve as a reason for aesthetic judgment. For a more detailed discussion, I refer back to a great article by Dale Jacquette. Dale concluded: “If the concept of beauty originates with a human appreciation for the qualities of human art carried over thereafter into the perception of the natural world, then beauty in one sense is undoubtedly subjective. If what we mean by an aesthetic quality is a property first and foremost of artworks, then there may be an objective answer to the question whether this or that object in art or nature is beautiful, depending on whether or not it conforms to the standards set by an appreciation for the beauty in art with which the concept originates”, p. 84.
How does this rely upon our initial discussion about shape and form? Before, we argued that shape talks about the visual qualities of an object through the process of seeing. It however informs us about the form of all other similar objects. Conditional on our perception of the object, based on our past experience, our cognitive and emotional reaction to it, and, finally, based on our intent to express an idea, we create a subject.
The following photograph from my series “Together” is an image of two trees. Within my series, they, however, reflect on how individuals are living together, and how the “I” is embedded in the “we”. This photograph stands for the concept of Attachment. Through this process, the object of the trees is just the medium to communicate Attachment as the subject of this photograph.
Here is another example of the same series. Again, we look at a group of trees who are the objects in this photograph. A closer look allows us however to recognize that all trees bend under the weight of snow. This photograph is about the subject of Social Pressure. I inverted the photograph to underline the negativity of pressure but added light in the upper left corner to give a hint that pressure is not a state, but something we can also design or react to.
We are not yet at the end of what I intend to communicate. Now, I’ll try to talk about the important next step.
Form and Function
“Form follows function.”
| Louis Sullivan
This quote is a principle of industrial and architectural design associated with the early 20th. Louis Sullivan basically expressed that the shapes of any object (a building, or a tool) should correspond to its intended purpose or function. One could easily interpret this principle by arguing that we need to start thinking about the purpose of an object first before we are able to create the form. Frank Lloyd Wright however argued that “Form follows function – has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”
If we accept what I wrote before, that form is about us, it is the expression of an idea that transfers an object to a subject, then we can find truth and insights about us within our photographs. Our photographs are then reflections of who we are and the form we’ve given ourselves. This is a powerful epiphany. It basically means that the forms we photograph are not only reflections of our own form, but they function to tell us and teach us something about ourselves.
What is the encouraging insight I promised at the beginning of this article? No matter how much you think about the images you take, no matter how you feel when “pointing your camera at stuff” to cite Ryan Dyar, there is an incredible wealth and story hidden in each of your photographs. Your work is substantial and there is no way you can escape from this. You just need to discover it.
Wishing you the courage to start running and go on an exciting journey of discovery.
“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”
| in: Heart Sutra
Rudolf Arnheim (1997, original publication from 1954): Art and Visual Perception, University of California Press, Berkeley et al.
Dale Jacquette (2014): Art, Expression, Perception and Intentionality, Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology, 1:1, 63-90, DOI: 10.2752/20539339XX14005942183973.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2012): Phenomenology of Perception, p. 53.