As I briefly alluded to in my introduction to composition, the fundamental pieces of visual composition are about how an artist goes about organizing the elements of design into a unified whole. In other words, how an artist goes about creating unity from the fundamental building blocks to express his or her intent, called vision by some, is what the principles of design are all about. I’ve decided to deal with the principles of design before tackling the constituent parts like form, space, line texture, and so on simply because I will frequently need to refer to these principles as part of an explanation of the individual elements.
With that said, let’s jump in and start with the organizing principle of Repetition. Repetition is the idea that some underlying design element like a line or a form is repeated in some way throughout the image. Repeating elements give the viewer something to follow – it’s a way to recognize that one element is like another. Using repeating elements can be both liberating and constrictive at the same time as it imposes a form while also offering the photographer the freedom to introduce elements that break the repetition – thus making the repetition even more profound. Photographer Jay Maisel refers to this as the “Tear in the Fabric.”
This image of the railway tracks is all about repetition. The ties repeat and move us up through the image in increments – one tie at a time. The rails run perpendicular to the ties and likewise make us move up the image. The spikes are repeated and create a string of pearls moving us along as well. And, the perpendicular ties on the edges with the repeating lag bolts frame all the repetitions and produce a leading line up through the image. One of the more subtle repetitions are the three safety platforms further up the image. Not only do these repeat, but they are asymmetrically placed and, therefore, also help to break up the repetition in some minor way.
While repetitions do not have to be symmetrical to be enjoyed, using symmetrical repetitions typically requires less involvement of the viewer and will, therefore, be discovered more quickly by more people.
This image from the Bellacenter in Copenhagen is quite repetitive but much less symmetrical. If you look hard enough, you will begin to discover the symmetry embedded in the repetitions. Emphasizing the point about the “Tear in the Fabric,” The open window on the right side serves to break up the repetitive nature of the image by introducing a bit of humour. Rather than being a distraction, it makes us wonder how the break plays into the repetitive image.
The other thing that frequently happens in repetitive images is that the viewers will unconsciously start grouping the repetitions into separate parts. For example, the bricks in this image consist of three separate types of repetitions, which can easily be grouped for added meaning. Again, to distract the viewer and cause them to pause in the exploration of the image, and to make it more interesting, I framed it in such a way to put the butterfly in one corner as a way to counterbalance an otherwise pretty boring image. The bricks by themselves are not the interesting part. Rather, it is the play between the repetitious wall and a very recognizable shape – more about recognizable shapes in another blog.
In closing, Pure repetition, for the sake of repetitions, can be an effective way to get a message across in an image. However, I think you will find that introducing some subtle tear in the fabric will frequently make the composition much stronger as it creates a focal point, which both holds people’s attention while providing a break from the repetition – which can further strengthen it.