The “Language of Line” in Photography
L. Owens Muggins, A.S.C.
from American Cinematographer January 1934 p.354
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles on the fundamentals of Photographic and Cinematic Design. In later articles Mr. Huggins will discuss Harmony, Rhythm, Balance, Tone (or Key), Measure, Contour, and Emphasis.
IF Photography has gained any consideration as an Art, it is not because photography is in itself an art, but because some photographers are Artists. It is not simply that these men are masters of photomechanical technique, but that they are masters of the technique of visual Art. They know the language of Art—and make their cameras speak it. They know that certain arrangements of lines, forms and masses, of light and shade, will not only create a picture, but will speak to the emotions “with a most miraculous organ.” And they are daily applying these principles to even the least-important scenes, raising Photography and Cinematography from its original status of a mechanical process to an ART.
In its beginnings, photography was devised solely as a mechanical means of making a lasting, visual record of persons, places and things; and when cinematography came into being, nearly a century later, its purpose was the same, save that it had the additional advantage of being able to record motion, as well as form. Even today with the benefits of our most perfected equipment and materials, no picture made by photography or cinematography can in itself be considered as more than a record, unless its maker has applied the basic principles of Art to its making. A beautiful scene, photographed, is often of far less artistic worth than an ordinary scene, beautifully photographed. As Daniel B. Clark, A.S.C, so unceasingly points out, “Art is not WHAT—but HOW.”
Every picture or photograph is essentially a combination of lines; and every picture is—or should be—dominated by some definite type of linear design. Upon analysis, any picture ever made can be reduced to the pattern of its dominant lines. The more carefully composed a picture is, the fewer and more expressive will be its basic lines; and the nature of these lines will determine the emotional response which the picture will create.
Long, horizontal lines, for instance, suggest calmness, serenity, peace, quiet, tranquility; sometimes (it is but a step) , death and finality. An example of this would be the horizon, or a body lying prone upon the ground—and who cannot remember the unforgettable massacre scene in Eisenstein’s “Potemkin,” which was played against the horizontal lines of the broad terrace of the Odessa waterfront?
On the other hand, the most attractive and commanding line in art is undoubtedly the vertical one. it signifies strength, sternness, and courage; long verticals speak of majesty, grandeur, sublimity. The illustration shows this more clearly, however, than any words.
The curved line, containing as it does a constant change of direction, is more interesting, more varied, and less stern than a straight line. Curved lines give us beauty, grave, interest and variety. They are most useful, however, when used in conjunction with straight lines, for the contrast brings out the best features of each. Curved lines, too, are extremely useful for leading the eye into a picture, or focusing the attention upon the principal object of interest. They are, therefore, more properly auxiliary than primary.
A picture composed entirely of curved lines is generally inclined to be weak and flabby.
The “S” curve, perhaps the most beautiful of the curved lines, incorporates grace, elegance, and perfect balance. It is sometimes called “Hogarth’s line of beauty,” and is particularly useful in leading the eye easily into the distance.
The “0” circle shows completeness. It is almost too perfect, too mechanical, and is rarely useful in good composition. Oblique lines furnish us with a powerful tool with which to express energy,
action, motion, joy. In the other illustration, note how the oblique lines of the ground, wheelbarrow, arms, legs and body speak so vigorously of action and power.
The zig-zag line is the line of violence, threat, treachery, weirdness, and horror. A vivid example in nature is the jagged line of chain-lightning.
Where we have lines, we must have angles; acute angles convey ideas of energy and action; right angles are harsh and cold, and because of their mechanical nature should be used sparingly. Obtuse angles suggest restful ease and harmony.
The triangle gives firmness and physical stability to the picture. It has been frequently used, from the Old Masters down to the present time, but it should always be employed in conjunction with interesting curved lines and masses.
It must be borne in mind, however, that when one refers to lines, angles, and geometrical figures such as circles and triangles, the reference need not, by any means, be to the actual lines shown in the picture, but to the basic lines and forms suggested by the actual lines, and the arrangement of the elementary masses of light and shade in the picture. Furthermore, a picture is more often a deft combination of a number of these basic forms than it is a single one of them. However, there will almost inevitably be some such line or lines which will predominate; from this, largely, we get the emotional key of the picture.
But all of this, you object, seems terribly far from the realities of present-day cinematography; the art-directors design our sets, and nature designs our locations; we must photograph them “as
is,” regardless of whether or not the predominant lines are in accord with the emotional effect we wish to convey. True enough, in some cases the cinematographer is helpless; but rarely so. In the first place, most art-directors have been trained themselves in this language of lines—and nature herself speaks it. Moreover, even when this is not the case, we have at hand a powerful tool capable of making alterations in any set ever built. That tool is light. It is part of our business to know that light, properly utilized, will alter faces, and give depth and roundness to sets and furnishings. And, in a picture, what are these but combinations of lines and masses? If we can remake these with our lightings, so, too, can we remake the lines and masses of the rest of the picture. A little study will always show us the lines which, properly accented, will give us the composition we wish; then we can light our set accordingly, subduing the residue with shadows. If, for instance, we are photographing in front of a church: we can arrange our lights so that the vertical lines of the walls and columns are emphasized—or so that, instead, the horizontal lines of the steps, verandah, and cornice will be predominant. In other words, we can compose with light: highlighting all the lines we wish to emphasize, and allowing what we do not, to remain in shadowed obscurity.