I’ve never gone out looking for specific photo themes. Purposefully looking for specific lines, shapes, patterns, colors, or combinations of all these feels unnatural to me, like I’m on assignment. I hate completing assignments. I feel the most comfortable just looking for anything. Eventually something comes up. But, this won’t stop me from looking back and putting a bunch of stuff together from different trips. Last time, you got black and white, today, you get curves.
My name is Jim Burnham. I am a US photographer. Follow me on Instagram or Twitter -> @BurnhamArts
“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”
— Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire)
A curve can be a very important emotional structure in a piece of art. Either obvious or subtle, it helps move you through a scene, forward or backward, left or right, direct you to a focus point, or center you emotionally to the action. Whereas straight lines, sharp corners, and rough edges can convey coldness, conflict, or chaos, curves can bring warmth, balance, and peace to an image.
Unless it’s a snake, but that might be a matter of personal choice.
This is not to say straight lines and angles always bring about these feelings. For example, a shot of an office building is a study in patterns and shadow, with the pattern bringing balance, even though the materials (glass and concrete) are cold and harsh. But straight lines are not natural, with the exception of crystal structures. But “straight” is a concept that can be broadly defined. A curve, however, is universal, almost literally. Everything in the universe is a curve, including light, which is curved by gravity (yes, even a laser light is slightly curved, but that is human manipulation of a natural phenomenon).
I assembled a collection of my past photos with some sort of curve in them. Not just the cliche “S-curve” composition that you find in the fundamentals of photography, but curves of all types, subtle and obvious. Circles really didn’t qualify, as they qualify more as curved patterns. What I’m discussing here are three kinds of curves you find, natural, semi-natural, manufactured:
- Natural: Curves that appear naturally (100% nature made curves like plants, weather, or geologic/water features)
- Semi-Natural: Natural objects placed purposefully or accidentally on a curve by human interaction (hiking paths, roads, and farms)
- Manufactured: Objects either arranged or made purposely with curves or that are placed accidentally with curves.
Curved Curves in Nature, Naturally
Very subtly, this piece of driftwood on the harbor break wall in Leland, MI is displaying a very unique phenomenon, whereas at one time it was completely encased in snow and ice, the low sun arc of late winter has melted only one side, leaving the other in perpetually frozen shadow. The sun also heated the wood, causing a cavity to melt away evenly. This small curved twig breaks up the smooth shape of the log, but it becomes part of the overall outline.
This is an example of the most natural of natural curves, the constantly undulating movement of McDonald Creek on the West side of Glacier National Park in NW Montana. Caught here in a long exposure, the water’s movement is enhanced and directs your attention forward, while your eye simultaneously led back to the source of the flow. As a bonus, the curves on the rock mirror the movement of the rapids.
Sand is an easy subject for curves, but for the opposite reason as the previous photo. The curves of the Great Sand Dune National Park in Colorado were created over many tens of thousands of years of geologic and weather-related activity. This type of change is not visible to the human eye. I can go back next year or next decade and, ignoring the differences lighting has on the landscape, it will look essentially the same.
Another natural curve of a completely different kind. This path was left by a deer carefully stepping across the beach in Good Harbor Bay near Glen Arbor, Michigan. An experienced tracker can find out a lot of information about a particular deer (speed, direction, and even emotional state) based on identifying which tracks are left, right, front, back, and the spacing between them! This particular deer was heading in the direction I was facing, and it was walking slowly, not too long before I found them. That’s about all I could tell you, really. Not sure what her emotional state was, the gate looks a bit aloof, with a little sass added in, but again, I’m not an expert.
Another very common curve in nature comes from plants. I don’t really need to explain anything here, this fern in the George Luthy Botanical Garden in Peoria, IL was just a good example of radiating curves.
Wind action on snow and ice can result in some remarkable curves. Drifting snow on smooth ice is redirected by other snow that has piled up or differences in the height of the ice. Cracks in the ice also trap snow. When Lake Leelanau in Michigan freezes, it can display a variety of unique lines.
This geologic formation can be found on The Garden of the Gods Observation Trail in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois. Although it’s not certain how these Liesegang Bands occur in the sandstone, they are described as part of an Ostwald-Liesegang supersaturation-nucleation-depletion cycle. Say THAT ten times fast.
This curly Q is a thick vine in Rocky Glen, near Peoria. This hiking trail has steep hills and a deep rocky canyon that used to be a coal mine 100 years ago. On the hillsides here, and throughout the general area, you’ll find these thick, lengthy vines strong enough to swing on. I could barely fit my hand around this one. It’s not uncommon to find these vines growing around each other in a double helix formation. It’s possible this one was like that at one time, like the smaller image here.
This is one of my favorite curve photos. It’s frozen beach sand at Sleeping Bear Trail in Empire, MI. It is slowly being undercut by wind and wave action. These natural formations are fleeting examples of weather’s subtle effect on everything. The simplicity and minimalism of these types of formations are beautiful and fascinating to me.
I open this section with the image I used for the summary. It’s not an obvious curve, so I mapped it out for myself. It made the image more interesting if you follow the curve of the horse’s head and neck around down through the leg and into the smaller competing curve of the dog. This was part of the Black Hills Photo Shootout in South Dakota. The rider is Mark Smith, a ranch owner who allowed a group of us to photograph him and his horses. At the time, he was using his stud horse to keep the other group of horses together. But the interaction between his dog and his horse was too much to ignore. I didn’t see the curve until later when I was editing, but it made this more of a composition than a photograph.
If you’ve ever been to Los Angeles, you’ll recognize Griffith Park Observatory and the LA skyline in the distance. The Mt. Hollywood Trail snakes around the mountainside and up to a viewpoint overlooking the city, assuming you can actually see it on that day. This is a literal example of leading lines, as these lines will lead you right back to the observatory. This is a special picture because this was the last long hike I was able to take with my Dad who is 89 now and not walking as easily.
Another example of a semi-natural curve is the farm fields in South-Western Wisconsin. Due to the rolling nature of the land that borders the Mississippi, the planting patterns need to follow the topography. You can somewhat see these features from the ground, but to really see them, head straight up! I have only seen this phenomenon in that particular area at the intersection of Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
This could easily be a naturally made deer trail, but it’s a hiking trail near Esch Rd Beach South of Empire, MI. This is a simple leading line contrasting with the stately pine plantation it guides you through.
Smoke is a natural element, but these curves were 100% created with human interaction. This was part of a class in the Black Hills Photo Shootout led by my good friend Jim Caldwell (Jim and Fred Rodgers host the FotoBug podcast and are perennial workshop favorites at the BHPS). He secured an incense stick in front of a black background and lit it from underneath with a single white spotlight. As a small, single stream of smoke rose into the air, he would introduce very subtle wind currents nearby (by as much as a wave of the hand underneath). As a result, these very dramatic and random waves would appear briefly in the smoke.
Another curve contrasted against both color and shape. These are peppers grown by my girlfriend in her Chicago garden. Hung to dry, these were not altered too much from their original position in order to balance out the shot. This is a good example of me directly changing a curve to convey a concept. But, what interested me most was the minimalistic aspect.
This is just a natural result of driving a boat on Lake Michigan. A regular pattern of waves evenly placed, and randomly shaped, only insofar as the waves (created by a non-natural machine), interact with the natural and random nature of standing water. Chaos theory wrapped up in the physics of weather and water.
Here is my last example of the semi-natural curve. This is entirely created by rotating the camera on the lens axis while hitting the shutter. The natural curves of this sunflower in Jubilee College State Park is replaced by the unnatural curves of the light dragging on the camera sensor.
The Manufactured Curve
I can safely say that 100% of the curves in this photo are manufactured, not natural! On a sailing cruise with Dolphin Landings Charter Boat Cruises, we passed under the Pinellas Bayway in St. Petersburg, FL, but there was a structure in the middle that got in the way of a good shot, so I abandoned this concept at the time. I remembered this for the trip back and fortunately, we went through another gate and there was a fisherman in one of the slots. As we were moving slowly at the time, I made sure to take many shots in a short period in order to capture the converging curves.
More manufactured curves, this one from a classic Fleetwood in a junkyard in Illinois. There was a period of time when the style of form was the most important thing in car design. Aerodynamics were not important, bigger was better and speed was king. The hood ornament was more than just an ornament, it was a statement, as was the name on the back. The name was part of the art.
Vacuum hoses are laid in a pile in a storeroom at the abandoned Sheboygan Falls Asylum. It’s a very haphazard, yet organic arrangement. You almost want to go in and find the beginning and ends of these because they could go anywhere, really. The strange thing is, although four of these are very similar, most of these are completely different hoses. This is an organic chaos that I like to look at and zen about occasionally.
These manufactured curves are the purposefully spectacular curves of the College of Nursing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. These are very “in-your-face” curves, not subtle, not implied. Not only do you have the metal curves of the structure, you have the windows reflecting all of back in.
We will finish on one of the most architecturally beautiful buildings I have ever been in, the Milwaukee Museum of Art in Wisconsin. This is like wandering around inside a massive yacht permanently anchored to the shore of Lake Michigan. The polished marble floors mirrored the smooth curvy white chapel-like interior. The lack of people was due to the pandemic, with tourism down, crowds were scarce. Inside and out, this curved white palace was a treat to wander around in.
Thanks for reading. If you made it this far, congratulations! Please like and share or comment and share or pass it on and share using the social links below. If you would like an email when new posts are added, add your email below. Follow me on Instagram or Twitter: @BurnhamArts
I started out as a photography major (switched to writing) so I really enjoyed this! I have enjoyed TLR for many years; I rarely (if ever?) post anything but I wanted to thank you for continuing it for everyone. As a down-stater, I wish I could be an up-norther all year, and TLR gives me that ability. Best to your family and your folks in 2022!
These people have said more & better than I could have.
I wish the best of the Christmas season to the Burnham family & the family of readers!
Thank you! I enjoy your beautiful photographic art and learning about perspective, light and balance etc. Happy Holidays to the Burnham family!
I really enjoyed your article–you are a great teacher. Leaned many things I had never thought about. Wishing the Burnham family a safe and happy holiday season.
What a fun and instructive article, Mr. Burnham. Many thanks and Happy Holidays to you and your father for the Leland Report over the years.