The Shape of Things
March 25th, 2019 by David LaBelle

Geometric shapes are all around us. Notice the rectangles, circles and triangles present in everyday life.
Photos by David LaBelle

Ever travel to a zoo with an architect? While you are busy looking at the living creatures—birds, animals, fish and reptiles—they are admiring the design of the enclosure. I remember a visit to an aquarium at the Oregon coast. The volunteer went on and on about the magnificent enclosure and the architect.

People have different interests and see different things. One person’s trash is another’s treasure, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

As we go about our busy lives, few of us give much thought to geometrical shapes—circles and squares, pyramids and rectangles. Unless we are architects, we likely don’t appreciate or even notice the many shapes that form our world.

It can be like that traveling with a graphically aware photographer who sees design or beauty in everything. My wife is like that. Rarely do we walk long before she stops and studies a leaf, a twisted branch or a creature’s nest. She lives in constant awe of nature.

Like me, she is a photography teacher, but her background is in art. One of her favorite assignments is to ask her students to take a walk with their camera and find shapes like circles, squares, diamonds or rectangles.

Just like an exercise to strengthen your eye muscles, this assignment is like removing blinders from a horse so they can see beyond what is just in front of them. Students are enthralled by the geometric shapes they have passed by, often without noticing.

As with light, geometric shapes can influence our mood and affect the way we see and feel, usually subtly.

People attending a church service in an elaborate, ornate cathedral with tall ceilings and stained-glass windows say they feel closer to God.

The aware photographer sees things others pass by and don’t or cannot see. Some photographers, like some artists, see light and shape wherever they are. It’s as though they cannot help seeing shapes any more than some breeds of dogs can keep from herding cattle or sheep.

Wry, visually witty photographer Elliot Erwitt tells of returning to his New York City office and sharing with colleagues how he had been out photographing the arrow on the side of the FedEx truck.

“What arrow?” they asked. “There wasn’t an arrow on the sides of those trucks.”

His image proved them wrong.

When teaching about composition, one of my favorite sayings is the stage you build is in the viewfinder while waiting for the performance to begin. Being a documentary photographer who hungers for storytelling moments, foregrounds and backgrounds are shapes—pieces of that stage. While I am far more interested in the performance than the stage, I am reminded to be more aware of both.

If you are feeling energetic and want to exercise your seeing, take a walk with your camera on a photo scavenger hunt for geometric shapes. You likely will encounter shapes you did not see before.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the U.S. and taught at three universities. For more information, visit