Symbolism depicts more than meets the eye. In this article, we’ll have a look at how to understand and use symbolism in photography.
What Is Symbolism?
Because of its many uses in literature and art, the term symbolism can have all sorts of meanings.
Our associations with symbols shape the way we perceive visual experiences.
This makes symbolism a powerful tool for photographers.
A Brief History of Symbolism in Visual Arts
Symbolism developed alongside the origins of visual arts itself.
To understand symbolism in photography, we first need to investigate the history and origins of symbols in fine art.
Ancient Symbolism in Works of Art
The concept that a marking expresses numerous possible meanings is demonstrated in art dating back millennia.
The Mayans adopted the jaguar as a symbol of ferocity, strength, valour, and foresight. They carved likenesses of the big cat into temple walls and stelae.
The scarab beetle featured prominently in Egyptian art to symbolize transformation and resurrection.
An aquila or eagle with outstretched wings embodied the span and might of the Roman empire.
And ancient Chinese artists marked wealth with the depiction of a deer and adopted fish as a symbol of fertility and resilience.
Symbolism in Medieval and Renaissance art
In an age where very few were literate, medieval art movements relied on conveying deeper meaning through symbols.
These symbols drew from religion, myth, nature, and society.
Symbols such as the dove, the cross and the halo were prominent in Byzantine art.
During the Renaissance period, in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, a type of symbolism is used to assign human values to mythological figures.
Venus herself represents love and beauty. The large scallop shell at Venus’s feet is representative of birth and fertility.
Roses blown gently across the shore illustrate love.
Symbolism (the Art Movement)
Symbolism emerged as an art movement during the late 19th century.
Exaggerated gesticulations, muted colors, dark angels and grotesque figures featured heavily in symbolist artworks.
Symbolism in Other Modern Art Movements
Modern art movements such as Dadaism, Cubism, and Surrealism embraced symbology.
Symbolism and the History of Photography
Early photographers weren’t blind to the historical impact of symbolism in visual arts.
Symbols conveyed through traditional methods were soon translated to the photographic image.
Many early portraits depicted subjects with books to signify intelligence.
As photography developed, many photographs also became symbols in themselves.
Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother became a symbol of the great depression of the 1930s.
And the photograph of a lone Chinese protester stepping in front of People’s Liberation Army tanks in Tiananmen Square in in 1989 became a symbol of defiance in the face of oppression.
Symbolism in Contemporary Photography
As photography and symbolism evolved, the ways of reading and generating imagery have changed.
Use of symbology within contemporary photography is pronounced too. Both old and new symbols continue to expand our visual culture.
And Honey and Prue use the landscape to symbolize concepts and metaphors.
Common Symbols Found in Modern Photography
There are many shared symbols that continue to inform our comprehension of art today.
Red has a palpable weight. It holds universal associations with heat, fire, and blood. These make red the color of physicality and human experience.
Pink evokes impressions of innocence and compassion. The buoyant color is sometimes associated with femininity.
Green represents growth and nature, putting the eye at rest.
Purple is often tied to luxury or royalty, wisdom and magic.
As a mix of yellow and red, orange delineates warmth and enjoyment.
Black and White
Paired with each other, black and white can symbolize age, nostalgia and the separation of creative realities.
Floriography reflects the meanings ascribed to flowers for thousands of years.
Perhaps the most prominent example of floriography lies with the rose. Red roses symbolize romantic love.
The small aromatic flowers of the lavender bush have come to symbolise purity, healing, and calm.
Chrysanthemum blooms represent fidelity, optimism, joy, and long life.
Lilies are the flower most associated with mourning, signaling the emotional state of a subject.
Fruit and Vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are another visual cue. Artists have used them throughout art history.
Like flowers, still lifes made up of fruits or vegetables signal the passage of time.
In Christian religious art and popular culture, the apple signifies the sins of the biblical Adam and Eve.
The apple has come to be a symbol of carnal pleasure.
Due to their sour taste, lemons are often a symbol of resentment or conflict.
The peach is seen as a symbol of virtue.
Over the course of visual arts, pears have come to be a symbol of marital faith.
Many cultures have used garlic for spiritual protection.
Pumpkins have come to be associated with Halloween and seasonal change.
The distinctive vegetable represents protection, warmth, and well-being.
From ancient cave paintings to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Lady with an Ermine. Animals have had a continuous presence in symbology and visual art.
Known as figures of liberty, intelligence, and grace, cats of all sizes are an enduring symbol in artistic history.
The companionship, loyalty, and intelligence of canines have seen their likenesses immortalized in portraiture for centuries.
Horses have had a significant historical presence in art. They are used to elevate figures of importance and add movement to an image.
Depending on their color, horses can reflect themes such as victory, aristocracy, virtue, victory, death, war and intrigue.
Some may associate rats and mice with destruction and disease.
However, rodents are also known for their intelligent and industrious nature.
Birds, in general, have come to be associated with freedom of spirit.
Incorporating familiar and specific objects into a photograph establishes a wordless dialogue between a viewer and an artwork.
Clocks signify the passage of time. They remind us that time is a limited resource.
Dated objects are another reminder of the progression of time.
Skulls and Bones
Skulls and bones inspire reflection on mortality.
Locks and Keys
Keys signal potentiality and mystery. Locks can symbolize commitment or secrecy.
Instruments add an audible dimension to an image.
A mirror can stand for truth or vanity.
A self-portrait in a mirror can symbolize self-reflection.
How to Use Symbolism in Photography
The placement of a symbol conveys the visual weight of a subject.
A symbol in the center of an image emphasizes the symbol as the subject itself.
An off-center symbol or a symbol in the background of an image is more subtle, soaking up atmosphere and context.
The repetition of symbolic subjects expresses a pattern of behavior.
A strong, singular symbol holds weight as an established subject.
A repeated symbol emphasizes a message with each repetition.
Line plays an important role in drawing attention to symbols in a photograph.
A curved line is more organic, and pairs with symbols that are natural.
Sharp lines are inorganic and bold, delivering the viewer’s eye straight to a symbol with urgency and efficiency.
Like line, the human eye tends to seek out colors.
A bold pallet leads the viewer’s eye straight to a symbol.
A symbol made up of muted colors will merge with the rest of the image, cultivating a slower viewing pace.
Depth of Field
A sharp symbol within a focused environment speaks to the entirety of the photograph.
Symbols nested within a softly focused background and/or foreground create a sense of intimacy.
The symbols and techniques listed in this article are by no means exhaustive.
However, they should give you a good idea of using symbolism in photography.
Symbology represents something more than the physical resemblance of a particular subject.
By appealing to impressions drawn from experience and visual culture, symbology conveys imagery layered with meaning and narrative.