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How to Understand and Use Symbolism in Photography

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This article looks at how to understand and use symbolism in photography… Symbolism depicts more than meets the eye. And our associations with symbols shape the way we perceive visual experiences. This makes symbolism a powerful tool for photographers.

What is Symbolism?

Because of its many uses in literature and art, the term symbolism can have all sorts of meanings. In basic terms, symbolism refers to using visual cues to express a concept. For example, we associate a heart symbol with love. But a crow is often a symbol of death.

Atmospheric silhouette of a crow standing on rocks showing symbolism in photography
© Sergio Ibanez (Unsplash.com)

A Brief History of Symbolism in Visual Arts

Symbolism developed alongside the origins of visual arts itself. So the first step to understanding symbolism in photography? We need to investigate the history and origins of symbols in fine art.

Ancient Symbolism in Works of Art

An early concept is that a marking expresses many possible meanings. We see this in art dating back millennia.

The Mayans adopted the jaguar as a symbol of ferocity, strength, courage, and foresight. They carved the likenesses of the big cat into temple walls and stelae.

Dramatic low key portrait of a jaguar showing symbolism in photography
© Geran de Klerk (Unsplash.com)

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.

Ancient Chinese artists marked wealth with the depiction of a deer. And they adopted fish as a symbol of fertility and resilience.

Koi carp swimming in a pond showing symbolism in photography
© Sora Sagano (Unsplash.com)

Symbolism in Medieval and Renaissance art

A portrait detail from a renaissance fresco painting for an example of symbolism in photography
© Torsten Dederichs (Unsplash.com)

Medieval times were an age when very few were literate. So medieval art movements relied on conveying deeper meaning through symbols. These symbols drew from religion, myth, nature, and society.

So symbols such as the dove, the cross, and the halo were prominent in Byzantine art.

Botticelli's painting, the birth of Venus
Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. (Wikimedia Commons)

During the Renaissance period, artists used a type of symbolism. They used it to assign human values to mythological figures. We can see this in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, pictured above and below.

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.

Close-up detail of Botticelli's painting, the birth of Venus
Close-up detail of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. (Wikimedia Commons)

Symbolism (the Art Movement)

The Death of the Grave Digger painting by Carlos Schwabe.
The Death of the Grave Digger, Carlos Schwabe. (Wikimedia Commons)

Symbolism emerged as an art movement during the late 19th century. Several details featured heavily in symbolist artworks. The artwork had exaggerated gesticulations, muted colors, dark angels, and grotesque figures.

Symbolism in Other Modern Art Movements

Modern art movements such as Dadaism, Cubism, and Surrealism embraced symbology.

Woman with Buckets, Tadeusz Makowski. (Wikimedia Commons)

Salvador Dali cultivated narratives that appealed to visual cues established in art history. He also invented new symbols like the melting clock in The Persistence of Memory.

Frida Kahlo incorporated symbols into her artworks to describe larger ideas and experiences. And Pablo Picasso used symbolism to stress the dimensionality of his cubist subjects.

Symbolism and the History of Photos

Early photographers weren’t blind to the historical impact of symbolism in visual arts. Symbols conveyed through traditional methods were soon translated into photographic images. So many early portraits depicted subjects with books to signify intelligence.

Abraham Lincoln (Wikimedia Commons)

As photography developed, many photographs also became symbols in themselves.

Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother symbolized the great depression of the 1930s.

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photo of in Times Square is an iconic symbol. It’s an American sailor kissing a woman. And it represented the V-day celebration at the end of World War II.

And the 1989 photo of a lone Chinese protester in Tiananmen Square is famous. The person stepping in front of the People’s Liberation Army tank became a symbol. It depicted defiance in the face of oppression.

Symbolism in Contemporary Photos

Photography and symbolism have evolved together over time. That’s because the ways of viewing and generating imagery have changed.

Consider photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Gregory Crewdson, and Steve McCurry. They have created unique approaches to photos. These resonate as symbolic of a period in visual history.

The use of symbology within contemporary photos is pronounced too. Both old and new symbols continue to expand our visual culture.

a still life featuring a skull, lemons and a vase on a pale yellow background - symbolism in photography
© Florencia Potter (Unsplash.com)

Justine Reyes’s still lifes are highly symbolic. They reference Flemish still lifes from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Tami Bahat’s Dramatis Personae blends Renaissance-inspired symbolism and aesthetics with contemporary photographic tech.

a female model posing outdoors - symbolism in photography
© Tiko Giorgadze (Unsplash.com)

Chen Man’s portraiture merges symbols with fashion and makeup photography. This creates a rich photographic experience.

And Honey and Prue use the landscape to symbolize concepts and metaphors.

Common Symbols Found in Modern Photos

Many shared symbols continue to inform our comprehension of art today.

Colors

Color affects our mood and our impressions. As a symbol, color represents emotional and physical experiences.

Red

a red toned seascape - symbolism in photography
© Alexander Mils (Unsplash.com)

Red has a palpable weight. It holds universal associations with heat, fire, and blood. These make red the color of physicality and human experience.

Yellow

a meadow of yellow flowers - symbolism in photography
© Tim Mossholder (Unsplash.com)

Yellow is often linked with the sun and warmer seasons. Signaling the end of winter, yellow promotes joy and lightheartedness.

Pink

a light painted heart shape - symbolism in photography
© Jamie Street (Unsplash.com)

Pink evokes impressions of innocence and compassion. The buoyant color is sometimes associated with femininity.

Green

a close up of rain drops on grass- symbolism in photography
© Sylwia Pietruszka (Unsplash.com)

Green represents growth and nature, putting the eye at rest.

Purple

purple flowers collected in the arms of a stone statue - symbolism in photography
© Chris Ensey (Unsplash.com)

Purple is often tied to luxury or royalty, wisdom, and magic.

Orange

overhead shot of a winding orange staircase - symbolism in photography
© Maxime Lebrun (Unsplash.com)

As a mix of yellow and red, orange delineates warmth and enjoyment.

Blue

an underwater shot of rippling water - symbolism in photography
© Krystian Tambur (Unsplash.com)

We associate blue with water but also with beauty and sorrow.

Black and White

a black and white shot of rain splashed leafs - symbolism in photography
© Mihail Ribkin (Unsplash.com)

We can pair black and white with each other. Together they can symbolize age, nostalgia, and the separation of creative realities.

Flowers

Floriography reflects the meanings ascribed to flowers for thousands of years.

Roses

a red rose - symbolism in photography
© Ivan Jevtic (Unsplash.com)

Perhaps the most prominent example of floriography lies with the rose. Red roses symbolize romantic love.

Lavender

lavender flowers growing outdoors - symbolism in photography
© Daiga Ellaby (Unsplash.com)

The small aromatic flowers of the lavender bush have become a symbol. They represent purity, healing, and calm.

Chrysanthemums

dark and moody shot of red and white flowers - symbolism in photography
© Richard Harris (Unsplash.com)

Chrysanthemum blooms represent fidelity, optimism, joy, and long life.

Lilies

a white lily growing outdoors - symbolism in photography
© Matt (Unsplash.com)

Lilies are the flower most associated with mourning. They can signal the emotional state of a subject.

Fruit and Vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are other visual cues. Artists have used them throughout art history. Like flowers, still lifes made up of fruits or vegetables signal the passage of time.

Apples

red apples in a box - symbolism in photography
© Гульшат Бадалова (Unsplash.com)

The apple appears in Christian religious art and popular culture. It signifies the sins of the biblical Adam and Eve. So the apple has come to be a symbol of sensual pleasure.

Lemons

a lemon on yellow background - symbolism in photography
© Markus Spiske (Unsplash.com)

Due to their sour taste, lemons often symbolize resentment or conflict.

Peaches

two and a half peaches - symbolism in photography
© Sara Cervera (Unsplash.com)

People see the peach as a symbol of virtue.

Pears

a bowl of pears and grapes - symbolism in photography
© David Fartek (Unsplash.com)

Throughout the history of visual arts, pears have become a symbol of marital faith.

Garlic

a rustic still life of garlic and dried flowers - symbolism in photography
© LoboStudio Hamburg (Unsplash.com)

Many cultures have used garlic for spiritual protection.

Pumpkin

a still life of different shaped and sized pumpkins - symbolism in photography
© Sydney Davidson (Unsplash.com)

We associate pumpkins with Halloween and seasonal change. The distinctive vegetable represents protection, warmth, and well-being.

Animals

We have been animals in ancient cave paintings and Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Lady with an Ermine. They have had a continuous presence in symbology and visual art.

Felines

a cute brown and white cat - symbolism in photography
© Mikhail Vasilyev (Unsplash.com)

We view cats as figures of liberty, intelligence, and grace. They come in all sizes and are an enduring symbol in artistic history.

Canines

atmospheric pet portrait of a black dog on black background - symbolism in photography
© freddie marriage (Unsplash.com)

We celebrate the companionship, loyalty, and intelligence of canines. We have seen their likenesses immortalized in portraiture for centuries.

Horses

three brown wild horses - symbolism in photography
© Doruk Yemenici (Unsplash.com)

Horses have had a significant historical presence in art. We use them to elevate figures of importance and add movement to an image. Depending on their color, horses can reflect different themes. These include victory, aristocracy, virtue, death, war, and intrigue.

Small Mammals

atmospheric photo of a rat on a persons hands - symbolism in photography
© freestocks.org (Unsplash.com)

Some may associate rats and mice with destruction and disease. But rodents are also known for their intelligent and industrious natures.

Birds

an eagle in flight - symbolism in photography
© Martin Adams (Unsplash.com)

We associate birds, in general, with freedom of spirit.

Objects

Photographers incorporate familiar and specific objects into a photo. It establishes a wordless dialogue between a viewer and an artwork.

Clocks

a pocket watch in a persons hand - symbolism in photography
© Veri Ivanova (Unsplash.com)

Clocks signify the passage of time. They remind us that time is a limited resource.

Vintage Objects

a person typing on a vintage typewriter - symbolism in photography
© MILKOVÍ (Unsplash.com)

Dated objects are another reminder of the progression of time. We include vintage fashion and items like typewriters, old cameras, or cars. They can evoke a sense of nostalgia.

Skulls and Bones

atmospheric photo of a human skull on black background - symbolism in photography
© Mathew MacQuarrie (Unsplash.com)

Skulls and bones inspire reflection on mortality.

Locks and Keys

a padlock on a wooden door - symbolism in photography
© Cristina Gottardi (Unsplash.com)

Keys signal potentiality and mystery. Locks can symbolize commitment or secrecy.

Instruments

close up of piano keys - symbolism in photography
© Matthew T Rader (Unsplash.com)

Instruments add an audible dimension to an image.

Mirrors

the reflection of a photographer in a car side mirror - symbolism in photography
© NeONBRAND (Unsplash.com)

A mirror can stand for truth or vanity.

A self-portrait in a mirror can symbolize self-reflection.

How to Use Symbolism in Photography

We can control the delivery of a symbolic subject. We do this by using placement, repetition, lines, color, and depth of field.

Placement

the silhouette of a persons hands making a love heart shape around a setting sun
© Mayur Gala (Unsplash.com)

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. It soaks up atmosphere and context.

Repetition

lines of holy Mary statues on a shelf - symbolism in photography
© thom masat (Unsplash.com)

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

a robin on a branch - symbolism photography
© Ray Hennessy (Unsplash.com)

Line plays an important role in drawing attention to symbols in a photo. A curved line is more organic and pairs with natural symbols. Sharp lines are inorganic and bold. They deliver the viewer’s eye straight to a symbol with urgency and efficiency.

Color

a close up of small white and lilac flowers - symbolism in photography
© Natalia Luchanko (Unsplash.com)

Like lines, 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 snail on a log - symbolism in photography
© Валерия (Unsplash.com)

A sharp symbol within a focused environment speaks to the entirety of the photo. We can also nest symbols within a softly focused background or foreground. This creates a sense of intimacy.

Conclusion

a photographers shoes and reflection in a puddle - symbolism in photography
© Marc-Olivier Jodoin (Unsplash.com)

The symbols and techniques listed in this article are by no means exhaustive. But they should give you a good idea of using symbolism in photography.

Symbology represents something more than the physical resemblance of a particular subject. We appeal to impressions drawn from experience and visual culture. And symbology conveys imagery layered with meaning and narrative.

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