Thursday, September 9, 2010

Exploring with a Camera: Spirals

Spirals are a beautiful shape. They have marvelous curves and convey energy and motion. Not only that, they are a truly efficient form used in nature, and we see them so many places in our every day lives!

While I have captured spirals with my camera countless times, the first place I truly became aware of the spiral form explicitly was in the Barcelona Science Museum. The exhibit on forms found in nature had this to say:
The spiral is a circumference that twists away on the plane that contains it. It is the best way of growing without occupying too much space. It is frequently found in animals when there exists the contradictory need for something massive, voluminous, broad or long that does not affect mobility (horns, tails, tongues, trunks, shells, etc.) and in plants to grow something that will subsequently be unrolled. If we unrolled all the spirals we have at home (kitchen and toilet paper, audio and video tapes, adhesive tape, records, springs....) we would be forced to leave the house, as we would not all fit.
Wow! I had never thought of it that way. The typical form in nature that comes to mind for me is the shell (above, from Barcelona Science Museum), but there are so many other places you will see it. Take this photo of a gardenia, for example, from my online friend Barbara:
So gorgeous! Mother nature really knows what she is doing in these things (and so does Barbara). :)

Our man-made world copies nature to use the function of spirals. I don't personally have any photos of toilet paper, but the common spiral staircase, like this one in Verona, is a good example.
And I will spare you the countless spiral staircase photos I have of lighthouses on the Oregon coast! I can't step into one without capturing the wonderful curves and lines of them. (In prepping for this post I learned that technically, this is not a spiral because it is not all on the same plane - it's a helix. But you'll forgive me if I claim artistic license here, won't you?)

Even more than function, humans copy the form of spirals in our everyday world. The Romans used them, as I discovered in this floor mosaic in the British Museum:
The Greeks used them, in their ionic columns. (Thanks to my 9-year-old son, I've relearned which are Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Ionic have the spirals.) These columns are used all over in architecture, here's just one example I caught in Bath:
And they are used all the time in wrought iron work, as I've noticed here in my travels in Europe. Here's a light post in Bath:
My favorite wrought iron spiral of all time is this railing in Amsterdam. Talk about function following form! What graceful curves...
An architect who used spirals over and over in his work was Antoni Gaudí, in Barcelona. He took much of his inspiration from nature, and this ceiling detail is but one example.
We see spirals every day, even if you haven't noticed it lately. I captured these two images of bus shelter advertisements in different cities on our recent trip to England. Spirals are used in graphic arts to denote natural beauty and to convey energy. They catch your eye and draw you in.

Keep your eye out for spirals around you. Here are a few ideas:
1. Look at home. All of those rolls of paper! And then there are spiral notebooks, springs, even toys (hello, Slinky!). What is there with spirals, sitting right next to you?
2. Look at nature. Flowers, ferns, vines, shells all show spirals. Water moves in spirals, think whirlpools and breaking waves. How can you capture them? What else can you find?
3. Look at architecture. Staircases and wrought iron are two I've mentioned, what others do you see?
4. Look at art and design. Artist have used spirals in their work for thousands of years, and the golden spiral or golden ratio is a fundamental compositional principle (see a short and helpful explanation here). What traditional and modern uses of spirals can you find?

I can't wait to see your spirals! Join in and share them in the Flickr group.

PS - If you want to do more exploring with your camera, visit past posts here.


  1. lovely photographs here, came across from ABC

  2. Kat, this is a fabulous post. You make me want to go back through all my photos looking for patterns, spirals, real life still lifes . . . I made a list the other day after going through a stack of photo magazines of all the technical things I want to review or learn. I also have a list from your blog of the artistic things I want to be looking for. Thanks! Now I need to schedule some time to play.(And I didn't know Barbara had a blog, so that was a very exciting find.)

  3. What a great post. Love the spirals, and that white flower is simply amazing!

  4. Love spirals! They show up in my paintings all the time! Plus a few photos!

  5. So neat, isn't it amazing what we see when we just open our eyes and look a little closer.

  6. You are a genius...Have never thought of spirals before and now, seeing them through your eyes, they are a beautiful thing. I am so happy that we learn from one another, things we would never see on our own. Thank you, my friend.

  7. Such lovely photos, Kat. I do love spirals--I took a bunch of photos of the spiral railings in Brooklyn when I was there last. I just realized that there are spirals on the back of my new patio chairs! Now I'm going to look for some more....

  8. I actually have a spiral in the center of a tattoo on my ankle. In Celtic artwork, the spiral symbolizes a heartbeat -- in other words, life. So that's what I think of whenever I see spirals. Cool!

  9. I think I need to look out more for spirals! Great photos, my favorite is the very top one (Barcelona Science Museum).

  10. What a fun exploration this will be! I think I'll take the kids on a hunt for spirals this weekend. :) Thanks, Kat!!

  11. This is so interesting! I have a labyrinth photo that I can post. I will definitely be on the lookout for more!

  12. I really enjoyed this, Kat! I know spirals have always appealed to me. I just never thought of why. Shannon, I enjoyed your comment about the spiral symbolizing a heartbeat.


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