Repeating patterns

Canterbury Cathedral, ceiling

Kat Sloma is blogging on repeating patterns this week.

If you stop to think about it, life is made up of repeating patterns. Anything that becomes a routine or a habit is also a recurring pattern, and it’s these patterns that make up the bulk of our lives.  We need them – just imagine a life where no pattern is ever repeated and think how chaotic that would be.  So rhythms and patterns feel reassuring and secure and maybe that’s why we’re drawn to spotting them and photographing them.

Having said that, I realise that patterns are not something I tend to photograph much; if I do, it’s usually because of something else that goes along with them, like colours, or shadows, or a subject that has the pattern as a background.  Where there’s a very regular pattern, to me it works best as a backdrop that makes the other features of the photo more interesting.  And sometimes when I’ve photographed patterns it’s more of an echo effect than a neatly repeating one.  In the image below, the pattern can be found in all the arch shapes, but they repeat at different angles and sizes and so it’s not as obvious to spot at first glance.

Cathedral arches

Where there’s a more obvious and regular pattern to be found, it’s usually the small (or sometimes large) interruptions and variations in a pattern that make it worth looking at.  That’s probably why we prefer handmade things to machine-made ones: there’s a deadly, clone-like perfection to the patterns that a machine produces, but something handmade has little irregularities and variations in its patterns that keep it interesting while still retaining the satisfying feeling of the ongoing basic pattern.

In the photo below, the shadows are all slightly different and the building facade has little differences in it that stop it becoming boring – some blinds are up and some are down, some of the plaster is smooth, some is stained or damaged.

Shadows, Sant'Agata

Sometimes what makes the patterns more interesting, too, is where you have several repeating patterns together, as in the Cathedral ceiling image at the top.  Patterns combined hold more interest than one on its own but still give that satisfying, repetitive effect.

If we think about it in terms of life, we need a foundation of repeating patterns to form a structure to how we live.  The routines and habits that we have form a secure base for the rest of our lives to rest on.  So sleeping at night, waking during the day, brushing your teeth and washing your face in the morning, doing the laundry at the weekends, and so on is a good foundation that makes life run smoothly.  If we have that, then now and again we can interrupt the pattern without repercussions – it doesn’t matter if the laundry doesn’t get done this week because you’re off to Paris for the weekend.  It would matter if it didn’t get done for several weeks in a row.

So interrupting and varying the pattern makes life more interesting, but not having patterns at all would make it unliveable.  Patterns hold things together and make life cohesive, but it’s the irregularities that make it interesting.  The trick in life, as in photography, is to find the balance between the two.

Smithfield Market, arches.

Despite the fabulous colours in the image above, it just doesn’t hold my interest.

This has got me wondering if the kind of patterns we’re drawn to and the way we photograph them are reflected in our attitudes to routine?  I know I need a certain amount of routine, but more than a little and I find it gets stifling very quickly.  I also try to create variations within the routines I follow as much as I can; for example, taking a different route to a regular destination.  I think most of my ‘pattern’ images reflect this: I don’t have many that form straightforward, clearly-repeating patterns and, where I’ve taken photos like this, I don’t really like them.  We can’t help but show our selves in our photography, so I wonder – if you looked, would you find the same thing?