Fleet of human canoes in Great Moscow sports parade, 1936, , TopFoto.co.uk, In Copyright

Everyone who loves houndstooth and chequered fabrics will agree: patterns rock! In photography, patterns help to organise and understand ‘cluttered’ scenes. They strengthen compositions and heighten visual impact.

The use of patterns puts the technical skills and creativity of the photographer to the ultimate test. The man or woman behind the lens not only needs to recognize the patterns permeating the world around him, but must also master lighting, composition, perspective and colour to convey the beauty of repetition.

Patterns help to direct our gaze around the nooks and crannies of an image. They can inspire us to redefine and rediscover objects or spaces we thought completely familiar. Yet in working with patterns, a photographer has to walk the line between repetition and predictability. As the image below demonstrates, repeated motifs can provide a pleasing backdrop to an image, but breaking the pattern or contrasting it with irregular elements makes for exciting results too.

This photograph of a study at the print room (‘Prentenkabinet’) of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, shows off the interior’s striking combination of parallel lines, repeated square and oblong shapes and circular details - such as the bookmarks, the doorknob and the ventilation shaft. Owing much to its modernist design, this room invites the eye to travel around and to jump from one geometrical motif to another.

Man with bike in Düsseldorf, 1930s ., Karl Heinrich Lämmel , United Archives, In Copyright
Man with bike in Düsseldorf, 1930s ., Karl Heinrich Lämmel , United Archives, In Copyright

German press photographer Karl Heinrich Lämmel’s work is full of inspired compositions that play with pattern and rhythm. Lämmel had an eye for both monumentality and detail and loved the way in which everyday subjects gain beauty and interest when seen from a specific viewpoint. This image demonstrates his exceptional skills: the bird's-eye view, the juxtaposition of parallel and crossing lines, the mix of patterns (floor tiles, brickwork, the handrail and its shadows...), the inspired use of lighting and the insertion of the ‘odd one out’: a single figure and his bike.

Jaromír Funke, too, is a magician when it comes to seeing and rendering pattern. Often, his pictures are geometrical compositions with strong, clean lines - as demonstrated by the image on the right. What might have been an inconspicuous shot of a bank building’s façade becomes an exquisitely balanced composition in the hands of this icon of Czech photography. As striking as the angle of the upward-sideways view is Funke’s play with light and texture, articulating the relief and the variety of materials used.

City Savings Bank, 1931/32, Jaromír Funke , Slovak National Gallery, Public Domain Mark
City Savings Bank, 1931/32, Jaromír Funke , Slovak National Gallery, Public Domain Mark
Wrought-iron lantern at the Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze (Italy), 1880-1899 , Fratelli Alinari, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, CC0
Wrought-iron lantern at the Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze (Italy), 1880-1899 , Fratelli Alinari, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, CC0

This photograph is the famous Alinari brothers’ take on an outer wall: combining the ornamented lantern in the centre with the rigid iron window cover on the right and the curved, almost tactile surface of the façade, this image demonstrates that symmetry and irregularity can make for a beautiful combination.