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Phil Douglis | all galleries >> Gallery Thirty Six: Adding or subtracting context to clarify or extend meaning > Office worker, Phoenix, Arizona, 2007
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Office worker, Phoenix, Arizona, 2007

Office worker, Phoenix, Arizona, 2007

This is the first of two back-to-back images that feature similar subjects, yet entirely different contexts.

In this photograph, an office worker smokes a cigarette while on her lunch break. She leans back into a corner of concrete -- a spot where one building wall meets another at a right angle. The polished surface of the granite wall she leans against reflects her hair and the pattern of her clothing, making it seem as if she is merging into the wall itself. She points her cigarette towards the ground and shields her other hand behind her extended arm. There is a sense of resignation in her expression. She seems to have backed herself into a proverbial corner. This concrete corner becomes the context for this image. This context makes it more than a picture of smoke break. Because of this context, this image can express social connotations as well, depending upon how each viewer regards the practice of smoking in public.

The following image ( ) also features a smoke break. Yet its context tells an entirely different story.

Leica V-Lux 1
1/125s f/3.6 at 37.9mm iso100 full exif

other sizes: small medium large original
Phil Douglis28-May-2007 18:43
Thanks, Celia, for this marvelous commentary. It is so good to have my resident photo-analyist back in my galleries again. I was struck by your summation: "turning an ordinary slice of life into a compelling story about people and institutions." My professional roots, as you know, are in corporate photojournalism. I have been giving workshops and writing columns for professional organizational communicators for the last 35 years, although now I spend more time working with amateurs on expressive travel photography. My two worlds come together here -- I am certainly commenting on the relationship of organizations (authority) to the nature of the people who serve them (their employees). And likewise, I am using street photography here very much as I would do in any travel situation, even though this shot was made here in Phoenix where I happen to live and teach. And yes, I see the parallels to the shot of the lady on the cellphone in Marrakesh. The spatial relationships, as well as the expressiveness of gesture and costume, are similarly evocative. Thanks, Celia, for your articulate commentary, which together with comments from Carol, Jenene, Rusty, Cecilia, Dandan, and Iris, has made this particular image of the most significant teaching examples in my cyberbook within just a few short weeks.
Cecilia Lim28-May-2007 14:08
Phil, what I love about this image is your use of space to create tension and release. This image reminds me very much of your image of the Moroccan woman on her cellphone, where you similarly use space to tell story, but a very different one By compacting this woman into the right edge of your photo against the hard wall, it suggests the stress and pressure she must be feeling, perhaps from work or from being denied her right to smoke in her office. And then, Ahh... the sweet release as she exhales into the open space spanning infront of her, eyes closed and relaxed in this moment of complete relief.

I can also draw some assumptions that this woman's stress is compounded by the fact that she doesn't fit in very comfortably into her place of work. She seems to be a free-spirit, with a wilder edge to her personality - judging by her long, flaming red hair and the rather informal wild leopard-print shirt that she doesn't care to tuck neatly into her pants. Put her in an environment that is hard, regulated and formal with rules - it's no wonder she needs a moment to escape with her own thoughts & desires, to destress & deflate all the pressures and expectations that comes with her job! You've turned a very ordinary slice of everyday life in Phoenix into a compelling story about people and institutions.
Phil Douglis20-May-2007 04:00
Personal context plays a huge role in interpreting this image, Iris. As an ex-smoker yourself, you see pleasure here, where others who have never smoked might not. That is one of the things that drew me to this subject -- personal interpretation plays such a huge role. Your comment allows me to see this image in a new way.
Iris Maybloom (irislm)20-May-2007 02:56
This is a wonderfully expressive image, Phil. The cigarette highlighted, the smoke coming out of her mouth, the eyes closed, the body in repose.....this woman is in the moment, enjoying the moment and couldn't care less about the smoking taboos that have brought her from the office space to this isolated place. She clearly loves the experience of smoking, as I once did!!
Phil Douglis18-May-2007 17:53
Yes, this is an intimate image, Dandan. I wrestled with that fact as I made this picture. This was her own moment, and I hesitated to intrude on it. But as you can see, she appears not to notice me and my camera. If she did, she tolerates my presence and will not let it interfere with what she is doing. If she showed any reluctance, I would have walked away. As for sharing that moment here in my galleries, I share it with you in the spirit of teaching, not as an eavesdropper. If this image, along with the next one, helps others to learn and think about the importance of context in photography, she will be doing, in her own way, a service to others. At least that's how I see it. Glad you liked the image, but don't feel guilty about being there. She is, afterall, smoking in full view of a public street. It is not as if we are in her living room.
Dandan18-May-2007 17:45
That's a moment that totally belong to her... I'm almost feeling guilty to just look at her... very intimate too.
Phil Douglis14-May-2007 21:52
Thank you, Ceci, for seeing the beauty in a shot that others, because it is about smoking, might find offensive. But as you say, the image goes well beyond the act of smoking itself, and comments on the nature of humanity. Your comments are about life, and that is really what this image is all about. I respect your "imaginings" -- without them, this would not be a very expressive image.
Guest 14-May-2007 19:39
I love the arrangement of this picture, with the empty space to the left, and the partially obscured figure leaning so wearily against the wall. Her hair color, clothing, skin tones -- all are echoed in the stone around her, even the pattern in her faux leopard tunic. I particularly like the thin strip of reflective stone that has captured a bit of her hair and shirt on its surface. The wall's horizontal lines appear to have impaled her against the massive support, as though helping to hold her upright, and she exudes ennui, fatigue, a hint of anger and depression in her stance, body language and closed eyes. Of course all this is "imagined" on my part, but the suggestion is there, beautifully captured. I can't help but recall the anti-tobacco posters with an older woman, mouth puckered into deep wrinkles, sucking ferociously on her butt, with the caption, "Smoking is so glamorous!" Butt (pun intended) this photo is also oddly beautiful, and I hope that her break sent her back refreshed to her work...
Phil Douglis14-May-2007 17:39
You are dead on right, Rusty. I have always looked at Photoshop as the equivalent of what we used to do in the darkroom when we made a nice print. We would crop, if need be. We would try to get a good range of tones in our black and white images. We might do a bit of dodging or burning to hold back or burn in detail. We might spot out a tiny flaw. With photoshop, I complete the image I began in the camera. But I never use photoshop to call attention to technique at the expense of content. And I never substantially alter a fact by manipulating the image. I think some people lean so heavily on creating "effects" with photoshop, becuase they do not really know what they are trying to express. So instead of an idea, they give us an effect. As both you and I know, in expressive photography, form should follow function. Our photoshop enhancements should help our ideas come through with maximum impact and meaning. But our enhancements should never take center stage and dominate the image, creating what you've called here "a radioactive image." You are right, Rusty. The bottom line is expressive photography is the quality of artistic vision, not mastery of Photoshop distortions and manipulations.
russellt14-May-2007 09:24
it sure beats what goes on in photoshop guru-dom also. rocket science is made out of everything, which validates expertise, which validates saleable expertise. in the end the photographs look somewhat radioactive. "what witch doctor ever prescribed 'take two aspirin?'". a ten commandments approach to photoshop combined with artistic vision seems to work just fine. better than fine and better than radioactive. the key is artistic vision, not encyclopedic knowledge of photoshop.
Phil Douglis14-May-2007 01:58
Thanks, Rusty -- you were with me when we photographed this subject and you will probably recall that the light coming out of the shadows, the contrasting light on the face and hands, and the warmth of hair and walls, was not as pronounced as in this image. My image was, as I showed you later on the computer, quite flat. I simply used the center slider in "levels" later in Photoshop to darken the image somewhat, and then put it through my normal post processing workflow, applying modest additional adjustments using the curves, contrast, color balance, contrast, saturation and sharpening controls. There is nothing like the digital darkroom, Rusty -- with it, we can bring our images to a new stage of beauty and meaning. Yes, it sure does beat Kodachrome -- when we shot those slides, we had to live with what came out of the camera. Now, someone shooting Kodachrome could scan that slide and bring whatever exposure, color, contrast, saturation and sharpening values they want to the image. For you and I and tens of thousands of others, digital imaging is far preferable to film because the camera shows us our images instantly, and we can act on what we see in the next picture. We don't have to worry about changing ISOs from image to image. And we can shoot and shoot and shoot again, without every worrying about going over a film budget. Not to mention ending the nightmare hassles of going through airport security x-ray machines with a bag full of film.
russellt14-May-2007 01:10
there's that gorgeous phil palette again, unlike anything on pbase. there's that sense of light coming out of the shadows, the beauty and contrast of the light on the face and hands, the subtle shadowing and shadow detail in the shirt, the warmth attaching to the hair and walls, nothing too harsh in light or sharpness. it sure beats kodachrome...
Phil Douglis13-May-2007 05:33
Thanks for your impressions of this photograph, Jenene. I felt this image spoke of resignation. You think it speaks of comfort. Is it possible that the image speaks of both?
JSWaters13-May-2007 03:14
This is how she manages her life, her stress - the obvious comfort she gains from this smoke break is written all over her face. It leaves me feeling she gets this level of comfort nowhere else in her life. Pity.
Phil Douglis11-May-2007 03:43
Thanks, Carole, for your observations. Yes, I left the wall blank to give room for thoughts -- both hers and our own. I leave speculative detail such as you propose here, up to each viewer to imagine for themselves. And that is what expressive images do -- they arouse the imagination of those who look at them. I like your comparison of contexts -- you see this context as symbolizing the unknown and the leafy context in the next picture as the known. Both of these people are, in effect, playing roles on different stages with different scenery.
Carol E Sandgren11-May-2007 03:01
To me, the fact that the entire space on the left side of your image is nearly blank to which this woman faces, suggests to me that she is lost in thought, facing the unknown. Perhaps she has just had an argument with her boss before her smoking break and is unsure of what awaits her return. She does look a bit unsettled, even worried as she uses her cigarette as somewhat of a solace. The other image that you compare this one to just following this one has scenery in the background which he is facing, which suggests to me he knows what to expect somehow and is simply reviewing or digesting it in his mind.
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