Bats (faintly) over the Columbia, Austin, Texas, 2009
Austin is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony – a million and a half Mexican Freetail bats emerge to feed on insects from under the Congress Avenue Bridge at twilight every evening between March and November. Each year, they attract 100,000 tourists who come to watch them fly. We boarded a small boat that carried through Lady Bird Lake and the Columbia River at sunset, arriving at the bridge just before the bats emerged at dusk. I quickly realized that photographing the streaming lines of bats in flight would be virtually impossible. Our eyes could easily define the clouds of bats that flowed overhead, but our cameras couldn’t -- not in such low light. Bats fly extremely fast – too fast to freeze after sunset. So I decided instead to turn a “lemon into lemonade” by creating an image that says more about the atmosphere surrounding the event, than the flight of the bats themselves. Because the bats are subordinated, the image requires additional verbal context, supplied by this caption, in order to work as expression. If this image was intended to stand on its own, it would fail, because the “bats” appear here as soft blurs in the sky, looking more like faint specs of dirt, than flying mammals. The spectators, on the other hand, are standing still for me. Using a 24mm wideangle lens, I was able to build my picture around their silhouetted forms lining the bridge over the Columbia River. The bats are phantoms, a faint smudge line floating between the clouds and the bridge below them. The bridge itself glows in the half-light, illuminated by streetlights. The lights cast a golden reflection on the Columbia, while the illuminated hotel in the background turns the water a brilliant red. Between these reflections and the bats are the spectators – a long fence-like row of men, women, and children. They have come to see a natural spectacle – one they will never forget.
Garments of the dead, The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2008
As we walked the Killing Fields where Khmer Rouge execution squads murdered thousands of Cambodian citizens more than 30 years ago, we stepped over piles of rotting garments that had come to the surface from the mass graves that covered this area. I made this image from a fairly close distance. The clothing appears to be a pile of rags, surrounded by both live and dead leaves. Yet once we acquire verbal context for this image, discovering that we are looking a casual pile of clothing that once belonged to innocent people who were murdered here in cold blood, the image becomes terrifying. In a way, it was far more sobering to stumble across this scene than it was to visit the mass tomb that displays hundreds of skulls just across the field. The skulls of the dead have at least acquired a sense of consecration, yet these clothes remain abandoned and defiled, and because of that, they are all the more painful to look at.
Spirit House, The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2008
At first glance, this scene may appear to be pastoral and warm. Its colors are pleasing – the late afternoon golden light has bathed this setting, featuring a Southeast Asian spirit house, and the broken vase below it, in beauty. However, as in the previous image, when we acquire the verbal context supplied by this caption, the image will drastically change its meaning. I deliberately obscure the contents of the spirit house by shooting it from a distance. I offer additional context: that spirit house is filled with fragments of human bone, as well as an abandoned sandal – the residue of the slaughter that took place here in the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge executioners killed thousands in these very fields. Knowing this, the pastoral scene becomes drenched in tragic irony. How can a scene be so beautiful yet so horrific at the same time? It all depends on what we come to know about the subject, and how we then look at it.
Ceramic roof tiles in context, Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China, 2007
I made this image on my third visit to the Temple of Heaven. It is an excellent example of how context can affect the meaning of pictures. On my first visit, back in 2004, I photographed the very same tiles – only I moved in on them to stress the smallest of details – the dragons embossed on the ends of the tile that characterize the Ming Dynasty and the imperial power of Emperor Yongle who had them made between 1406 and 1429.
(Click on the thumbnail below to see this 2004 image.) That close-up picture triggered a lively discussion – my “resident photo-analyst” Celia Lim argued that my 2004 image was essentially descriptive and therefore not particularly expressive. (Descriptive or not, that 2004 image has proved to be one of the most visited images in my cyberbook – tallying over 6,000 page views to date, probably because when people use Google to search for an image showing “ceramic roof tiles,” that image always comes up.)
On my third trip to Beijing, I was determined to photograph these tiles once more, only this time adding expressive context to them. I wanted to not only present the same set of tiles in detail, but also offer context that would drive home Emperor Yongle’s thing for dragons. This image is the result of my explorations. The Temple of Heaven was recently renovated, and the lush colors on the sides of a temple just behind those tiles are presented in all of their regal glory. I focus on the same old tiles, but this time I use the brilliantly painted temple wall as soft-focus background context. The tiles are also repeated again on the roof of the neighboring temple. And the featured decorations in those lush paintings are, quite appropriately, golden dragons. To make matters even more appropriate, my original critic, Celia Lim, was traveling with our group. I called her over to see the actual tiles she had berated three years before, and then showed her this image on my viewfinder. I think she appreciates the value that the added context now brings to those tiles as expression.
Wired, San Francisco, California, 2007
Hundreds of Bay Area Rapid Transit commuters enter San Francisco by passing next to an illuminated iPod ad. Few seem to notice it. This man has his own electronic preoccupation – a cell phone. This image comments on the nature of the increasingly wired population. The person is the subject, while the ad acts as context. The people in the following image ( http://www.pbase.com/pnd1/image/80827423)
also use the ad as context, but with an entirely different result.
Bay Area commuters, San Francisco, California, 20007
These men are walking the opposite direction of the man in the preceding image. ( http://www.pbase.com/image/80827460)
It was amazing how many people seem immune to graphic advertisements such as this one. It is huge, well illuminated, and placed at foot of steps leading down into the station. Yet the abstracted commuters in this image ignore it entirely. The effect is like a performance. This image was made from the same spot as the previous photo, using identical contexts. Yet each of these images tells a different story.
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.
In the park, Phoenix, Arizona, 2007
This is the second of two back-to-back images that feature similar subjects, yet in entirely different contexts.
This image gives us a man on a park bench, blowing a plume of smoke into the air. He lives in a senior citizens residence, and can’t smoke in his room. And so, a park becomes his parlor. He sits instead of stands. He holds his cigarette high, instead of low. He rests his other hand on the back of the bench, instead of holding it close to his body. He seems utterly relaxed. The bench, trees, and green grass become the context for this image. He seems to take genuine pleasure in this moment. We have photographed essentially the same activity as in the previous image, but largely because of context, the story here becomes an entirely different one. As I note in the introduction to this gallery, photographic context is the great clarifier. To see something in context is to better understand it. If we take something out of its context, it will change the meaning entirely.
Sea lion pool, Aquarium, Newport, Oregon, 2006
By using a captivated child as context for this image of two sea lions incongruously hurtling towards us under water, I’ve tried to make my viewers feel as if they, too, are that little boy. His fingers pressed to the glass of an underwater viewing port offer a salute to the relaxed forms of the sea lions as they shoot past him. If you hold your own hand over the right portion of the picture you will see only what he sees. But when you view the entire image, you vicariously live the experience with him. Such is the critical nature of context here – it changes the image from a nice underwater shot, to a rendering of an unforgettable moment in a child’s life.
Abandoned sedan, Remote, Oregon, 2006
Remote is an appropriately named village. Much of its identity vanished when its post office and general store closed down in 1993. The most poignant sight in Remote is the abandoned car of Remote's late postmaster. Her Lincoln Continental still stands parked behind an old barn. The image gains power from its supporting context. It is more than just an old rusting car. It is incongruously planted in a field of dandelions. Storm clouds glower. The siding of an old barn speaks of another time. When I add verbal context explaining that this car’s life ended along with its owner’s, the post office, general store, farm, and much of the village itself, this image becomes even more evocative.
Detail, steam locomotive, Garibaldi, Oregon, 2006
The title of this picture gives you verbal context that helps you understand its meaning. You now know what you are looking at. But if this image was displayed without a title, as so many images on pbase are, you would have to look at it as just an abstracted machine, a general comment on the passing of the industrial age. It no longer matters what the subject itself actually is. The cobwebs add enough context to tell us that whatever this machine may be, it no longer operates. It is a relic of another time. With the addition of my title, it also becomes a specific comment on the passing of the railroads that once were at the heart of industrial society. I am simultaneously adding and subtracting context here until I strike a balance to express the idea I want to convey, yet also still leave enough room for the imagination of the viewer to expand upon its meaning.
Morning fog, Bandon, Oregon, 2006
A mother and daughter out for a morning walk on a wet beach are the subjects of this picture. If I had only framed the lower corner of the image, I would have had enough context to convey this idea. The mother stepping into the water, the child in the pink rain jacket skipping over the puddle, work well together as subject and context. But I also added vast stretches of empty beach and fog shrouded rocks to the image to provide additional context – enough to express the vast scope of the walk they are undertaking and the difficulties it may present. The additional context also gives scale incongruity to this image – the tiny figures are dwarfed by the vast sandscape they appear to be entering.
By adding all of this context, I also add sensory input to this image – the fog mutes what we see, and at the same time sharpens the other senses, making us want to listen for the crash of the waves, and try at the same time to catch the scent of the sea.
(A year and a half after posting this image, I received a query from a potential picture buyer. She asked me if I would be willing to provide this image to the publisher of a therapeutic book for use as a cover shot on the sensitive subject of "child loss." I could not accept this request because these people are not models, I do not know who they are, and I do not get signed model releases for my images. My purpose is to teach with my images. Selling them for publication would be a secondary consideration. Yet this gracious query certainly changed how I saw this image. It adds an entirely different context and in doing so, changes its meaning. I can now imagine that stream of water in the lower left hand corner of the image, over which the child boldly steps, as becoming a symbolic boundary between life and death itself. However moving that thought might be, I did not think it would be fair to the people who appear in the image for us any to alter the context in this manner without their concurrence -- still another reason why I could not sell it, no matter how worthy the cause may be. It would not be ethical for me to do so. The query offers all of us a thought provoking look at the power of the context in which an image is used.)