Contexts, Image Making, and Understanding

Contexts, Image Making, and Understanding

“Writing and picture making have, in many significant ways, replaced human memory and become the primary means by which twentieth-century Western humanity remembers.” Ruby, 1995, p. 113.

For the first time in my life, I have grown a beard. When I look in the mirror, I see myself and I see my dad in myself.

For most of my life, my dad wore a beard, shaped not unlike my own at the moment. Before he died, his beard was mostly gray, though his thick, dark head of hair remained.

Growing up, I was most often compared to my maternal grandfather—an active, outdoorsy, stubborn, stocky bull. He was bald save a ring of hair above the ears and around the back of his head. He never wore a beard, so far as I know. He was athletic, strong-willed, even a bit obnoxious at times.

On several occasions during the time between my 6th and 10th birthdays, I remember my granddaddy (that’s we called him, because my mom called him “daddy”) arriving at our suburban Bay Area home unannounced, causing uproar, laughter, shouting, and joy from my mom, my brother, and I. Shortly after the initial commotion, he would head into our kitchen, grab a spoon and a tub of Dreyer’s ice cream from the freezer, and walk out the front door. My brother and I would give chase, and he would speed off—a 60-something man running, with ice cream!—around the block, leaving my older brother and I despondent, unable to keep up.

My granddaddy wrestled with us, and I remember trying to hang on to his legs with all of my strength as he motored through the living room. He taught me how to throw a spiral. I grew up knowing I was like my granddaddy—active, outdoorsy, athletic, strong-willed, and more than a bit obnoxious.

But I didn’t look all that much like my granddaddy. There were physical resemblances—for example, my dad was 6’ 2”, but my granddad was only around 5’ 10”; I take after my granddad.

No, it wasn’t until I watched my dad die in 2008, after his last confrontation with cancer, that I realized who in my family I most resembled. It’s not even really close, actually.

This was a significant realization. I had developed a narrative that I’d long told myself: I look more like mom and granddad, and my brother looks like dad (my brother is a couple inches taller than I am). But that narrative wasn’t accurate; I’d been telling myself the wrong story. I look like my dad, more and more as I get older. And my brother looks like my mom as he gets older.

With my new beard, I look in the mirror and I see my dad staring back at me sometimes. This is not an unpleasant feeling, but it is unsettling nonetheless.

I suppose that I would know this whether I had photographs of my dad or not. But I can’t help but think that I know this in large part because of those photographs.

I certainly don’t have any writing from my dad to supplement my memory of him—at least none ready to hand. He didn’t leave me a letter or a journal, no will with special instructions. Not that he would.

I have a few vivid memories that I can recall at almost any time:

  • The day that he almost got into a fight with another man after one of my Little League baseball games—I remember the light of that day, the slant of sunbeams across a field of grass, looking up at my dad cradling a portable cooler and fold-up chairs, ready to fire on this man for a reason I didn’t know.
  • The time he picked me up from a day hike on Mt. Diablo and took me to Frosty Freeze.
  • The first time he held my son and played with him.
  • The day that he and I took BART to see Cal play football at Memorial Stadium.

But how much can I not recall? How many everyday moments are lost?

We have images. And images, in themselves, are worthy of our attention.

But photos as objects often carry incredibly significant meanings that may only be even marginally understood with the benefit of rich contextual detail—both about the moment and circumstances of image making and the reception and use of said image.

Ruby (1995) argues persuasively that “An interest in the photograph as a text complete in itself” is insufficient without “a focus on the social processes of construction and subsequent use(s)” (p. 5). Take this picture of my dad, for example:

I shot this photo as my dad watched my youngest daughter play soccer on a blue-bird day in early September, 2007. He was making his way across the country with his dog, driving from Atlanta to California and back to see family and to see the country.

He also knew he was going to die.

He didn’t tell us, of course. He didn’t say much of anything about the trip—he just wanted to get out and see us, his sister and her family, his nieces and nephews, and my brother and his family—to make this trip, to camp along the way, before he got too old.

We thought it was a bit odd, though. We worried about him. We sensed something was off.

We did the things you do with visiting family, and we had fun. I took several pictures, but when I composed the photo above, I was grasping for some significance—here’s my dad in the shade, sitting on the ground with his big red doberman laying next to him, looking out at my daughter play a game as he once looked out at me doing the same.

Almost immediately after my dad died, just four months later—after a man came to my dad’s house and pushed his dead body on a gurney out the front and into the back of a van as I held the door—I spent some time on my laptop, looking for pictures.

I was in charge of handling his cremation arrangements while my step-mother dealt with so much loss and so much legal minutia simultaneously. I’d mostly done my part by that point.

So many people had helped in small ways during the last months of my dad’s life, and there were many others who couldn’t fly to Atlanta but who wanted to be here to help—these people needed something from us, I felt. Some small measure of thanks, and some recognition of my dad’s life.

I looked at the photo above. A different context and perspective occurred to me.

Perhaps my dad was looking squarely at the now in that moment—the smell of the crab grass, the feel of pebbles and sand beneath him, the smell of the creosote chaparral on the El Paso wind, roving bunches of 4 and 5 year-olds chasing a ball—but perhaps he was looking forward, too. Maybe he was thinking about what he knew he’d miss, what his grandkids might become.

I made a little 3x5 photo card with nothing but this image of my dad and the caption “looking forward…” I ordered a few and sent them to the folks who shared our memory of him.

Is this photo meaningful without these contexts of production and use? Surely, for not everyone who received the photo card knew the backstory I’ve just provided—the contexts of production. They had other contexts that they brought to bear, however—an understanding that my dad was gone, a follow-on interpretation of the framing and perspective of the image + caption as received, and a host of their own contextual details remembered and stirred in the moments of reception and use.

Though the contextual details differ from person to person, it is the confluence of images and contexts which amplifies meaning in profound and often indescribable ways.

It’s tempting to skim across the top of these rich contexts in our investigations of images, to believe that such objects can be read without stirring up, surfacing, and carefully examining the incredibly detailed and even mundane phenomenologies of production and use.

But it’s folly to assume that such a reading can even marginally plumb the depths of those contexts; the analytic axes available to us without such cultural and historical contexts are largely superficial—lighting, composition, framing, technologies of production and distribution…

Even the term reading is insufficient, a misnomer.

Don’t get me wrong—these are important and even useful analytic axes for any interrogation of an image. Necessary starting points, to be sure.

But so woefully incomplete.

The ontological chasm between such superficial readings and more complex, nuanced, triangulated understandings of images in/and contexts is massive.


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