Every picture tells a story, and every story must be told in its rightful context.

The other day I heard again the oft-repeated quotation by sir Winston Churchill  “…democracy is the worst form of government…”   and for a moment I wondered, did he really say that? How could a leader of the democratic alliance that fought fascism not think much of Democracy? Well, reviewing his complete sentence helps clarify the message… “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Aha! Context communicates the intended message.

The same is true with the ‘message’ of every photograph.

The thought first occurred to me when I was exploring moon photography.  It seems every nature photographer goes through a moon phase. We see the full moon in its soft, warm glow and it brings back the unique memories and feelings we forever associate with it; the moments when the moon’s magical light rolled back the darkness and gave us a little more time to play. And we later try to recapture such feelings and memories with our cameras and post-processing tools. So… how are we doing in that regard? This is what usually happens:

Because modern technology makes it easy to “zoom in” to the moon with state-of-the-art optics, we often do just that, thinking that the closer and more accurate our picture, the more effective our story will be and the more of a connection we will make with the viewer. To our dismay we soon discover that after adjusting for exposure our best closeup shots produce images of the familiar, usually monochrome disk, pockmarked and cratered, complete with the semblance of “the man on the moon” and… nothing more.  “Our” moon, it tuns out, set in the darkness of outer space, looks… exactly like every other photographer’s moon. Literally… you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, and after two or three iterations, it all becomes a humdrum encounter; another closeup of the  moon.

What’s wrong with that picture? In a word, context. To make a moon image stand out from the rest we don’t need a lot of detail, super magnification, or a scientifically accurate reproduction of hue, saturation and brightness  (can we compete with NASA in such things? ) rather we must pay special attention to context. The moon of art photography, unlike the moon of science, is about context; earth context that is, not the cold alien world of outer space but a frame made up of familiar elements from our home planet.

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The darkness of space feels alien and uncomfortable to us. We all grew up in some part of this unique planet and usually see the moon framed by clouds, or trees, or mountains, as a backdrop illustration for mysterious wildlife silhouettes, or reflected upon still waters. Such are the right elements of context for the moon of art — the moon with which to communicate emotional realities with our viewers.

So let us not use technology to strip a subject from its appropriate context. Otherwise, as with the incomplete Churchill quotation, above, our audience could easily get the wrong message.