Meaning in the background

Here is a great photo. I can’t link to it directly. It’s currently the sixth photo on the Wall Street Journal’s Photos of the Week page for February 15-19, 2010.

Please click on the thumbnail above to view the photo full size on the WSJ page, then come back. Photo credit: Thierry Roge/Reuters. Remember, you have to scroll down to the sixth photo.

What’s special about this photo?

If you simply glanced at the photo, what you saw is a fairly pretty picture of a man carrying a young girl across train tracks in some snow. If you took a second glance at the picture, you may also have noticed emergency personnel in the middle ground, carrying a stretcher. It’s not clear if the person on the stretcher is sick, or wounded or dead.

But if you kept looking at the photo for just one more second, you finally found the “punch line”, almost but not quite hidden in the background. Look closely and you can just make out the train cars that are lifted unnaturally off the track. And then you realize that the photo shows the aftermath of a terrible train crash.

Photographer Thierry Roge focuses on the man in the foreground with a fairly wide aperture, but without opening the aperture up all the way. The fairly wide aperture leaves the men in the middle ground a little out of focus, and leaves the train cars behind them a little more out of focus. The snow helps, too, by softening the edges of people and things, especially behind the man and girl in front.

Of course, good photographers do this all the time—deliberately blurring the background. But often we blur the background because the stuff in the background is not terribly important, or because we’re trying to throw the viewer’s attention entirely on the foreground. I try to shoot brides in dressing rooms as wide open as possible for the absolute minimum depth of field, because most of the dressing rooms I’ve taken photos in were fairly cluttered and uninteresting.

But in Thierry’s train-wreck photo, the blurred or not-quite-in focus background is terribly important. He’s not hiding it. He just doesn’t want you to notice it first. He wants you first to see the man and the little girl. The story of the photo is the human drama. The wrecked trains in the background are only the explanation or back story.

The Napalm Girl

Actually, this technique is one that great news photographers are fond of. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of examples. One of the most famous is the great, Pulitzer-Prize winning Vietnam War photo by AP Photographer Nick Ut, commonly known as the “Napalm Girl photo.” The photo shows a naked little girl (Kim Phuc) running down a street. At first, you only notice the naked girl, and you notice that she’s crying. Then you notice the American soldiers, perhaps on the right side of the photo (if it’s cropped wide), certainly behind the girl and following her down the road toward the camera. And further behind them all, you see a vague, billowing, terrible cloud of smoke. The smoke—and the fire that must be with it—appears to be a “safe” distance in the background, but the condition of the girl connects her suffering with the fire, which, as we all know, was caused by napalm. Note that your eye is drawn deeper into the photo by the road, just as the Thierry photo of the train crash draws your eye deeper as you follow the train tracks back.

Pictures and stories

One of the reasons that I call photos like these truly “great” is that they are so self-sufficient. They don’t need captions. You need a caption, perhaps, to know that the train wreck occurred in Brussels, Belgium. But that’s a relatively unimportant detail. Compare Thierry’s photo to the other train photo further down on the same page (taken in South Africa), or to the photo of the burning building (in Austin, Texas). You won’t be able to guess the story from the photo without reading the caption. That’s not a knock against those photos. The photo of the man standing on the front “bumper” of the South African train is a particularly arresting image and a fine photo. But the truth is, most pictures do not tell a story; pictures are very seldom worth a thousand words. So when you get one that does tell a story so completely, it’s a sure sign of greatness.

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