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The meaning is in the details: sometimes, it's the little things in photographs that have the biggest impact.

In photographic communication, small things can be used to represent large ideas. I often find myself breaking down a potential image into its various parts, looking for details that can convey symbolic meaning. The closer I can get to my subject, the more the detail can help me tell my story.

Just outside the Cathedral of Our Lady, in Antwerp, Belgium, I found a street performer posing as a "Madonna and Child" painting. She has covered herself and her doll with makeup resembling splattered paint. Instead of showing her sitting on the ground in front of the cathedral, my first example (right) tells her story by stressing the incongruously abundant detail she has applied to her face, clothing and doll. Oddly, the only unpainted detail on her face is her lower lip. Meanwhile, the glittering detail on the doll's crown brings a shocking gold, green and red counterpoint to the monochromatic balance of the image.

My second example (opposite, top) features a simple Buddhist devotional offering: a single blossom resting in the hand of a sculpted image of the Buddha. I photographed it in a Buddhist temple in Vientiane, Laos. The blossom is just a small detail, but it has great impact because of its incongruity of scale and color contrast. I underexposed this image to isolate and emphasize these contrasts. The hand seems to come to life by acquiring function it did not have before. The sculptor has also exaggerated the length of the fingers, which adds a surreal quality. Such details can carry powerful symbolic messages. I recently sold this image to a publisher to use on the cover of a forthcoming mystery novel set in Laos. The book involves death, and the tiny flower symbolizes mourning when used in such a context.

The doorknocker in my third example (opposite, middle) uses the sun as a symbol. I found it in the back streets of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and was drawn to its crudely painted eyes and six dripping tears, a depiction of the mighty sun gone blind. The detail in the old wooden door adds a patina of age and wear, telling us something of the souls who may have once lived behind it. These whimsical yet profound alterations to the doorknocker may be very small details, but they are large in meaning. The sun weeps, the door is closed, and the house seems no longer a home. I had to move in very close to the knocker to make those details large enough to see. If printed, the designer or editor must size this picture large enough to allow these important details to stress their meaning.

I photographed my final example (left), a gutted auto in a backyard, near Karlovac, Croatia. The glove, sponge and tray left on the hood are details that tell us that someone has been trying to restore the car. Other details suggest the scale of the work yet to be done: The peeling paint and lack of a headlight indicate a Herculean task ahead. I used my frame and underexposed the image to abstract, suggest and imply, rather than describe its condition, letting just these few details tell the larger story.

For centuries, artists have used small details to represent larger ideas. For example, the poet William Blake (1757-1827) opens "Auguries of Innocence" with these words:

To see a worm in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.

Blake is speaking to us in symbolic language about meanings that live in the details, much as I've tried to do in these examples.

take your best shot Send photos for possible use in this column to The Douglis Visual Workshops, 2505 E. Carol Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85028 USA.

about the author Philip N. Douglis, ABC, directs The Douglis Visual Workshops, now in its 35th year of training communicators in visual literacy. Douglis, an IABC Fellow, is the most widely known consultant on editorial photography for organizations. He offers his comprehensive six-person "Communicating with Pictures" workshops every May and October in Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Arizona. For registration information, call +1 602.493.6709 or e-mail pnd You can view Douglis' multi-gallery cyberbook on expressive digital travel photography at
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Title Annotation:photocritique
Author:Douglis, Philip N.
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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