Humber Bridge at Dusk
What makes a photograph attention grabbing? The way in which the lines, shapes and colours of everyday reality are seen and arranged can impart either extraordinary power or numbing dullness to an image. Seeing differently seems to be essential, by which I mean going for something out of the ordinary. Sure, run of the mill, everyday shots of familiar things can be beautiful, but are they powerful, arresting compositions which somehow become a window onto a deeper plane of meaning? Do they stand out and draw you in the moment you see them, or is it a case of just a passing glance and then disinterest? And what makes the difference between these two responses?
For the shot of the Humber Bridge above I got right up close and used an ultra-wideangle zoom set to an equivalent 35mm focal length of 16mm. I deliberately tilted the horizon to 45o down to very visibly break the rules. This brought the north tower into a strong vertical alignment with the right of the frame and put the south tower at a pleasingly aberrant 45o tilt, giving a strong triangular note to the composition, emphasised by the cables and deck of the bridge. The Humber now flows uphill against gravity as the tide goes out and the twilight colours pop all too vividly out of the image. So the photo is wrong, right? Is this a depiction of ‘reality’ or something more impressionistic and poetic? Is impact more valuable than conforming to the expectations and norms of how things are? Well you can judge for yourself whether this shot ‘works’ or whether it looks hideous. If you asked someone to take a promotional photograph of the Humber Bridge and they came back with this how would you react? Would you sack the photographer or savour the result?
The picture of Christmas as we have it in the gospels poses just such dilemmas. Bland ‘as-is’ normality is ditched in favour of world-skewing, attention grabbing composition. Viewpoint and angle are distorted and the whole image comes alive by being skilfully put through the theological equivalent of Adobe Photoshop. Shapes, forms, associations, contrasts and colours pop out and hold our attention. This is not how we are used to seeing the world. The New Testament gives us an ultra-wideangle, radically out of the ordinary portrayal of everyday realities. The people who are normally excluded from the frame are now included as the point of interest. The horizon of inequality is tilted, the gravity of power politics is flipped upside down, and preference flows downwards in a tidal surge of grace to the powerless and marginalised. The elements in the image are recognisable and familiar, but the perspective and geometry of their inter-relationship has been altered dramatically to show us life as it should and could be, not as it is. Women, peasants, shepherds and pagans are arranged in shapes of meaning and challenge which convey dignity and radical hopefulness to the majority disenfranchised. Romans, rulers, landowners and religious dignitaries find themselves displaced to the edge.
The gap between the unfairness, poverty and brutality of that first century ‘now’ and the longed for freedom and equality of a seemingly far off ‘then’ is bridged by the Word made flesh. God’s love is driven deep down beneath the surface of life into the very foundations of existence, and it towers above the all too apparent fear and frailty of that first Christmas to bear the full weight of human longing and expectation in the birth, life and death of Jesus. God chooses to bridge the gap between us and God. God takes the initiative and engineers a divine solution. The Word of love becomes flesh and lives among us. Seen like this, the Christmas story grabs our attention. It is a brave, bold, breathtaking composition. If we can but trust to its unique viewpoint and artistry, it will bridge the gap of unbelief and carry us across to that place of our being and becoming where we too shall see the glory of God in the face of the Christ-child.