01. Finding the key

This is a very simple image; but is there more to it than meets the eye. First of all, let’s look at its components.

It has only three visual elements: the sea, a yacht and a structure in the bottom right corner. It is a colour image; but it only has one colour (blue), and three tones in the grey scale (black, white and grey).

In terms of visual effects, it only employs two: point of view (high, looking down on all the elements) and focus (all elements are in focus).

So what does it mean? The high point of view suggests that we are viewing the scene through the eyes of a powerful (godlike) being. The uniformity of focus gives equal weight to each of the elements.

The yacht is very small in the expanse of sea. The structure in the bottom right-hand corner of the frame, however, appears much larger and is only partially shown (further emphasising its size relative to the yacht). This structure has two purposes: firstly, it breaks up the rigid, formal structure of the frame. Secondly, it provides the key to the meaning of the image.

When I stumbled upon this scene, the curve of the structure suggested to me: a giant wave. If you don’t see that, you will not see this image as I saw it. And that’s okay. I had no control over the positioning of any of the elements so all I could do was to position myself to make the structure (you can see another view of it in the photograph below) look as much like a wave as I could; and wait until the yacht sailed into the position that I felt best served the story I was trying to tell. I was in a tour group at the time and I had to resist the tour guide exhorting me to stay with the group while the yacht tracked lazily across the expanse of blue. I’ve yet to meet a tour guide who was sympathetic to the needs of the photographer.

But the structure is clearly not a wave; and that fact is critical to the understanding of the image because just as the structure is used as a symbol, the whole image is a symbol. This is not just a picture of a distant yacht sailing leisurely across the calm blue sea, it is a metaphor. How many times have you found yourself in plain sailing, only to have some unforseen circumstance crop up out of the blue (quite literally, in this case) and turn your world upside down (capsize it, in other words).

What I have tried to demonstrate here is that it is important to look at each of the visual elements and study the visual effects in order to determine the vocabulary used in the image; and from the vocabulary, deduce the story (meaning) of the shot. But I hope I have also demonstrated the importance of the key in unlocking the meaning. If you didn’t understand the key, it doesn’t matter. This was simply one of those images with which you found no natural connection.

There will be another image in this series that explores the same theme in a very different way. I wonder if you can find it without reading the explanation.

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