Context And Order

Principles underlying information in human communication


I was thinking about the complexity represented in this image when I noticed that it’s also rich in context, providing both time and space perspectives. The nighttime and elevated point of view displays pattern, while the time-exposure reveals motion. Combined, the image speaks to me of complexity, interaction, order, flow and intersection. My contemplation could have gone in any of these directions—and perhaps will another time—but for now I’m drawn to considerations of context and order.

Information theorists consider “data” to be the objective and meaningless elements presented to mind: the letters that form these words, pixels on a computer screen, notes on a music score, tonalities of light and dark in a photograph. One of my favorite quotes regarding a step up from data comes from visual anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, who observed that “Information is a difference that makes a difference.” Alone, locked between pages or in a file, a gathering of words, pixels, notes or tonalities is meaningless data. But when a mind examines that data and finds that it makes or would make a difference, it becomes “information.”

For example, the above image is loaded with information for me. A traffic engineer would derive more and different information, as would a police officer or legislator. Each would notice things the others don’t see. And that takes us to context, considerations of time, place and perspective including the recording individual’s motivation, purpose and intent. Frames (context) such as location and time enable the formation of personal meaning, which becomes the springboard for judgement and decision making. Frames themselves—all frames—communicate. The one doing the framing or providing context says, “Focus on this, not that. Pay attention to what’s being framed. There’s significance here. You may find it meaningful as well.”

As part of our quest for meaning, we’ll sometimes place our everyday, ordinary perceptions of people, places, experiences and objects in larger frames. Broader contexts enhance meaning by providing more information potential. We’re standing on the curb waiting for the light to change, shifting our gaze from a car to a child and then to an ad on the side of a truck. And suddenly, for no apparent reason, our field of view goes from close-up to wide angle, like our consciousness has changed lenses. Awareness expands. And instead of thinking about the ad or the next appointment, we’re watching the unfolding life of the city, a sense of humanity as a whole rather than a collection of busy individuals. Context, framing does that. It happens with any dramatic shift in perspective. It’s how filmmakers manipulate attention. “Look here! Now there!” Wide to extreme closeup.

For some, the above image might provide insight or trigger a memory of a particular time or place. The photograph documents. It stores data so information can be had and meaning created. For others, it might express the orderly flow of traffic in a busy city. Still others might zoom in to the signs and lines on the sidewalk, the traffic lights, benches, newspaper boxes and streetlights, which could lead to an awareness of city highways, infrastructure and the individuals responsible for them. Point of view (POV) applies to the viewer as well as the photographer, particularly when the intent it to make images that are evocative.

For me, the linearity, coherence and convergence of the light trails in this image evokes the flow of unique individuals, each with their unique perceptions, concerns, experiences, ideas, potentials, desires and pursuits—and in the blending lines, their convergence. Within this frame—a hotel window around the corner from Lincoln Center in New York City—I see the myriad of diverse backgrounds and thoughts ordered and blending, a demonstration that beneath the dynamic complexity and chaos of a city, there are organizing principles at work, guiding our actions and the ascent of life. The human project.

At the heart of the most random or chaotic event lies order, pattern, and causality, if only we can learn to see it in large enough context.

                                                                                                       Corinne McLaughlin

About This Image

I was in New York City for a conference and by chance my room overlooked the intersection in front of Lincoln Center. I didn’t have a tripod with me, so I soaked a towel with water to make it heavy (and wrung it out so it wouldn’t drip) and used it as a camera support. I opened the window slightly and, with the camera strap around my neck—to prevent it from falling out the window—I pressed the camera into the towel to secure it as if it were a bean-bag.

I stopped the aperture down to around f16 to reduce flare from the brightest lights and I guessed at the duration. It was probably in the area of twenty or thirty seconds, however long it took for the lights to change so the traffic would be moving in all directions.

The next time you’re out with your camera, consider a point of view that’s broader—or closer— than “normal.” Pay attention to the visual elements. Know your objective: Information? Documentation? Evocation? Expression? And then eliminate from the frame anything that doesn’t contribute to it.


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