Sean Duggan Photographics
Galleries Workshops Consulting Books Technique About Blog Contact Home

At the Edge of the Bridge;
Reflections on Metaphor and Symbolism in Personal Photographs

Of all of the many wonderful aspects of photography, one of the most significant is perhaps the most simple as well: the ability to freeze an image of a specific moment in time. And with that instant recorded on film, pixels or paper, it can be viewed again and cherished, pondered, puzzled over and deconstructed. It can provide not only the visual index of a memory, but also a light to shine upon that past moment, illuminating it so you can see it anew, perhaps in a different way. It can become a portal to insights and discoveries that were not possible in that tiny sliver of a fraction of a second when the image was exposed.

This photograph has prompted such a re-illumination of the moment that it recorded, and those that came after. And it has gently suggested insights and ideas, new interpretations that are very personal, in the way that only family experiences can be.

The image was taken on the day of a family outing. It was early February and the weather had been unseasonably warm for the Sierra foothills, and almost like spring for a few weeks; the snows of late February and March were just around the corner. My wife and I took our 5-year old daughter Fiona and my father to a nearby covered bridge that dates from the early 1860s. This photograph was made as we returned from strolling across the bridge, just before we were about to leave the shady shelter of the long passage. I was concentrating on taking pictures of Fiona as she jumped back and forth. I knew from the harsh backlight that she would be just a silhouette, and that’s the effect I was trying to record. The figure in the background, standing at the edge of bridge and looking out into the brightly overexposed exterior is my father.

A little over three months after this photo was taken, our new family reality was that my father did not have long to live. Less than six months after it was taken, he was gone.

I liked this image a lot when I first saw it on my computer later that same day. But, as is so often the case, other projects and other priorities pushed it into the archive and I forgot about it for a while. Upon revisiting it a year later, however, the reality of my father’s eventual death so soon after it was taken,revealed a new interpretation to certain aspects of the photograph. Not a new interpretation of the reality of that day on the bridge, but a new awareness of the symbolism and metaphor inherent in this image that were not apparent when the shutter button was pressed. Sometimes it take a little time and distance to see all the nuances and textures an image has to offer.

As regular visitors to my blog and students in my workshops and classes may already know, I tend to favor images where ambiguity is as much a presence as clarity; where motion blurred details are the equal of sharpness and where metaphor and analogy have a roomy stage on which to trace their delicate dance. In this rendering of light and shadow I see three generations (though there are only two generations visible in the image, remember that I am here, too, as the photographer). I see the joyous, nimble dance of childhood in the leaping form of my young daughter, present in the moment, as only children can be, her braid caught in flight as it swirls about her head. And I see the slightly blurred figure of my father in the background, at the edge of a great transition, about to take the step from one place to another, the details of the destination washed out by the glaring light of a truth that we know is there for all of us, but that is so bright we cannot see clearly into it.

That is one of the most powerful aspects of photography and art in general: to provide us with a window through which we can look and reflect on the world or ourselves and see things in a new way. So, in addition to being what I consider a good photograph, and a moment frozen in time, this image also becomes a catalyst for reflection and new insights into some of the very human themes that we all encounter in our lives. And, of course, along with all of that, this photograph also exists on a more basic personal level as a simple gift, a visual token that recalls fond memories of a good day together.