Friday, April 15, 2011

The Mustard Seed

This is a continuation of my "You Inspired Me" photography challenge. You can see the results of these challenges here.

This Week's Challenge:

This week, a friend challenged me with this photo from my favorites:

By Just Joe over on Flickr.

What I liked most about the source picture was the way they used a simple image of a simple item in order to represent a complex religious idea. I loved how the image uses the nature of the item to convey the message. In this case, the Bible is well worn and clearly well used, and thereby conveys the faith and dedication of its owner. I loved how clearly this complex idea is conveyed by this simple object. Nothing but the object in question was needed to convey the idea. It is this ability to apply the attributes of one object to another that is at the heart of religious symbolism. I wanted to find a single item that I could photograph that would have some attribute that would powerfully convey a religious idea.

As with all my "you inspired me" photographs, I didn't just want to duplicate the source photo exactly, so a simple picture of a well worn Bible was out. I started to rifle through my collection of religious items, and I found a plastic container full of mustard seeds that I purchased while in Israel. I was immediately excited by the idea. Mustard seeds already have a powerful and immediate religious significance for most people. This is due to Jesus' comparison of mustard seeds with both the "kingdom of God" and with "faith." Luke records that Jesus said: "Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it" (Luke 13:18-19); and "the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith. And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you" (Luke 17:5-6).

However, it occurred to me that taking a picture of the idea behind the mustard seed wouldn't be as simple as taking a picture of a Bible on a white background. The attribute of interest with the Bible photograph was the worn and well used nature of the Bible. But the attribute of interest with the mustard seed is its small size. I had to find a way to take a picture of the mustard seed that made its size clear, and to do that, I knew that I would need something else in the background that would make the size of the mustard seed obvious. This presented a unique photographic challenge: how to create a composition that focused on the mustard seed, while including enough contextual clews to indicate their size.

My first idea was the clinical approach, simply photograph the seeds with a ruler in the background. This approach appealed to the scientist in me, and this is the result:

Mustard seeds grow in reasonably sized pods, while the seeds inside are smaller than a grain of sand. What I liked most about this picture is that I was able to include both the pod, and several of the very small seeds it contained. But while the clinical metric ruler conveys the size of the objects rather exactly, it doesn't do so very intuitively. For that I needed to try something else. This was what I came up with:

I really love how this picture immediately gives you an idea of the sizes involved. Unfortunately, this composition made it more difficult to include the pod in the picture, but I believe that this drawback was well worth it.

Next Week's Challenge:

For next week's challenge, my wife selected this picture as a tribute to spring:

What I liked most about this picture was its use of selective focus, with a strong diagonal composition in the background. Although the selective focus forces the flowers to be the focus of the image, the path and grass are still important compositional elements, providing line, direction, and balance. I am excited to try my hand at these compositional ideas, and I am especially excited to get out and take my first shots of all the new life that is appearing everywhere as part of Spring.