I made this image on my third visit to the Temple of Heaven. It is an excellent example of how context can affect the meaning of pictures. On my first visit, back in 2004, I photographed the very same tiles – only I moved in on them to stress the smallest of details – the dragons embossed on the ends of the tile that characterize the Ming Dynasty and the imperial power of Emperor Yongle who had them made between 1406 and 1429.
(Click on the thumbnail below to see this 2004 image.) That close-up picture triggered a lively discussion – my “resident photo-analyst” Celia Lim argued that my 2004 image was essentially descriptive and therefore not particularly expressive. (Descriptive or not, that 2004 image has proved to be one of the most visited images in my cyberbook – tallying over 6,000 page views to date, probably because when people use Google to search for an image showing “ceramic roof tiles,” that image always comes up.)
On my third trip to Beijing, I was determined to photograph these tiles once more, only this time adding expressive context to them. I wanted to not only present the same set of tiles in detail, but also offer context that would drive home Emperor Yongle’s thing for dragons. This image is the result of my explorations. The Temple of Heaven was recently renovated, and the lush colors on the sides of a temple just behind those tiles are presented in all of their regal glory. I focus on the same old tiles, but this time I use the brilliantly painted temple wall as soft-focus background context. The tiles are also repeated again on the roof of the neighboring temple. And the featured decorations in those lush paintings are, quite appropriately, golden dragons. To make matters even more appropriate, my original critic, Celia Lim, was traveling with our group. I called her over to see the actual tiles she had berated three years before, and then showed her this image on my viewfinder. I think she appreciates the value that the added context now brings to those tiles as expression.