Up in arms, Willemstad, The Netherlands, 2005
This is one of the most enigmatic advertisements I've seen on my travels. A pair of arms rising from a small moat in front of a shop seems to be promoting a number of Willemstad enterprises. I spot-metered on the white sign to make the water turn black, and conceal the origin of the arms. I use four layers to make the incongruity work –- first the inky black water, then the arms and hands, followed by the sign and flower basket, and finally the window frame with its white upright sides repeating the vertical thrusts of the arms and its mysterious black opening repeating the black water. The arms are simultaneously shocking and amusing. They simply don’t belong here, and that is what incongruity is all about.
Body Piercing Shop, Antwerp, Belgium, 2005
Only a few blocks from the classical sculpture and voluptuous paintings at Antwerp's Rubens House, a body piercing shop attracts customers with its 21st century version of the human form. There are multiple incongruities in this image – the purple metallic body, the strange serpentine markings, the post bolting the head to the building, and the odd dance the figure manages to display under such distressing circumstances. Ultimately, this advertisement expresses little about body piercing. Rather, it seems to be incongruously suspended over the street to attract attention for its own sake. It certainly caught mine!
Vintage chauffeur, Temse, Belgium, 2005
In Temse, we caught a lift from its wonderfully anachronistic official Town Crier. It was an incongruous sight -- riding with someone wearing a 19th century costume at the wheel of a 21st century car. Thanks to a 24mm wideangle lens, I was able to squeeze a good part of him and his colorful costume into this image from the extremely close vantage point of the front passenger seat, right down to the pins he collects from tourists who visit this small Belgian town from all over the world. His huge red mustache lends an authentic touch to a vintage profession. This image is a good example of subject incongruity -- in this case, it's the appearance of the subject itself, rather than how we make the picture, that creates the incongruity.
Bizarre bottle openers, Brussels, Belgium, 2005
Every souvenir shop in Brussels sells hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of crudely manufactured Asian souvenirs of the city’s famous Mannekin Pis fountain. In this shop window, dozens of them, looking almost nothing like the original, are lined up in precise ranks. The sight of so many multi-colored miniature statues of urinating children lined up in rows was bizarre enough in itself. But these were not only miniature replicas – they apparently also function as bottle openers. The apparatus sprouting from their heads makes them even more incongruous. My tight vantage point intensifies the rhythmic repetition of both the ludicrous figures and the bottle openers, creating a sense of incongruity that implies regimentation and relentless commercialism. They are intended, of course, as amusement, but when seen en masse, the incongruous effect is surreal and profoundly unsettling, a comment on the nature of worldwide tourism and the commercialism that feeds on it.
Freeloader, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2005
One of the many herons that feed on the fish in the canals and rivers of Amsterdam awaits a free meal, courtesy of a fisherman on the Amstel River. The fisherman incongruously appears to be conversing with the bird, perhaps even gesturing to it. Actually, he is just reaching for his fishing line. This image is a study in a spatial relationship – the water in the foreground and background isolate the narrow pier, and put bird and man on the same plane – quite alone with each other. The bird keeps its distance – it extends its beak toward the man just as the man extends his arm towards the bird, but will come no closer. The man appears to be talking to it, but I doubt if the bird is listening. All it wants is a free breakfast, which it never got. The man did not catch any fish while I was watching this little encounter, and the bird flew off in a huff. Yet they did offer us what appears to be an incongruous conversation. For a few moments, I even thought they were old friends.
Ice Cream Frenzy, Leiden, The Netherlands, 2005
This oversized cartoonish sculpture is intended to draw customers into a Leiden ice cream shop. Overflowing with simulated melted ice cream, it obviously must be doing its job well -- the store was overflowing with customers. Both the sculpture and my image are based on incongruous exaggeration in scale as well as behavior. My image gives no clue as to the actual size of the sculpture – that is why I made it as I did. I leave that to the imagination of the viewer. The behavior of the kid is also an incongruous exaggeration – sitting in a puddle of melting ice cream is hardly a pleasure, yet he seems to be shoveling it in and enjoying every drop. The three lights glowing in the background add a theatrical context, and one even serves as a symbolic crown. It’s the kind of image that may make some queasy and others salivate. The sculpture may be based on Dutch humor, yet I found it amusing, and it certainly drew a crowd of hungry ice cream lovers into the shop.
Leafy call, Place du Petit Sablon, Brussels, Belgium, 2005
Almost hidden in the dense foliage surrounding the intimate grounds of this lovely Brussels park is a fellow on a cell phone. I noticed that he held his left hand in the identical position of the marble gentleman who peeks out at us from behind a tree. They may come from different times, yet share a common posture. The interplay of gestures between a man of stone and a real person is incongruous. The scale of the statue and the expanse of leaves compared to the size of the man are also incongruous. And finally, the sight of a gentleman wearing a suit and tie peeking out at us from a mass of foliage is also incongruous. He listens and talks with intensity. It seems as if all of those leaves are listening intently as well.
Squeezing Nature, Scottsdale, Arizona, 2005
It is just a simple picture of a dark hotel lobby on a quiet spring morning. There is, however, something in this image that is jarringly incongruous. A long trail of light sweeps us deeply into the frame, tracking its way across a multi-colored carpet, climbs on to the newspaper being read by a distant figure, and then flies out the window into the palm trees. That light trail is caused by the mid morning sun shining through an overhead skylight. It represents the diminishing role of nature in our lives. We allow the sun to enter our places of leisure, yet we squeeze it down to a narrow vestigial ribbon of light. The distant figure does not even seem to be aware of nature’s incongruous presence. He is otherwise occupied. But we can see what he does not see, and hopefully we may think about its meaning.
Smoke, Bagan, Myanamar, 2005
This woman puffs on a massive cigar wrapped in a banana leaf. When she saw me aiming my camera her way, she made sure to wreathe her face in a fragrant coil of smoke. This is a good example of layered incongruity. The longer we look into this image, the more incongruities we see. The base incongruity, of course is age. Smokers are not supposed to live as long as non-smokers, yet here is a person robustly smoking at a very advanced age. Then comes a layer of scale incongruity. People normally smoke smaller things than this massive hand-rolled cigar. And finally, there is the incongruity presented by the layer of smoke that coils around her nose and cheek. It hangs and droops around her face in the same pattern that her turban droops around her head. I used strong sidelight here to stress one side of her face and cigar. The rest of her, including the hand that holds the cigar, is in shadow. I allow the background to go entirely black, removing all distractions.
Full Bus, en route to Pakse, Laos, 2005
A typical Lao bus, brimming with passengers and their baggage, hurtles down the road just in front of us. I shot this picture through the front window of our own small bus. Many of these passengers are visiting backpackers en route to Pakse, the largest town in Southern Laos. There is a double incongruity here – the bus seems to be dangerously overloaded, with little thought given to the passengers safety. Such a small vehicle, loaded with so many passenger, baskets and baggage, presents a scale incongruity. Yet the people on it seem to be quite comfortable with their precarious situation. For some it is probably a great adventure. There is always incongruity in a situation that appears dangerous or difficult, yet is somehow being enjoyed at the same time.
Making Contact, Weekend Market, Bangkok, Thailand, 2005
I found these wooden figures in a crowded antique shop window. From a distance, they were lost in a mass of assorted antiques. Yet the closer I came to them with my camera, the more incongruous their relationship became. I don’t know if the shop’s owner intended to present this intimate a sculptural relationship or not, but I was able to create my own incongruous juxtaposition by isolating and then linking them both within my frame. The unclothed younger figure at right, which probably represents a baby, seems to be emerging from an ornately carved golden door, and through hand gestures, seems to be trying to make contact with the clothed and somewhat disinterested adult figure at left. I don’t know if the figures were created at different times by different artists, or if they were made as a set, but I found the manner of display suggesting a generational communication problem. There are several incongruities here – a juxtaposition of contrasting attitudes, ages, orientation, and level of clothing. I tried to make a picture that would ask as many questions of the viewer as the baby figure probably wants to ask the adult figure.
(The answers to those questions depend largely upon the context we bring to it. Are these figures religious in nature? It would be incongruous in itself to find Christian biblical figures in a Thai antique shop. Or do they represent figures from Eastern theology? Perhaps a Thai viewer, such as my frequent comment contributor Nut, would have a better context for such figures than I do. She was our guide that day in Bangkok’s weekend market, but I don’t know if she ever saw this window. I hope she may be able to add some contextual insights here.)
No Photos Allowed, Vientiane, Laos, 2005
A few Laotian temples do not allow photographers to make pictures inside of them. I was fascinated by this sign, wrapped in ruined film and anchored by a beer can. I found it incongruous in itself to be actually making a photo of a no-photos-allowed sign. There were several levels of incongruity at work here, and I tried to take advantage of all of them. In many ways, the camera and medium itself are incongruous in this context. The primitive drawing of a vintage single lens reflex camera and the actual spool of exposed film seem in some ways to be as archaic in their way as the ancient temple is in its way. Removing exposed film from a camera and wrapping it around the sign uses incongruity to make its own point. The use of the beer can, as an anchor for the sign is also incongruous, considering it stands on what I presume must be sacred ground. I placed the exposed film in the lower left hand corner of my frame so that it leads the eye up to the sign. I placed the sign off to the left, incongruously comparing its aging design with the aging façade of the temple itself to its right.