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"As Geertz has argued, the essential task of theory is to make thick description (or here ‘dense context’) possible, not to generalize across cases but to generalize within them, to make thick description more eloquent and to draw larger conclusions from the small" (Edwards 279)

“Dense context’ has, literally, a density, opacity and three-dimensional volume. Here, there comes into play an ’awareness that certain phenomena, persons or events accumulate layer upon layer of meaning, perhaps finding themselves at the crossroads of morphological chains, at the intersection of numerous contexts and action, or at the nodal point where both contemporary and modern preoccupations reflect and enhance each other. (Edwards 263)

As I was reading Elizabeth Edward’s ideas on the “dense context” of a photograph, the metaphor of the fractal came to mind. Although I am far from mathematically inclined (I am of the opinion that letters were intended for creating words, and not for constructing calculations, or, to let the rubber hit the road here: a + b does not equal ‘c’ but, in my world, a + b spells ‘ab’). In order to share what I do understand of the fractal, I quote the “Mighty Power” of Encyclopaedia Britannica (now that we are on the topic of empire…)

"Many fractals possess the property of self-similarity, at least approximately, if not exactly. A self-similar object is one whose component parts resemble the whole. This reiteration of details or patterns occurs at progressively smaller scales and can, in the case of purely abstract entities, continue indefinitely, so that each part of each part, when magnified, will look basically like a fixed part of the whole object. In effect, a self-similar object remains invariant under changes of scale—i.e., it has scaling symmetry. (“fractals”).

In looking at the fractal as metaphor for Edward’s notion of ‘dense context,’ we are presented with a form that embodies both “a macro- and micro-level” (Edwards 279) – a form that accumulates “layer upon layer” (263), a structure in which it is possible to “generalize within” forms and “draw larger conclusions from the small” (279) because the entire construct shares its generating code. In a similar fashion, the photographs in this chapter can be seen as a small corner of a fractal called ‘British Empire’ or ‘Colonial Era’ or any other ideological power structure.


Edwards, Elizabeth. “Negotiating Spaces: Some Photographic Incidents in the Western Pacific, 1883-1884.” Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination. Eds. Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003. 261-279.

"fractal." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 9 Apr. 2008 <http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9035083>