Photography and Visual Culture How does text shape the understanding of photographs? Analyse three different examples with reference to writings from the reading list. by Irina I. Csapo
It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. However, dare I ask then, can a thousand words worth a picture? Or even so, what is the relationship between words and images? Can one be separated from another? Such are the questions that I will try to answer in my further discourse, with focus on the relationship within the written word and its various concepts and the visual representation. Moreover, I will analyse three visual examples so that one may take a look on how these work. Nowadays, due to the mass communication mechanism, rarely are there to be encountered photographs in use that are not accompanied by writing. (Burgin, 1986, 51). This definitely proposes an acknowledged dependency on one another and an established coherent relation amongst them. In my opinion, images are like boats full of meanings floating on an agitated sea and it is up to the viewer to come and 'anchor' it to a solid ground through text and language. Written discourse of an image functions at some extent as an advocate in favour of the image, solidifying its status, argument and ultimately its right to exist and interfere with its medium. In order to make it more clearly it is necessary to follow a direction in this sense and therefore I have chosen 'semiotics' as a starting ground and also as a necessary tool to decipher whatever meanings and messages are to be created between the visual and the text. Naturally, 'the study of signs' referring to how it is roughly defined as (Chandler, 2007, 3), deals in this case with language as the main “interpreting system of all other systems, linguistic and non-linguistic” notes Chandler (2007), (cited in Beneviste, 1969, 239). Language is a social key code used in the maintenance and construction of social realities and it is therefore a vital element to decipher visual contexts and to properly understand whatever meanings they may carry. (Chandler, 2007, 153). In addition, another way of understanding an image through language would be the usage of 'ekphrasis', an obscure literary genre used in poems to describe works of visual art and it literally means “to make us see”. Ekphrasis is in terms “the verbal representation of visual representation”, describing or invoking the visual object, “giving voice to a mute art object”, or simply put “to make photographs auditory”. (Mitchell, 1994, 152). It is often practiced on radios, books (Roland Barthes
in Camera Lucida, 82, uses ekphrasis when talking about his mother's picture but without reproducing it in the text), art galleries or spoken speech. The connection between the ekphrasis poet and the audience is merely the object described that needs to address a listening subject and Mitchell mentions two forms of translation and exchange of meaning. These would be the conversion of the visual context into verbal representation, namely by description, followed shortly after the reconversion of the verbal representation back into the visual object in the reception of the reader (Mitchell, 1994, 165). Leaving ekphrasis aside, other forms of extracting sense and meanings from images would be the presence of titles and captions. Generally, a title is a short piece of text that tags the photograph and gives the viewer somewhat basic information. It mainly asks the photographs to have intention and to deliver themselves to the viewer as within a designed, coherent shape. They might have different forms, such as 'destination' where coherence and explanation is given to the image. Next would be the title as 'a point of departure', which gives brief and minimal indications to the viewer leaving him suspended in meaning or lastly the 'parallel' form of commentary. This type is set from a distance with the actual image, as the meaning is nowhere in the picture, nor in the title, but they somehow juxtapose each other. This important burden of entitlement often stands as a signature of the author and it “authenticates the authenticity of the photographic image”. (Scott, 1999, 47-58). Furthermore, while a title is only an act of tagging which does not belong to discourse, a caption has a more spoken authority. There are two kinds of captions: the 'rebus' type which depends on the photography supplier (for example a newspaper) or the 'quotational' or 'direct speech' caption which addresses meaning between the supplier and the viewer. The latter is to be found mostly in tabloids and would offer the viewer, or the 'reader of the image', extra information that would melt into analogies and various contextual situations. (Scott, 1999, 52). Still, entitlement and captioning are delicate matters, as the photography's reception depends on it. Even so, most of these titles are inappropriate and easily forgettable and particularly the photography's contents are to be remembered more easily. (Scott, 1999, 74). Furthermore, titles and captioning carry with them a linguistic message which deliver the visual representations to the viewer. In fact, all photographs have polysemous linguistic messages, meaning their signifiers (car, for example) carry an amount of signifieds (signified for car = freedom, speed, potency) from which the viewer is free to choose. The relationship between the signifier and signified translates itself to the level of denotation, which is the literal, obvious meaning of a sign and connotation, which refers to the socio-cultural and the personal associations of a given sign. It is important to make this distinction, as the linguistic message has two vital functions: “anchorage” and “relay”. The anchorage function corresponds to a literal, denotative meaning and it allows the viewer to choose “the correct level of perception”, permitting him to
focus and understand the meaning in the photograph, particularly to elucidate it. (Barthes, 1977, 3940). On the other hand, the relay function handles with words that are in the same way as the images, meaning fragments of a more general context in which the message must be accessed at a higher level, specifically that of the story or anecdote. (Barthes 1977, 41). To illustrate my points more clearly I shall now further analyse 3 images in relation to their text.
The first photograph which I would like to emphasize on is the portrait of “Annie Mae Gudger” from “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1939) by James Agee and Walker Evans. I have chosen this specific portrait due to its complex expressive content which resides within the woman's character and persona and because it is easily one of my favourite photographs. The portrait has definitely become a social statement of the dramatic circumstances of the Depression-era with this woman standing at the centre of all attention. The dramatic setting of the photograph, the seriousness and the gravity of her expression, the lines of her face, the muttered lips and her faded dress all collide into a hauntingly beautiful and visual expression. She becomes an “icon” in Evan's works, particularly because from all unknown photographed men and women, Annie Mae is the only one who has earned herself her true name, escaping from a dull, common context into “a space of pure contemplation.” She is the Mona Lisa of the Depression. (Mitchell, 1994, 294). The portrait, in this case does serve us a title and also a succinct caption. The revealing title of the portrait, that of the woman's name, responds to the 'destination' characteristic I have mentioned before. It is a
focused title, giving us answers to probably the most evident question: “Who is this woman?”. It is explanatory and gives the image an identity, that of the person in it. At this stage, the “anchorage” function of the title's linguistic message steps in and settles for the correct meaning, a literal understanding of the photographed subject. The rebus caption, the name of the book in which the image appeared, corresponds to a relay function and gives the viewer the exact context of the image.
The following image to be discussed on belongs to a series called “Portraits and Incidents” (2008) by Bill Durgin. It is rather an unconventional picture with extreme peculiarity, as it seems 'alienesque', somehow out of this world and deprived from a specific context. It is an odd portrait of a woman carrying her child in what seems to be a bathroom. It is mysterious and unspecific, as the image does not reveal at any point anything more than the mere sight of this ravished woman and her child. The title of the photograph does respond only halfway to our question, as it is indeed a portrait. The other half of the title designates another point of departure in the meaning. “Incidents” is a permissive word allowing us the rest of the interpretation and is a signifier for perhaps a circumstance of story, as incidents are prone to be shared with others. Still, this particular 'incident' in the photograph is concealed to the viewers that must attend a higher meaning. The title “Portraits and Incidents” is perhaps responding to a half anchorage-half relay linguistic message. The first part, the portrait is the literal and obvious part of the photograph message and attends the viewer in finding a coherent point of view. The second part, 'incidents' serves the relay function in which the linguistic message is set from a distant context, in which the viewer must find its way through meanings, words and impressions. The photograph is mere an unfinished story to which its possible ends are to be invented by viewers. The third and the last image to be illustrated in this essay is “Le Violon d'Ingres” (1924) by
Man Ray. “I've always attached titles to my objects. They do not explain the work but add what you might call a literary element to it that sets the mind going” stated Man Ray about his works. (Scott, 1999, 47). This highly acclaimed photograph of Man Ray sets a series of meanings that are not personally engaging to the viewer. The great salon painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres played the violin as a hobby (Baird, online article), thus making the image's title appear like a crossword game. Both for Man Ray and Ingres, the woman represents a musical instrument to which they play and tune themselves in for the sake of the erotic adventures and sexual phantasies. The title being a departure point, it is easy to make analogies between “le violon” and the sensual back nude of the woman, also due to its strong particular connotation elements. The starting point of the anchorage is the violin, as a literal and denotation meaning just to be followed shortly by the function of the relay that suspends the photograph in various seas of floating meanings. It is again up to the viewer to establish a meaningful and connotational bonding within the textual message of the photograph.
All in all, the relationship between text and image is a necessary and benevolent association. The text is not to be looked at as something that suffocates the image, but on the contrary, it opens new spaces to breathe and navigate through. To sum up, our understanding of photographs is widely shaped by text, as it allows us to “tame” the image, to “anchor” it and thus bring it closer to our perception, experience and ways of understanding. Only then, the photographic meaning will be at ease to authenticate and animate itself. Our main role of viewers is not that of mastering or conquering the image through text and language, but instead we must let ourselves surrendered and captivated by it.
Scott, Clive, (1999). The Spoken Image: Photography & Language. London: Reaktion Books. Barthes, Roland, (1977). Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana Press. Burgin, Victor, (1986). The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity. London: MacMillan Education LTD. Mitchell, WJT, (1994). Picture Theory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Chandler, Daniel, (2007). Semiotics: The Basics. USA, Canada: Routledge. Barthes, Roland, (1993). Camera Lucida. New York : Hill & Wang, 1981, London: Vintage.
1. Durgin, Bill, (2008). Portraits and Incidents. [online image]. Available from: <http://billdurgin.com/portraits_and_incidents.html#>. (Accessed 18 th November 2009). 2. Ray, Man, (1924). Le Violon d'Ingres. [online image]. Available from: <http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=61240&handle=li>. (Accessed 18 th November). 3. Jones, Baird, (2009). Le violon d'Ingres. [online article]. Available from: <http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/news/jones/jones1-25-99.asp>. (Accessed 18 th November).