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How have artists explored narratives without the use of words? For centuries, images ranging from paintings to mixed media have been used as a form of visual narration. In this essay I will be looking at how a range of artists have presented narratives, stories and ideas through images without the use of words. I will also try to analyse what the meaning and story behind compositions is and explore further into narrative whilst reaching a conclusion as to whether a narrative can be explored without using text, words or typography. To me, a narrative means telling a story using various methods ranging from photography, to film, to typography. A narrative is usually portrayed visually within graphic design although that is not always the case. It can also be portrayed through text-based compositions. What makes a visual narrative interesting is that every interpretation is different and varies with the experiences of each viewer. A scenario is sparked in the viewer’s imagination just by looking at the image that is presented. The artists I will be looking at in this essay are Gregory Crewdson, Paul M Smith and Dara Scully. Their methods of putting together narratives vary however they all depict successful narratives and are also open to interpretation. In his panoramic photographs, Gregory Crewdson explores a narrative which depicts several emotional dramas within the darker side of suburban environments that appear to me like they are stills from movies as they contain a cinematic aura. The second artist I will be looking at is Paul M Smith. Paul Smith creates self-interaction images, combining his own experiences with the use of Photoshop and photography to explore either serious or comedic narratives. The third artist I will be analyzing is Dara Scully. Scully’s work contains elements from both of the previous artists however she uses animal symbolism within her work to add deeper personal meanings to her narrative.


Gregory Crewdson is an American photographer who depicts stories through staged scenes of American homes and neighborhoods.

In his photographs, Gregory Crewdson explores a narrative depicting various “disturbing dramas at play within quotidian environments” – White Cube, in his panoramic photographs that appear to me like they are stills from unmade movies as they contain a cinematic aura. They appear like entire stories captured in one still shot. “ I was always interested in using aspects of film production towards a single image – the relationship between movie making and still photography – and blurring the lines between the two.” – Gregory Crewdson, American Photo Magazine Crewdson’s photographs narrate a story by the use of location and also the people in the middle of the story itself. The people appear to abstain from eye contact and have expressions of misery, pain, torment, or jealousy. The narrative is further built from this by the surroundings – the people wandering down empty streets at night or standing motionless in the rain. When viewing each photograph, you are able to invent a story from the elements used – the dimly lit room, the lifeless streets, the spooky forests or the trail of petals on a bedroom floor. The use of real locations rather than sets creates a sense of reality within Crewdson’s work – this makes it appear as if the stories portrayed are not staged and that they are real events happening to real people, which conveys an experience that is deeply real, even though it is not. The uninhabited streets and forests give a sense of bleak emptiness and also create a sense of wonder. The sense of being frozen in time comes across as the people in the photographs have very distant expressions that hint the confusion of being in a particular chapter of their life. “Crewdson's scenes are tangibly atmospheric, visually alluring and often deeply disquieting.” This quote further emphasizes my point about the nostalgic aura of the photographs. They set a distinctive mood that is associated with romance or nostalgia. The viewpoints that the photographs are shot at are at eye level which creates a sense of looking through a window and into the lives of others and further contributes to our understanding of the story. The little details inside of the photographs help us enter the world that is portrayed, and fill the viewers with wonder. If a person does not look sad or depressed enough, Crewdson throws in props such as anti-depressants scattered on a dresser, or an ashtray overfilled with cigarette buds to


sustain the setting. The touches Crewdson adds to the scenarios and the cliché romanticism of sadness make us combine our own stories from them.

I’ve chosen to look at this particular photograph because I was intrigued by how familiar it appeared. It is an untitled photograph from Crewdson’s series “Beneath the Roses”. It seems as if it is a still from many remembered movies that has been dormant in my sub consciousness. I think this is because of Crewdson’s use of cliché and familiar objects, surroundings and mood lighting that are typically associated with certain emotions, for example blue for gloomy or depressed. The fact that a photograph is able to trigger past experiences and memories is mesmerizing because the photograph has become a part of your life at one point and not just a nice photo on a wall in a gallery. I think the use of association in Crewdson’s work is what builds a successful narrative because viewers can relate and weave their own stories and experiences with one scenario. Gregory Crewdson successfully explores a narrative by replacing the use of words with elements such as props, lighting, locations and interaction or lack thereof, between characters. Crewdson creates a narrative within single still images that capture one moment, not a literal or ongoing narrative. This allows for interpretation from the viewer which in turn makes the connection between the image and the viewer personal and almost intimate. “Since a photograph is frozen and mute, since there is no before and after, I don’t want there to be a conscious awareness of any kind of literal narrative … That way, the viewer is more likely to project their own narrative to the picture.” – Gregory Crewdson, The American Reader.


Paul M Smith is a British photographer whose most famous work consists of several images capturing himself interacting in a series of scenarios. After completing a degree at Coventry University in 1995, Smith completed a Masters Degree in Photography during which he examined the meaning of masculinity and the cultural and visual creation of alpha male identities.

In the series “Make My Night”, Smith explores the theme of masculinity, but in a humorous way. Smith is able to create a successful narrative within one single image without the use of words as the key elements he uses create a natural and convincing image. The elements of different clothing for each character he poses as, the facial expressions and movements along with the use of props create a very convincing set. Smith’s use of Photoshop to merge all the images together is what finalizes the image and creates the convincing narrative as the viewers are tricked into thinking there is more than one of him, when in reality we know that is not possible. His Photoshop skills trick the eye into thinking there is nothing false about his work and that is what is fascinating – nothing looks out of place. What is interesting about Smith’s work is that he manages to create a narrative with the use of a repeated character with the same characteristics and also making them interact with each other in various humorous poses – this makes the pieces in the series “Make My Night” realistic and comedic. The quality of the photography also affects the way viewers perceive the narrative and Smith’s use of flash overexposure and various photo orientations make his approach seem unorthodox but effective, as it gives the photograph an amateur outlook although don’t let it fool you – there is nothing amateur about the way Smith composes his images. “Using the snapshot as a stylistic template, Paul employed an almost forensic approach to reproduce variable quality.” paulmsmith.co.uk.


However, this unorthodox approach allows the youthful society to relate to the images as the elements used to compose the photographs can trigger memories of their own fun nights out with friends. Throughout Paul Smith’s series it appears he has addressed a series of issues such as alcoholism, war and pornography. Using these ideas as starting points, Smith then compiles the rest of what it will take to make the idea into something tangible – props, clothes, locations etc. The main component of Smith’s work appears to be mainly photography however the editing process is also to be taken into consideration. Capturing the perfect shots is an attentive process however the editing process is crucial for the finalized image to look realistic. Unlike the other artists I am analyzing, Paul M Smith’s narratives are very straightforward and not much is left to the imagination. The narratives are straightforward as Smith includes many details, from objects to scenery to character creation, in order to provide us with a full picture of a “night out with the lads” or soldiers on the battlefield. Although this is the case, the images still hold a very strong narrative and the props and scenery used hold the idea together.

Smith’s ability to maintain consistency within his work and to seamlessly integrate each photo with one another is what makes the merged photographs appear authentic. This allows for Paul Smith to create a narrative without the use of words.


Dara Scully is a Spanish artist who explores fantasy-like narratives through capturing photographs of her interacting with various types of animals as well as props such as floating bikes and balloons.

Dara Scully’s photographs blend the line between fact and fiction, each image holding its own narrative. Scully places herself in her own photos often interacting with props such as balloons, and more natural objects such as trees, rivers etc. Scully’s series “Little Dreamers” is a highly convincing set of photographs featuring Scully interacting with animals. The process she uses to create the images is a combination of photography along with Photoshop. Scully’s well directed sets create an authentic feel to the compositions after the secondary image animals have been edited in. This creates a very convincing feel as Scully doesn’t use an extreme amount of editing, which in turn maintains the meaning behind her photographs. At a first glance the stories the photographs capture appear simple, almost containing no solid structure; however, upon further analysis of the details in the photographs can you tell there is a deeper, personal meaning. “I try to live in a dream all the time, but it’s difficult. My pictures are a wonderful way to get it.” – Dara Scully, Fluster Magazine. This quote further backs up my point and emphasizes that Scully uses her personal visions and dreams and tries to portray them within her images. It is the use of little details such as blood dripping down her leg or a teacup lying on the ground that add depth to the narrative. I feel that the contents of her images are very strong and that the narratives she portrays are successful. In her images she appears to either have fun with animals or help them. I believe that Scully is using animal symbolism in order to put across a much deeper meaning as bears, which often feature in her work, are a symbol of motherhood and introspection. In one of her images in the “Little Dreamers” series, she is holding onto a tree looking down at a bear. Taking the symbolism into consideration, this could mean a number of things, such as she has a fear of motherhood, or she has a fear of getting in touch with her emotions and thoughts – introspection. The use of animal totems in her images, I think, is what makes Scully


distinguishable from other artists as they not only make the images appear striking, but also adds depth and a personal meaning. Scully’s use of symbolism could possibly extend to much broader elements such as her use of the sky, or the amount of flesh exposed. This causes me to think that although she is conveying a very child-dream-like fantasy, she is trying to communicate that dreams aren’t just for young people, or that dreams extend far beyond dreams of fluffy cotton candy clouds and rainbows – that there is a darker, subjective side to them which illustrate your subconscious desires. The use of size variation in Scully’s work also adds to the warped realism aura of her images. She often changes the sizes of things, as well as keeping some in proportion and often comparing the two in contrast to each other. This is effective as it stretches the possibilities of her narrative and the viewer’s interpretation. Scully’s use of light leak effects on Photoshop also contribute to the dreamlike aura of the images as it gives the impression that natural sunlight is reflecting off of the camera lens, or even the viewer’s eyes as if they are viewing the still scenario right before their eyes. This also dates the photographs and makes them appear as if they are childhood photographs. “I’m obsessed with childhood, with that wonderful and dark universe. When adults talk about children, they usually say purity and innocence. But… Is it real? Are children pure? Are they innocent?” – Dara Scully, Phlearn. This quote emphasizes the point made about dating photographs. The light leaks give the viewer something familiar – the poorly printed Polaroid photographs from their childhood, containing their favourite memories. This effect could also represent the imperfections of memories, childhoods and children – that they aren’t as innocent and pure, and that there is a darker side to their dreams and souls. Scully’s images appear to have a cinematic aura which causes me to think she may have been influenced by film compositions. She also uses a variety of lighting and photo effects to reinforce her childlike narratives, and the addition of natural lighting further enhances this effect. The use of lighting and shadow reinforces the dreamy narratives Scully is trying to portray as the shadows enhance the lighter areas and make them appear as if they are glowing. Her variation of colours and grayscale shows she is exploring with how both saturation and desaturation of colours complement and contrast in her images as well as enhancing the dream like aspect of them. The locations she photographs in vary however they are mostly in fields or forests which create a sense of innocence as forests are untouched, but also enhances the mythical aspect of her work. The use of nature in her scenarios contributes to the fairy-tale dreamland ideas she is trying to convey. Dara Scully successfully explores narrative without the use of words as she replaces this with different elements that can be quite hard to decipher at a first glance, but once smaller details are analysed, it is clear that Scully has created a narrative of her own, from her personal memories and dreams. The use of symbolism, props, locations, light leak filters etc., has enabled her to be able to create an interpretative narrative without words accompanying it.


To conclude, I believe that narratives can successfully be explores without the use of words as long as elements such as props, lighting, colour scheme and locations. The extent to which a narrative can be interpreted relies on these elements as well as the element of raw emotion. The lighting and props used by Gregory Crewdson create an aura of nostalgia. The little details included in the photographs help us enter the world that is portrayed, and fill the viewers with wonder. I think that vagueness and mystery are essential for a successful narrative to be built as viewers can interpret and explore the story and the emotion it radiates, whilst establishing a deeper, personal connection. This applies to Dara Scully and Gregory Crewdson, but fails to be explored by Paul M Smith, as his images follow a linear and straightforward narrative. The element of mystery allows for the images to challenge the viewers before the viewers can challenge the images. Although portraying narratives without the use of words is successfully achieved by all analyzed artists, I feel as though it is a matter of elements such as colour, tone, props, lighting and locations for a mood to be created and an aura of mystery to be maintained. This allows the viewer to not just view an image as a pretty picture on a wall, but be engulfed and lost within its story.


Bibliography http://whitecube.com/exhibitions/gregory_crewdson_beneath_the_roses_hoxton_square_2005/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Crewdson http://www.paulmsmith.co.uk/index.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_M._Smith_(photographer) http://www.americanphotomag.com/photo-gallery/2014/03/interview-gregory-crewdson-mysteryeveryday-life http://theamericanreader.com/interview-with-photographer-gregory-crewdson/ http://phlearn.com/phlearn-interviews-dara-scully http://flustermagazine.com/2011/08/24/showcase-dara-scully/


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