Text > Image > Text – Reading photographs and words

Text Image Text lead image
Flood wrecks woodland after giant ogre destroys dam…

A picture tells a thousand words. But there are cases where a dozen words can redefine a picture.

In his 1977 publication Image Music Text critic Roland Barthes observed how text can often become parasitical upon images. This happens both in spaces like galleries and exhibitions, where wall-mounted captions can supersede what the eye observes in an art piece, or in printed photograph captions where a description of an image can often clash with what the image actually shows. Barthes‘ theory proposes that the closer text is to an image the less more incorporated it becomes, so with image captions that sit outside an image more can possibly be inferred than by words trapped inside an image.

Although the strength of a good image can outweigh the impact of the text upon it, this does still present words an unbalanced power over images. At times the text can possess an image completely and tear it away from what it may actually be. At other times the image itself is impossible to reinterpret.

A vague image. Green and red light.Image also speaks its own language. Although somewhat universal, an image of an iPhone would mean as little to a member of an indigenous cargo-cult tribe as an image of a French flag flying atop the Eiffel Tower. The use of a photographic image still implies a certain understanding in the viewer, and without a prior knowledge the image may have no meaning. Vague photographs or images of unusual or otherworldly objects leave themselves open to interpretation, and although they can be strong visually they often do not lend themselves to a literal narrative when dealing with image and text.

We live in an era where stock photographs are in common use, even when they are completely out of place. Online newspapers regularly feature stock photographs of areas and caption them with local news. This trend not only highlights a laziness in a newspaper’s attitude to their use of photography, but also creates a strange sense of dislocation for a viewer, particularly one who may already be familiar with the area being reported upon. In these cases the use of captions is the driver that allows a viewer to believe that what they are seeing is what they are being told. This use presumes a lack of knowledge in the viewer, and as a result the photographs are more like graphic representations (implying a certain image) than like photographs (showing a certain image).

Stock photography has had its share of controversy levelled at it, least of all after an award-winning Swedish photographer was found last year to have used stock images in some of his nature photography. At times too an image that carries baggage with it can have negative repercussions, regardless of text or branding that goes alongside it. Apple were recently pulled up on having used a stock photograph of a lion for the launch of their newest update to the Mac OS software. The image had previously been used by a Belgian nationalist party, as reported by ZDNet. Another ironic use of stock photography featured in an anti-abortion campaign that showed scientific photographs of aborted fetuses, presuming them to have been live scans.

The Eifel Tower, perhaps
The Eiffel Tower in France is surely one of the most recognisable landmarks in the world, so it seems unlikely that any text could mislead the viewer into placing the symbol somewhere else in the world.

These examples begin to beg the question, does it really matter what we’re looking at? As long as the observer presumes the information to be correct, the photographic image seems to have no bearing whatsoever on the overall concept of a piece of writing. It seems to become little more than decoration – something with which to break up text.

There is, however, more to the use of photographs in large bodies of text than simply making an article more readable. Photographs, since their early conception, have been seen to represent a form of truth. Unlike representational art that existed before, photographs were seen to be “unmanipulatable” – they were hard proofs that separated reality from fantasy.

In her collection of articles On Photography, writer Susan Sontag highlighted the idea of “truth” that is handled by photography. In her essay in that collection, The Heroism of Vision, Sontag stated that “A fake painting (one whose attribution is false) falsifies the history of art. A fake photograph (one which has been retouched or tampered with) falsifies reality.” (p 86) She goes on to argue that photography is used as a way of viewing reality, or realism.

This relationship between viewers and photography is the key reason why photography is included in text-based analyses and articles. The idea of truth is embedded in a photograph, regardless of whether the photograph itself is false to the idea. The signs and symbols that appear within a photographic image have meaning, of course. And that meaning is often changed or emphasised by the use of text. But the overall goal of using photography is not in the signs that appear within a photograph, but in the use of a photograph itself. Photographs imply truth through a visual image. The photograph itself is a symbol of truth, regardless of the image it contains. It is in the inclusion of photographs that a piece of text becomes more true to the observer.

A picture tells a thousand words. A dozen words can redefine a picture. A picture affirms a dozen words.

Spot the rainbow
Spot the rainbow!

All images in this post are my own and subject to copyright unless stated. I don’t mind reproductions, but please credit them to this blog or contact (contactmoonunderwater@gmail.com) for more information.

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4 thoughts on “Text > Image > Text – Reading photographs and words

  1. I never looked at images associated with a story like that. I will now be more aware but if it’s a great image that touches me, I guess it won’t matter.

  2. The Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania doesn’t have any text at all with its exhibits. All you have is the artwork or the artefact, so you have no choice but to appreciate the work for what it is. Everyone’s given an industrial-strength iTouch on entry, so if you want to know who the artist is or what the work is called, you have to refresh the GPS on your device, find the image of whatever artwork you’re standing next to, and read the associated text. You can even email the image and info to yourself. And if you prefer the academic interpretation, you can click on the ‘Art Wank’ option (I’m not making this up – it’s actually called ‘Art Wank’) and read an in-depth analysis.

    Not having any text at all next to the artwork – not even a title and artist’s name – brings a whole new dimension to art and artefact appreciation.

    1. Haha, that is terrific! I absolutely love it! Thank you so much for this information.

      I love their website, and I wish I didn’t live on the far side of the planet because I think this concept is absolutely perfect for art. I even love the “Art Wank” label – appropriate and fun, it’s nice to see a museum that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

      I would imagine that the zero-text option makes the artworks that much more fascinating. I wrote this piece on the same subject a while back if you’d like to have a gawk – it was more to do with the idea of how we view art, but the use of text seemed important here too.

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