Tuesday 28 August 2012

Are pictures worth a thousand words?

 The statement "a picture is worth a thousand words" has an obscure derivation, but people have pinpointed a moment when the phrase saw print; Wikipedia offers a similar derivation to the early 1910s and an association with advertising.

I like the idea that a character created by Ivan Turgenev germinated the idea of images having more content than words, as found in the 1862 novel Fathers and Sons. Turgenev and Henry James were good friends.

Pint glass inverted (from stock.xchng)
Inverted pint glass (from stock.xchng)
I disagree with the idea that images have more content, because the specificity of the picture and the words are what is at issue. I have had some film and literature students argue that film is superior to printed text because a film image contains more information than words can represent.

I think that people are comforted by film images because people tend to absorb visual information faster than written words. Visual images don't have to be symbolic, whereas writing requires decoding (the ability to read a specific language through symbols).

Yet some images are not easy to interpret, even the nonsymbolic kind. (See the caption on the image to the right.)

Besides, a film image is not the same as an image that people normally see during the day just by walking around and living. Film images are stylized (even for those films that claim to be documentary in approach). Cameras give the illusion of objectivity because they mimic human sight, but mimicry is still a form of mimesis (representation or imitation).

from stock.xchng
Security camera footage might be closest to a kind of pure objectivity, but even then, security cameras are positioned in specific places rather than randomly. Their location is selected. As well, note that security cameras will often not record much new information at all (the same unused doorway may well have the same image for days at a time). Security camera footage only becomes interesting when something happens that catches security personnel's attention.

 Human attention (even if programmed into a computerized alarm system) is what makes that footage significant--what human attention considers worthy of being recorded and reviewed. That judgment of significance is what makes any particular sequence of footage (or even of a single still) worthwhile of being described in words. Once an image requires judgment, the possibility of mimesis arises.

So--I like pictures and words: together, alone, whatever.

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