Friday, 19 June 2015

Words and images

I wonder if as a society we are getting obsessed by images.  A drawing or a painting used to be the way we represented something in an image.  Even the smallest sketch took skill and a painting might be the work of months or even years.  Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa took him nearly fifteen years to complete.  Then came photography but even when photography had been going for a hundred years or more and we had left behind the period when the sitter had to remain entirely still for minutes in front of the camera it was still the case until digital photography that a photograph required waiting: the film had to be completed, sent away in a sealed envelope and the prints returned a few days later.  Only then could you see that the whole film contained only half a dozen pictures that you wanted to keep with most of the prints being slightly out of focus, containing a pink finger over a bit of the lens, or so dark and atmospheric that it was hard to tell why they had been taken at all.  Perhaps that last bit was just me.  Then digital photography allowed for instant gratification and instant deletion of the failures but that, great leap forward that it was, fades into insignificance alongside the casual production of high quality images we now have from our smart phones.  Selfies, instagram, flickr and the constant easy sharing of pictures make images the currency of our daily lives.  In some ways this is wonderful.  I love instagram and the immediacy of sharing a visually satisfying moment.  I love it when our children send pictures of their children smiling, laughing, being thrown in the air, gurgling in the bath or mastering riding a bike without stabilisers.  It is fabulous to see so much even if one is far away.

And yet what does all this easy access to the telling image do to words?  It makes me uneasy.  Will we become unwilling to give time and attention to anything which is not accompanied by fabulous pictures?  Will a slab of text, however beautifully and evocatively written, start to strike us in the same way as a Victorian novel does in the twenty first century: the print too small, the paragraphs too long, the sentences too dense and impenetrable without a conscious slowing down and a level of concentration that we no longer have the time or inclination to give to it?

I do hope not.  Words can do things pictures cannot.  They can analyse and explore and draw fine distinctions.  They can open up other worlds with a depth of understanding that is quite different from the impact of an image, however complex and evocative.  They help us to understand each other and ourselves.  I would always rather have a letter than a postcard, a novel rather than a comic strip.  Maybe I would choose a biting political cartoon over a well argued piece of polemic but mostly words are for me one of the best things in life.  I love stories and poems and tales of people's lives.  I love images too; my father spent his life as a photographer and he has images which mean as much to me as a favourite novel, but I don't want words to be displaced by the seduction of the easy image.  I don't want the blogs I read to be predominantly pictures.  I don't want intelligent journalism to be displaced by web based images with a snappy byline.  I think I will go to my grave as the little girl saying "Tell me a story."

What do you think?  Does it matter - this immediate gratification of the instant image?  Does it matter that even with images we so often don't have a physical copy to hold in the hand?  Does it matter if the emoticon displaces the letter?  Do they matter, words?


38 comments:

  1. Yes, yes, yes words do matter and all this instant gratification I feel somehow devalues what is being shown. Why do we need hundreds of photos when half a dozen will do the job. Have we no imaginations to make our own mental images from well written words and must we be spoonfed pictures like infants with a picture book who cannot read text and have not yet progressed to a "real" book. I can see I must stop ranting on or I might be here all night!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Struck a chord! I agree. I even find that lots of images make me switch off. It is as if after a certain number I am overloaded and can't continue to look properly.

      Delete
    2. I think images have their place, because I love beautiful photos, great photography, they're part of the 'whole picture', but words clarify feelings and are personal. (BTW Elizabeth, I apologize for using your blog here as a personal go-between, but I'm trying to access Jane's blog (Marigold Jam) and I can't. Please, Jane, if you read this, could you send me a message as to how I can access your blog?)

      Delete
  2. I think words are really important, if I'm reading a book it doesn't need pictures - the words produce their own pictures in my head and draw me into a different world. I definitely feel that blog posts need words to explain or enlarge upon the images.I try to balance words and pictures so that neither become boring. I confess that blog posts that are photo heavy with very few words bore me after a while and I just switch off. I notice that you are testing us by posting only words and no pictures:)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did wonder about including one or two photos I have just taken but put them on my Instagram page instead. As you rightly say, part of the pint if the post was the words alone!

      Delete
  3. Words are so important and so is the imagination. Think of radio and the power of narration. Who said of radio that the pictures are far better? We all have a picture of Ambridge don't we?

    I think the bigger picture will be the one accompanied by words.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree wholeheartedly about imagination. I wonder how we balance the stifling of the imagination of being given images which we then can't shed with the way some images can spark imagination? I think my concern is to do with the volume of transient images. It's a bit like junk food: instantly appealing, unsatisfying, ultimately addictive.

      Delete
  4. the pictures are better on radio
    is soon going to be meaningless to the next generation.

    Now we have access to a good library, I'm relearning my love of getting lost in a good book. The miniaturist is the one I'm reading.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would be interested to know what you think of the miniaturist Diana. Mixed review from me!

      Delete
  5. Words do matter. The loss of the use - and even in many cases, the understanding - of them bothers me. A lot. I'm really not sure what to do about it though, except to continue my own use and enjoyment of the beauty of them. I do think that pictures can enhance our enjoyment and appreciation of words in an amazing way though! I know that many times I have trouble envisioning things on my own so a picture or illustration is extremely beneficial. Especially in cooking. I think I would be a completely hopeless cook if I didn't have recipes with pictures. I actually have some antique cookbooks that I've never tried making anything from, mainly because I want to know what the steps look like and if I'm doing things correctly. I either want pictures, or someone experienced beside me! Because cooking flops are just awful. Hehe.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is an interesting point about cooking. I think there are all sorts of practical things where pictures are vital. Perhaps the popularity of youtube videos demonstrates that in learning how to do things being shown is better than being told. In the realm of the mind and imagination words can do it perhaps even better than images.

      Delete
  6. read your words with great interest Elizabeth- and I believe the recent generations have lost the power of words, comprehension, and slow thought, to the moment, the instant gratification and the visual. (My grand daughter is attempting to return to reading books which she has neglected since school days - if not before)
    It is said we are most easily deceived with our eyes hence the blind seers. Even so I'm prone to seduction by images (as in your header!) and the digital-now-moment - recently bought a lomo film camera to hold the anticipation longer

    But I read every day - books - tangible in the texture of paper and aromas. Kindle is what you light fires with!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Now that is interesting about kindles! I read every day too and I have found that kindles are wonderful for escapist reading. With a heavy weight book I need a paper version. Not sure why.

      Delete
  7. For the second time today, and in two different contexts, I recommend the book "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury. He takes your concerns to a cautionary tale conclusion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah yes, I have read that but not for a while. I wonder if I would see it differently now.

      Delete
  8. Been thinking about this most of the day. Must admit I'm not sure setting the one in opposition to the other is very helpful. They have different roles and functions, we love and use them both, I hope richly and appropriately. However there does seem to be an expansion of the quick and easy image and it may be at the cost of dense text in the short run, though the limitations, the clichés and the stuffing will all appear there just as they do in literature. I trust people's boredom threshold to protect us a bit from the continual expansion of the never-ending image glut over the long term. And most people don't have a lot of imagination,and never did. My main worry is that a horrifying or distressing image is hard to unsee, it can brand itself on your mind and it seems to me that too many of those are easily available and can inflict real damage. Words give you greater control over what you let in your head on the whole, but images invade under the radar.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't mean to set images and words in opposition to one another. I am very much a lover of both. It is the proliferation of the quick and easy image which bothers me. I agree with your last sentence. Images can invade and too many distressing ones can I think lead you to switch off from them in order to protect yourself.

      Delete
  9. Elizabeth, I thank you for the issues and questions you raise in this post. Even if the painting has gotten a bit random, and printmaking has fallen to the side, I still do consider myself a visual artist. A visual artist who has loved the written word for many decades. I was an early reader and never looked back.

    When I first tiptoed into blogging, I had no digital camera and thought of my posts as little essays about my New York life, usually written after a long day at work as a way of re-connecting with any writing ability I might still hold onto.

    Then. I bought the little Canon, and began to include pictures in my posts, and to minimize my words. The function of the posts remained the same, to share NYC with others, and to try to hold on to some creative abilities. Other blog posts that I treasure seem to have this same sort of awareness and blend.

    In my daily real life experiences, I do see other changes affecting other generations. On my subway commute it's rare to see books outnumber smartphones being held by my fellow travelers. I don't think I can afford a smartphone. Not yet sure what this means in the grand scheme, or whether it matters at all.

    Oh what a ramble. xo

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think your blog is a perfect example of the blending of words and pictures which makes a good blog such a rich experience. But you have a different history, different sensibility and more patience I suspect than many of those flashing their smart phones for the instant image!

      Delete
  10. It's a very interesting point - I nearly always include a photo with my tweets now if I want to get it noticed, but nothing for me quite compares with the mental images created by perfect prose or poetry and those, of course, are uniquely personal.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. I use instagram and photos with tweets too and I do get pleasure from doing that and lots of interaction. But like you mental images and written word are very powerful for me and I would hate to find that the written word becomes something arcane and little used and is somehow elbowed out by the easy image.

      Delete
  11. Such a good question, which I've been mulling over for a while, and waiting to see what other commenters may feel.

    For me, there's no 'one-rule' solution. I've been looking through my bog reading list, and there you'll find examples of both word-heavy and word-light blogs, but each has been chosen I suppose, because I like something about the voice of the blogger. I can think of some which are very picture-heavy which I adore, others who use no pictures at all, and which I also enjoy.

    I wonder if blogging isn't really an art form, in which each person finds and uses their own mix of words and pictures to express themselves, and so, all being our different selves, just as we all have some artists we love and others we don't, so it is in blogging?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do agree that my personal favourite blogs include both picture heavy and word heavy ones although even those which use many photographs tend to be beautifully written too. I suppose my concern is not only with blogging but with all sorts of forms of communication. Texting uses text speak and emoticons. I worry that the concentration you need to give to a piece of writing will become outmoded in a world of instant access and multiple media.

      Delete
  12. Very, very interesting - certainly the web seems to be getting much more image-led (sorry, you'd never guess from that drivel that I spend my working life working with words; my excuse is that I've been speaking French this am and one language seems to have displaced the other). I love images, but I also love words; I like the comic book and the novel.

    What concerns me more, I suppose, is the sheer banality of many of the images - and the fact that many people seem to only experience life through an image, through a viewfinder, through a screen. I always want to shout 'put your device down and just look!'. I often feel that the images are a substitute, and easy way out, a way of avoiding trying to put things into words. Most people are not Henri Cartier-Bresson, who could make an image say almost as much as a 400-page novel.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally agree with the "Put your device down and just look!" It is almost as if we are not alive if we are not busily recording it all with selfies and photographs. I am as bad as the next person in wandering around with phone taking pictures of the garden but sometimes I just wander and very deliberately leave the phone or the camera on the table. It is also a constant that if I am doing something where I am very engaged I find afterwards that I have taken very few pictures. I was too busy just being!

      Delete
  13. A most thoughtful essay!
    Yes, pictures have an immediacy and zing - yet words enrich us.
    Both have their place.
    My only fear is that we are getting drowned in too much of everything.
    Love your header - miss England so!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Too much of everything. That is very true. Too much choice is bugbear of mine and so much information flowing by that it cannot be absorbed. I love your images by the way but you are an example of a blog with many images that also uses words wonderfully well.

      Delete
  14. Excellent reflection on a topic that I've given a fair amount of thought to. Sound bytes (with pics) are everywhere. BUT I had the gumption to start a library in my town, and the interest seems real. I will see how it goes, the distractions of modern life and how we communicate has radically changed.
    XO
    WWW

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The idea that a new library has created interest is really cheering! Another friend from Italy started a book box where you leave a book and take one away and that seems to be popular too. Perhaps I should be more optimistic!

      Delete
  15. As always, Elizabeth, you have struck a chord. When I started blogging some seven or eight years ago, it was all about the words and there were lots of people writing amusingly and interestingly about their various lives, but with the proliferation of smart phones and reliable digital cameras, the image has taken over and many of the blogs I follow now are predominantly image based. What I look for in a blog, whether it is words or pictures, is quality.

    I am currently pondering whether to continue with my own blog given that the blogsphere has changed so much and is so image driven, especially as the story I was telling has reached it's own particular conclusion. Previous attempts to stop have not, however, been successful so it may just meander on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do hope you don't stop blogging Marianne. Yours is one which does not use a lot of images but where the writing is sufficient in itself. Keep going please!

      Delete
    2. That is so nice of you to encourage me. I really appreciate it!

      Actually, I think I would miss composing my occasional posts and enjoying the comments people leave (although the muse deserted me some years ago - contentment perhaps?) and I don't seem to have found a niche. What I would miss most though are the interesting and varied people I 'meet' here.

      Delete
  16. Oh, I so agree with this although ironically I've just taken a photography course and I'm hoping to work on taking better (and probably more) photos in retirement. I'd extend your thinking to say that I see the troubling trend as being one that insists every issue can be simplified into a pithy summary. Complexity often gets pushed to the side for one of those sayings that can get copied out in pretty caligraphy and stuck on a Pinterest Board. Drives me mad. The frustrations of trying to get my students to read whole books definitely contributed to my retiring earlier than I'd originally intended.
    Interestingly, though, the popularity of the long, long read seems to be making an odd sort of comeback, if you consider something like Karl Ove Knausgaard's extended autobiographical novels. . .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are right about the tendency to want to simplify even the most complex issues to a couple of pithy sentences. Extended writing, extended reading, extended argument are demanding but they take you places which images cannot. I haven't heard of Knausgaard. I shall investigate. Funnily enough I thought of you when I was writing this and wondered if you had seen the change I was describing in your students.

      Delete
  17. Brilliant post and brilliant comments which I've been trying to get back to and respond to properly since I first read it. And yes, words matter, tremendously.

    I generally post just the one picture and 400-800 words, that works for me, but in all honesty, even though photography was part of my art degree, I'd be happy with just the words. I often feel tied down by the need to find an image, not everything is easily illustrated. Of course many people start with the pictures but I usually start with the ideas from which the words follow, unless of course I'm writing a simple newsy post.

    What worries me most about the proliferation of images is that few people seem to apply any critical capacity to them. I don't mean that they should be judged as art, just that they should add some value and be genuine.

    I recently read some posts about a picnic shared by a few bloggers. It all looked idyliic, and only one blogger mentioned that two of the participants had dashed ahead of the others to style it. As if what was naturally there in the beautiful English countryside wasn't quite beautiful enough to be photographed. That's the kind of thing that makes me very uneasy.

    It's as if people don't quite dare to write themselves into their blogs, instead they create a consumable version of themselves using images of things others might aspire to. I am much more interested in what people think and do and like - things that only words can truly communicate - than I am in what they own or have access to. But maybe that's just me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No it's not just you Annie. I too am far more interested in what people do and think and feel than in what they have. I am rather horrified by the story of styling the picnic. That is part of a fixation with what things look like which is part of this obsession with image that so concerns me. Words let you go under the surface. The easy image is nothing but surface. I want to know what the picnickers talked about, how they met each other, whether the virtual presence of another blogger was consistent with the impact they made in the flesh, not that someone brought along a Cath Kidston tablecloth.

      Delete
  18. Interesting subject - sorry I'm late to the party. Do you regret those long turgid Victorian novels? And if our move away from them is about us changing - was that for the worse? Middle class life esp for women must have been pretty boring then. In fact, for everyone in comparison to today and I love how unbored we are, even if a little overwhelmed at times too.

    I've felt for ages we should look not click, but honesty drove me to this - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardenprojects/10801600/Garden-photography-a-form-of-worship.html

    And/but I just wrote a book which has very little by way of pictures and it's doing well - because it is in short 'bites'?

    Radio has survived film and television, so we seem to add rather than give things up..

    Conclusion? Confusing but maybe the quality of what is offered matters a lot, along with propensities we have personally - to be more visual or verbal....

    ?

    Xxxx

    ReplyDelete

Comments are the best thing and the conversations they produce are the whole purpose of blogging for me. Do tell me what you think!