IMAGE AND WORDS
Updated: Feb 28
I devoted this week for looking at the relationship between image and text, and participated in two workshops during the Word\Image/Play: Falmouth Flexible Photography Symposium 2022. Visual information will often be perceived together with textual information, especially in children storybooks. Most images carry with them some sort of textual information regardless of the genre, even if it is just the title of the image, thus reading text is often a natural part of how we perceive images.
Roland Barthes once said that “the text constitutes a parasitic message designed to connote the [photographic] image, to ‘quicken’ it with one or more second-order signifieds. In other words, and this is an important historical reversal, the image no longer illustrates the words; it is now the words which, structurally, are parasitic on the image” (1977: 25). I can agree with Barthes that text most likely will facilitate reading of visual messages and perhaps in some cases text will have the ‘parasitic’ relationship between word and image, but it is the general context that needs to be taken into account before accusing all text as being parasitic on images. Most photographically illustrated books for children will have at least some words included with images. The question that can be asked is whether words are necessary to be included at all to avoid the resulting combination becoming too uninteresting for the viewer, even if it is a child. However, it is the context that will define the significance of the textual information. In a book that is mean for developing reading abilities, text is the priority and an image can be included for strengthening the visual bond between an image and text. Meanwhile in a book that is meant for developing visual perception of objects, text might not be necessary to avoid that the decoding of the message happens too fast. For example, in 1930 Edward Steichen photographed many everyday objects for babies, creating “The First Picture Book” that was meant to help young children in recognizing and naming objects (see Figure 1 as an example). There are no words next to images so that children could develop their image reading skills.
Fig. 1: Steichen 1930. Photograph in the book ‘The First Picture Book: Everyday Things For Babies’
In 2016 April Pulley Sayre published a book “Best in Snow” that includes short textual information along with images around the topic of snow. The inclusion of textual information makes me wonder if the inclusion of words is necessary at all in these cases when text is a literal description of the image (the text ‘It Snows’ in Figure 2).
Fig. 2: Pulley Sayre 2016. Photographic image and text from the book ‘Best in Snow’
The relationship between words and images gets more complex when a longer textual information is included and when an image itself has a more complex character. For example, photographer’s David Robinson’s luminograms of mushrooms in the book “The Mushroom Picker” are complimented with a fictional story. The text helps to understand the intended meaning of luminograms and helps the imagination to further play with the visual information since what is visually shown does not illustrate the literal meaning of words included. The luminogram in Figure 3 shows ‘a pair of eyes’ that are actually mushroom lumen prints. Assuming that “we do not actually ‘see’ with our eyes but with our brains” (Mirzoeff 2015: 73), without the text a viewer would probably eventually come to a conclusion that those are eyes, meanwhile the text does help to understand the meaning of the luminogram, while the luminogram helps to visualize the text. Both, image and text benefit from this relationship.
Fig. 3: Robinson 2012. Luminogram with text from the book ‘The Mushroom Picker’
Similarly to Robinson’s story, my current project includes textual information along with images where both benefit from each other. The images are not a literal depiction of the text, but the text does help the imagination in the image-reading process. For example, the image in Figure 4 consists of a pair of visually connected images that are mirrored, becoming a mystical, fictional view that represents the concept of ‘being connected’ and is meant to be viewed in relationship with the following lines of text:
She said that one day we all go to a place
Where we spend the eternity in peace and grace,
Being connected with all our ancient roots
Never having any more silly disputes.
Fig. 4: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Being connected with ancient roots [digital photographic images]
Although the image includes also a literal depiction of tree roots, in the text the word ‘roots’ is not meant literally, but figuratively, representing one’s ancestors. The tree roots at the bottom part are visually connected with the web of tree branches at the top part, everything together forming a united, never-ending mass of networking. Similarly, everything in the universe is connected in one way or another.
WORKSHOP ‘IN DIALOGUE’
During the Word\Image/Play: Falmouth Flexible Photography Symposium 2022 workshop ‘In Dialogue’ led by Sharon Young, I creatively experimented with image/text relationship, trying to find ways how existing text can be used as a starting point for creative work and how it can be matched with my own images. For this workshop I chose the book ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ written by Richard Bach. The workshop was a great help to see how the most important parts of texts can be taken out to create headlines. By picking out key phrases from my own creative writing as a response to the existing narrative, I discovered that some phrases work well as individual titles. Figure 5 shows a selection of key phrases from my creative writing during the workshop.
Fig. 5: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Key phrases from creative writing during the workshop ‘In Dialogue’
This has helped me in search of a title for my current work in progress portfolio. After developing a written story that shares a relationship with the images I have made so far, I have selected a key phrase out of the story that will serve as the title for my current project:
“What happens to leaves
When they fall off trees?”
The title not only comes back in the poetic story, but also leaves the reader wondering what is the answer to the question. However, the story is not literally about what happens to leaves when they fall off trees, but it is a philosophical search for an answer what happens to all living things after they die. The story doesn’t result in any specific answer and is meant as a starting point for a further discussion between a child and an adult about the life after death.
In further search of text/image relationship, the workshop included a creative exercise to match our own images with cut out lines from the chosen book. Since my work includes an image of a black bird that has a conversation with a leaf, it seemed natural to combine it with the seagull character from Richard Bach’s book.
Fig. 6: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Combining Richard Bach’s writing from ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ with a pair of images from the work in progress [collage]
The result (Figure 6) is an interesting combination that makes the viewer question the sanity of the talking bird as the bird clearly is not a seagull, however it also gives an opportunity for the viewer to believe that everything is possible. If a black bird can be seagull, then an American oak tree leaf can be, for instance, a grape vine leaf, and ‘you’ as a viewer can also for a moment be anything you would like to be. The text in this case works well with the image, not literally representing the visual things, but creating a space for philosophically further developing ideas.
WORKSHOP ‘COLLABORATIVE EKPHRASIS’
This week I also attended the workshop ‘Collaborative Ekphrasis’ led by Carla Liesching to use writing as a form of investigating what is shown visually and to reflect on how things are seen, as well as to understand how our vision informs our perception of the world.
Nicholas Mirzoeff explains that “what we see with the eyes, it turns out, is less like a photograph than it is like a rapidly drawn sketch. Seeing the world is not about how we see but about what we make of what we see. We put together an understanding of the world that makes sense from what we already know or think we know” (2015: 73), meaning that our background knowledge of the world will affect the way how we perceive visual information. Mirzoef continues by saying that “seeing is not a definitive judgement, as we had once assumed, but a process of mental analysis that goes backwards and forwards between different areas of the brain. It takes a brain to see, not just a pair of eyes” (2015: 82). If we look at something that we have no background information of, the visual message might not reach us at all. While looking at any image our brain will go through all of its connections starting from the shapes and colours that we see to more complex ideas represented visually in order to decipher what is in front of our eyes. Our eyes are the ones that literally see visual messages, but it is our experience and knowledge that helps in interpreting the visual message.
During the workshop ‘Collaborative Ekphrasis’ I created a piece of creative writing as a response to one of the images shown by one of the workshop participants: ‘Baby volcanos’ (2022) by Lisa Sadler (Figure 7).
Fig. 7: Sadler 2022. Baby volcanos [analogue photograph]
Response to the photograph from the 1st person’s point of view:
“I’m at the seaside. I’ve been here for quite a while now. I’ve made friends with many obnoxious seashells that like me for some reason, unlike the many algae – they just pass by from time to time, some don’t even look at me. They never stay for long. They prefer to be friends with the sea more than with me. The sea never takes sides. It greets everyone, coming and leaving when it pleases, never asking my permission.”
Response to the photograph from the 2nd person’s point of view:
“You’re at the seaside. You’ve been there for quite a while now. You’ve made friends with many obnoxious seashells that like you for some reason, unlike the many algae – they just pass by from time to time, some don’t even look at you. They never stay for long. They prefer to be friends with the sea more than with you. The sea never takes sides. It greets everyone, coming and leaving when it pleases, never asking your permission.”
Response to the photograph from the 3rd person’s point of view:
“He is at the seaside. He has been there for quite a while now. He has made friends with many obnoxious seashells that like him for some reason, unlike the many algae – they just pass by from time to time, some don’t even look at him. They never stay for long. They prefer to be friends with the sea more than with him. The sea never takes sides. It greets everyone, coming and leaving when it pleases, never asking his permission.”
At the end I believe the 1st person’s point of view is the best one, but in my opinion this writing works just as good from the 2nd person’s point of view, but not so great from the 3rd person’s point of view. The workshop led me to consider in depth how I use my writing for the photographically illustrated story that is currently under development. Writing the same piece of text from different point of views can lead to new revelations about the narrative and atmosphere in it that wasn’t there before.
In conclusion, when text is used with images, they should have collaborative relationship with each other, not parasitic. In case of storybooks, text and image should work together in a way to help the imagination to travel through the story and not to decrease the level of imagination by one being a literal representation of the other.
LIST OF REFERENCES
BARTHES, R. 1977. Image – Music – Text (pp.15-31). London: Fontana.
MIRZOEFF, Nicholas. 2015. How to See the World. UK: Penguin Random House. LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1: STEICHEN, Edward. 1930. Photograph in the book ‘The First Picture Book: Everyday Things For Babies’. From STEICHEN CALDERONE, Mary, STEICHEN, Edward and UPDIKE, John. 1991. ‘The First Picture Book: Everyday Things for Babies’ (p. 52-53). New York: Meridian Printing.
Figure 2: PULLEY SAYRE, April. 2016. Photographic image and text from the book ‘Best in Snow’. From April Pulley Sayre. 2016. ‘Best in Snow’ (p. 6-7). New York: Simon & Schuster.
Figure 3: ROBINSON, David. 2012. Luminogram with text from the book ‘The Mushroom Picker’. From David Robinson. 2012. ‘The Mushroom Picker’ (p. 22-23). London: Violette Editions.
Figure 4: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Being connected with ancient roots [digital photographic images].
Figure 5: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Key phrases from creative writing during the workshop ‘In Dialogue’.
Figure 6: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Combining Richard Bach’s writing from ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ with a pair of images from the work in progress [collage].
Figure 7: SADLER, Lisa. 2022. Baby volcanos [analogue photograph]. From Instagram [online]. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/CaiSa6Buh1L/ [accessed on 3 March 2022].