WORDS and PICTURES
Updated: Mar 12, 2021
Text is an inevitable part of our daily lives. We see text, numbers and symbols everywhere around us as soon as we leave our houses, starting from street names and bus route descriptions to advertising messages and shop names. So meaning does text get when it gets into a picture?
Roland Barthes has 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’ (Barthes 1977: 25). In my perception the following image illustrates what Barthes describes as the ‘parasitic’ relationship between word and image:
Fig. 1: Mathis 1999. A Cynic [gelatin silver print]
The photographer has chosen to add just one word to the image – ‘a cynic’. This word changes the whole perception of the image, it now defines the character of the dog. Although it’s not clear why the dog would be a cynic in his character, the word has established a relationship with the image, and the dog and the word have become inseparable. Moreover, the author of the photograph has also put this word in the title of the photograph, enhancing the importance of the word and it’s relationship with the image.
Fig. 2: Eggleston c.1999. No title [unknown]
Ian Jeffrey in the reference of the image taken by Eggleston has claimed this about words in relation to photographs:
'Words declaim, sometimes emptily, and defaced they tell of their ill-use in the past – in history.' (Jeffrey 2008: 332)
Although the words are there, they only represent what is already seen in the photograph, thus sometimes they aren’t necessary for decoding the message.
Up to this point I had not considered text as being an important part of my photographs. I have given titles to series of dog photographs and I have named individual photographs according to what is represented in them, for example, I have named a photograph of a dog according to the name of the dog. This lead me to thinking about how could I incorporate text into image in my own photographs, and I took the following photograph where, in my opinion, the text enhances what is already seen: the word ‘Love’ simply adds to the mood of the image.
Fig. 3: Saksens 2021. Love [digital photographic image]
After seeing this specific image, Geoff Duffield, who is one of my study peers, said that
‘you could put 'Love' against any image, and its message will subvert the meaning of the image every time.’ (Duffield 2021)
I think it depends on the context what the word ‘Love’ would do to an image, if it would enhance the image, subvert it or perhaps make it ironic by showing the opposite action. Sometimes words go well together with what we see and sometimes they don’t. For example, in the following image you can see the word 'Kleurrijk' (the translation from the Dutch language is ‘colourful’).
Fig. 4: Saksens 2021. Kleurrijk [digital photographic image]
On the one hand the word works well with the overall mood in the image – a happy woman is looking in the distance, perhaps the life seems wonderful and colourful, the word itself is placed in a kind of a comic type thought bubble that seems to be coming out of her head. There are even more clues about the positive vibe, like the symbol of heart placed next to her left hand that holds the lead of the dog and draws parallels with her love for the dog. On the other hand the image contains no colour. It’s a black and white image, so the word adds an ironic meaning to it, however the word doesn’t necessarily undermine the photographic image.
Furthermore, I think that giving such titles to images as the ones above (‘Love’ and ‘Kleurrijk’), force the viewer to decode the message quicker. Is that a positive thing or a negative thing, I am not sure yet, but it seems like these titles provide the viewer with too much information. I wonder if the viewer would appreciate it more if the text in the image had nothing to do with the title. Thinking about the relationship between word and image has certainly made me more aware of all the interpretation possibilities of an image. Barthes has once said that a 'man likes signs and likes them clear' (Barthes 1977: 29). Perhaps I will continue from time to time to include text and symbols in my photographs and not just in titles.
LIST OF REFERENCES
BARTHES, R. 1977. Image – Music – Text. London: Fontana pp.15-31.
DUFFIELD, Geoff. 2021. 'Topic 7: WORDS and PICTURES: Activity (GM tutees)'. Falmouth University Canvas [online], March 9. Available at: https://flex.falmouth.ac.uk/courses/942/discussion_topics/19914?module_item_id=49249 [accessed 11 March 2021].
JEFFREY, Ian. 2008. How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers. The United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1: MATHIS, Jill. 1999. A Cynic [gelatin silver print]. From Raymond Merritt. 2018. ‘The Dog in Photography’ (p. 491). Köln: TASCHEN GmbH.
Figure 2: EGGLESTON, William. c.1999. No title [unknown]. From Ian Jeffrey. 2008. ‘How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers’ (p. 333). The United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Figure 3: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2021. Love [digital photographic image]. Private collection: Ruta Saksens.
Figure 3: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2021. Kleurrijk [digital photographic image]. Private collection: Ruta Saksens.