How Long Do Your Images Speak For?

How Long Do Your Images Speak For?

When you look at an image, how do you interpret it? Is it able to inform you about what has preceded the events that are depicted and what is about to happen? The ability of an image to "speak" is something John Berger believed lifted it from being ordinarily graphic to providing a visual narrative.

Look at the image below and try to interpret what you are seeing.

In Berger's words (Another Way of Telling):

So, the woman has just walked out of their home and will shortly go back alone with the child. The drama of the moment is expressed in the difference between the clothes they are wearing. His for traveling, for sleeping out, for fighting; hers for staying at home.

The image is titled "A Red Hussar Leaving" and was taken in June 1919 by Andre Kertesz. Berger then goes on to describe the historical context of the collapse of the Hapsburg Monarchy, economic disintegration, and the soon-to-be established Horthy fascist regime. The photo is therefore able to quote about years of events that precede the capture and immediately describe the likely events over the next few minutes to hours, implying more about the years to come. Berger notes that this is not about expanding the timescale the photo encompasses, but rather prolonging its meaning. The greater the "length of quotation," the larger its lens of interpretation becomes. Berger envisions a photo as a line cutting through the progression of time. When there is quotation, the line changes to a circle, increasing in size with longer quotation.

Information and Knowledge

Almost by definition, there has to be a human element for an image to have quotation. You can't interpret a landscape within the context of society, unless there are people or the impact of people. Where we are able to glean the broadest volume of information is when we are confronted with a rich scene, full of people, objects, and their interaction. That said, information alone isn't enough to provide quotation. I shot the image below, which has lots going on, but doesn't actually tell us very much. It's information rich, design and quotation poor.

Lots of "information" doesn't necessarily make for a pleasing image, and this is where the skill of the photographer comes in. The ability to counterpoise the graphical elements of balance with the information needed to describe a scene is difficult. More than design, it is the amount of information relative to the number of objects and people that is important. What we might call the density of information. More simply we might describe an image as being "rich."

That richness is wider than the sheer amount of information — rather how easy it is to extract or infer knowledge. How does the information reverberate and amplify between objects in the image? In this sense, while the aircraft image above might be graphically poor, it has the potential to strongly reverberate. If we were able to know more about the individuals and their unique histories, then the power of quotation would be strong. As such, all we know is what they look like and that they are on an aircraft.

This is why an image needs a title and caption and explains why Berger clarifies the context to "A Red Hussar Leaving." Removing captions removes context, and for some photographers, this is part of presenting their work. By forcing the viewer to engage with and interpret their work, new cognitive understandings are created in their mind — the photograph can now live to take on new meanings that can be completely different from the original. Indeed, it can be in opposition or counter-factual to the original. It's also a reason why some musical artists don't provide lyric sheets — songs can be intensely personal to the events that took place when you first heard them. Providing lyrics, and so, meaning, can shatter the understanding you have built.

However, by removing captions, the ability of a photo to provide quotation is significantly diminished. In fact, it does the opposite, as without quotation, you make a photo infinitely interpretable. Take, for example, this image of a man crying. There is no context, and over and above the clothes he is wearing, you are left to interpret it within your own understanding.

Our Interpretation

Your own understanding is, of course, critical to the interpretation of any image. There is no such thing as an unbiased, critical interpretation of an image. As the viewer, by definition, your understanding is colored by your own personal history. An image can only ever be compared in context to the events that have formed your life, sitting alongside other visual narratives that you subconsciously recall. In this instance, you understand that this is a Caucasian male dressed in a suit. That will mean something specifically to you and could indicate a formal event, such as a wedding, baptism, graduation, or job interview. Are they tears of joy, grief, or relief? We can't know.

Interpretation and meaning also changes with time, mediated by our personal histories. Societies change (think Arab Spring, #MeToo), and so how we interpret an image will alter. In this instance, how do we understand a man crying? In the context of the historic British "stiff upper lip," it might be seen as a sign of weakness, denoting a range of negative impressions. Reinterpreting this as part of the "modern man," it is someone who is able to express their emotions and so be stronger for it.

Given how we much we can infer from the first image, my exposition of "Stretcher Bearers at Passchendaele" takes a famous image that has become synonymous with World War One and trench warfare, extracting key information in order to provide a longer quotation. What this process enables is for the viewer to move beyond simply viewing a photo one dimensionally for what it appears to show — iconographically — to understand how and for how long it quotes.

The process of reinterpretation obviously affects historical photos more significantly. The manner in which images can undergo a process of new understandings is through their rediscovery or as a result of new enhancements to them. This is no better exemplified than by Peter Jackson's "They Shall Not Grow Old," which took archive video footage shot during World War One and applied significant post-production, including correcting timing, image clean-up, colorizing, and 3D processing. As part of the painstaking process, they also used lip readers to produce a script for people visibly speaking during filming, going so far as to get the correct accents for the Army regiments present. All of a sudden, the films ceased to be low-resolution pictographs acting out a series of historically understood narratives, changing to unique speaking individuals who were alive, living their own personal stories. These were now living and breathing people — the narrative changed.

What does this mean for our own photography? Firstly, look through your archive of recent images and pick out one that you think has long quotation. In the way that Berger dissects "A Red Hussar Leaving," try to understand what is in the image and taking both what you see and what you know about them, understand the quotation. Secondly, look back at an historic image that you are personally familiar with (either as a child or from a parent or grandparent) and post-process it in the way you would one of your own photos. Then try to understand it in this new light and see if it presents any new insights.

Photography is so much more than just an instant in time.

Lead image courtesy of OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons. Kertesz and WW1 images in the Public Domain via Wikimedia. Crying Man image courtesy of StockSnap via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons.

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1 Comment

Ivan Lantsov's picture

sometime it just pretty