Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Visual language


A recent lenswork podcast brought to mind the idea of visual language and how we read photographs. Brooks expresses an interest in information theory but really seems to be considering the shared components of visual language. The visual words & phrases we all perhaps instinctively understand - a smile, crying.
For me, the key concept in information theory has been the measure of surprise, or entropy in a message. The canonical example is the two sentences, 'dog bites man' and 'man bites dog'. The second sentence is more surprising, even though it has the same words and number of letters as the first case. But if they were newspaper headlines, the second would grab your attention - it carries more information because it has more surprise. As a result it has higher entropy in an information theoretic sense of the term. This might be analogous to the difference between images with high initial impact and those that are quieter. Lots of colour, contrast, dramatic light and unusual subjects tend to characterise images with high impact and lots of visual surprise or entropy. Calmer palettes and light might lead to less surprising content. However, what interests me more is visual language and when applied to photography, two aspects. How to read & how to write visually. First I'd like to learn how people read images. I've heard mention that Westerners read photographs in the same way we read normally. Starting at the top left and working our way back and forth to the bottom right. If that's true - how can we use it ? Basic guidelines talk about rule of thirds and power points on those intersections - but if we scan a picture from top left to bottom right, does it then mean that each of those 4 places on a picture have different impact ? I think so. You can see that this is true by flipping rotating and mirroring images and notice how it changes the feel of them. This idea also can help with the placement of leading lines or other compositional elements, to change the way the picture is scanned. Other features such as the brightest area of the image or areas of highest contrast will also grab our eye, just like a surprising headline will make your eye jump ahead. So if Western cultures read images the same way that we read text, is that also true for other cultures that read top to bottom, or right to left ? Are images and composition significantly or subtly different in those cultures as a result ? Is the way we scan an image something more instinctual than that, or really driven by our education ? Secondly, knowing about these concepts and incorporating them consciously into your images can really improve the overall feel. Eventually it becomes more of an unconscious act that becomes part of your visual way of writing. I'd love to learn more about the way we scan or read images so if anyone has good pointers or references, please leave me a comment. But that just touches on the layout on the page. What you are saying is equally or more important than how you say it. There are certainly some universal visual phrases that you can use - sunsets, a smile, a baby crying. Everyone that looks at the picture understands those symbols straight away. But there are also more complex phrases, that are culturally relevant. These become harder to read if you aren't part of that culture. As an example, consider the use of colour. Red in some cultures for weddings, white in others. Or red for Communism. Black & orange symbolise Hallowe'en. In China, white is considered the colour associated with funerals. White hooded robes in some cultures are a sign of hatred, in others the robes of very religious, pious men. A cross. A flag. All powerful short-hand for specific ideas. Using these stronger symbols can be very open to subjective interpretation - the viewer may well see and understand things in a very different way to the photographer. Brooks mentioned Robert Franks series 'The Americans'. I checked that book out of the library a couple of years ago and was singularly unimpressed. The images didn't mean much to me. Didn't make much sense - I couldn't understand all the praise heaped on that collection. It wasn't until a few weeks ago, while listening to a Jeff Curto lecture, where he described one of the images, that I started to understand the symbols and perhaps the power and significance of Franks other images. There is one image, in a diner, with a blown out window, a TV on, and nobody in the room. Curto describes the cultural fear of a nuclear holocaust, symbolised in the white window. He also explains that the TV is showing a famous at the time TV evangelist. Symbolising the preaching of religion and morals in the US - but nobody is listening. All of these symbols and ideas encapsulated in that image, but none of them registered with me. I didn't understand the nuclear zeitgeist or recognise the symbolic preacher. So the picture passed right over my head. Symbols are powerful phrases in photography, but only when they connect with the viewer who gets what you are saying. I also wonder if there is a visual equivalent to sentence construction. Some languages such as German tend to have the verb at the end. English has a different structure. Is this sort of re-arranging of the phrases and basic building blocks present in visual language too ? More importantly, can these ideas be used to change how you compose a picture to give more or less impact and in the end, to communicate ideas more effectively ? To do that, there's perhaps the even harder first step of working out what you want to say - what does the subject or scene in front of you make you feel and want to communicate ? Only then can you start thinking about how you want to say it.


Kavey said...

Not necessarily related to your post but an image that my mind jumped to when I saw your own image:


This image is one that I marked as a favourite on DPC and it intrigues me precisely because I find it fascinating to think about how successfully it communicates a subject, a mood, an environment and even a culture to me with such little real detail visible. Since coming across it I've been thinking, albeit much more simply, about similar concepts to those you're mulling over in your post. What elements are neccesary/ desirable in an image in order for it to communicate with the viewer and how widely do cultural norms/ knowledge/ preferences play into how well an image communicates and appeals?

Some years ago I used to train applications such as QuarkXPress and, given the mainly graphic designer clientele, read a lot of books and articles on graphic design - some of these touched on how different cultures tend to "read" images (and also layouts) and how one could use this knowledge to achieve specific results.

Your post has taken it a lot further and given me more food for thought.

Unknown said...

Very interesting. I have this feeling about "reading" an image. That is why I'm so frustrated when I can't get what I want due to my skills limitations. Most of the things I want to say are in the world outside. It just take a lot of courage to shoot outside, which I don't have yet. It will come I hope. At least it should.

Jeff said...

Gordon, thanks for your post about the way in which my history class lectures may have been of some help in your understanding of the idea of symbolic content in images.

As I've always told students... symbolism in photographs works *really* well, so long as the viewer knows the symbols. For instance a nation's flag almost always works as a symbol, so long as everyone looking at the photograph knows what nation the flag belongs to. A photograph with the flag of Burundi is less likely to be universally understood than a photograph of the U.S. flag. (out of curiosity, I just looked up the flag of Burundi.... http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/bi.html )

I then usually go on to show students Jerry Uelsmann's photographs and talk about how Uelsmann talks about his photographs as being "obviously symbolic, but not symbolically obvious", a phrase which really seems to capture the problem in a nutshell. What Uelsmann accepts is the idea that the viewer is going to bring his own background to the image, so each individual's understanding of the photograph is dependent upon that viewer's understanding and *interpretation* of the symbols in the image. Uelsmann is willing to leave that door open; willing to allow the meaning of the image to be different for everyone. For a lot of photographers, I think this would be one of those "I can't do it" sorts of things... they wouldn't be willing to give up the control of pointing the viewer to what it is that they want them to see or feel.

I think they key to this lies not necessarily in photography itself but rather in the other traditions of human expression like painting and literature. Look to the great paintings of the Renaissance and their various symbolic devices (i.e. flowers for various religious ideas and ideals) and the work of Baroque artists (skulls, gestures, etc) for some insight into the way symbol was used to convey not only fact but idea. There are more symbolic devices in literary works than you can shake a stick at, but I always point to the green light at the end of Daisy's dock in Fitzgerald's "Gatsby" as a great example of how something mundane can be transformed into a much larger.

In terms of people who have given this whole thing a great deal more thought than I have, here is a short list of books that might be useful.

"On Photography" by Susan Sontag (my last podcast was about this book - http://www.cameraposition.com/archives/77 )

"Looking at Photographs" by John Szarkowski (a spectacular book that is not only a "history of photography" book but a great book about how photographs "work")

"Ways of Seeing" and "Another Way of Telling" by John Berger (both a bit on the "dense" side in terms of language, but both really insightful)

"Crisis of the Real" by Andy Grundberg (long-time NYT photo critic)


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the questions you raise in your blogs.

A very small observation regarding German sentence structure. German does NOT, as a rule, position verbs at the end of sentences.

When we compare English with German, the one marked difference is that, unlike English, German is an [i]inflected[/i] language, which significantly effects word order.

Germans arrange for emphasis alone. [i]Sense[/i], however, is governed by inflecting (declining) nouns, pronouns and adjectives[i]cases[/i] to show effect, relation, sequence etc.

In English these same cases [i](nominative, genitive, dative and accusative)[/i] have a somewhat subordinated role and are therefore often misused, especially in the colloquial, i.e. the use of 'who' in place of 'whom' or 'whose' etc.

Whether [i]the wind breaks the tree[i] or [i]the tree breaks the wind[/i] is all the same to a German speaker, in terms of word order. The crux, for him, is the difference between [i]subject[/i] and [i]object[/i], denoted by [i]case[/i].

An Englishman or am American will have a world of difference, since word order alone establishes or currupts his [i]sense[/i].

How this relates to visual perception and composition, I can only speculate.

I imagine that while both German and English speakers might [i]perceive[/i] similarly (both languages share the application of cases to varying degrees), the English speaker may well be more likely to transfer his linguistic sense to a visual plane, as the language itself demands a degree of conscious [i]arrangement[/i] visa word order. ?

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments on German sentence structure. I was a very poor student of German at school, I have to admit. I do remember a probably apocryphal story from the European Parliament about a translator who had to wait for 10 minutes to start translating a particularly long winded German gentleman's speech, because he hadn't yet reached a verb and she needed close to the start for the English translation.

Unknown said...

A very thought provoking post.
As your comments have proven. Very nice writing and sharing of your thoughts. I enjoyed it very much.