darkroom-based photography

Are words and images immiscible?

Some people think that images and words do not mix, or that words detract from or limit the power of images in some way. In this post I simply want to raise some questions about this …

I often find myself thinking about the relationship between words and images1. I was recently reminded of this quotation by the photographer Elliott Erwitt:

“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.” — Elliott Erwitt

What sense are we to make of this? 2 I think many photographers would subscribe to this view or something like it. But what is being suggested? Is Erwitt suggesting that because pictures explain, words become redundant?

If so, can pictures explain things? One thinks of explanations as understanding causal or logical relationships, for example, making something more intelligible within a particular context. Do pictures do this?

I can’t think that they do if we take the word ‘explain’ in its natural sense. Photographs record a scene. Recording something does not constitute an explanation of it. It seems to me that a photograph is not set up to structure a viewer’s experience such that it can be recognised as an explanation of something. A photograph can add to knowledge about how something looks or that such and such a thing was the case. It can provide evidence for a belief. But this is not by way of explanation.

Having said all this, and not wishing to pin Erwitt down too closely since he was probably only making a casual remark, there is a sense in which Erwitt’s view strikes a chord.3

What Erwitt seems to be saying is that we see a scene in a photograph immediately and we understand what we see in an enough way. We are able to ‘take in’ a scene without needing to describe that scene to ourselves in words (or thoughts). Photographs do not need interpreting. To describe a scene using words would take many sentences, if it could be completely described at all. But when we see a scene, there is no need to describe it to ourselves. We see it just so and understand it in an enough way. The skill of a photographer is to compose a photograph so that it is seen in an enough way.

Does a photograph describes a scene in a wordless way? Some might say that to describe something is to give a detailed account in words, and since photographs do not obviously do this, then ‘description’ is not what photographs provide. Some might say that a picture simply reveals a scene in a direct way without the need for an intermediary inferential process. This is not the place to further this discussion4. I just wanted to flag the fact that Erwitt’s statement seems to support the latter view, which I think is commonly held: that a photograph reveals (i.e. not just records) some aspect of a scene ahead of another aspect in a way that the photographer intends. It suggests that photographs do more than record situations and events. They reveal some aspect in such a way that the viewer understands this aspect, that is, in an enough way.

However just because there is a sense of immediate recogniton when seeing a scene, it does not follow that seeing is an autonomous process separate from a linguistic faculty.

Let’s turn to Elkins, the art historian. Elkins has said that:

“Pictures (…seem) to consist of two immiscible parts: the flood of words and the insoluble wordless image” 5

This is an interesting quote. The suggestion here is that words and images work separately in some way but that both are needed to make up a picture. Since actual words are not obviously involved, one assumes that the words are somehow in the background, unspoken or unwritten, but nevertheless either thought in the understanding of a picture, or even unthought. This view is not without its difficulties.

Let’s take the immiscibility point first. I agree that it seems difficult to hold an image and a thought in the mind at the same time. A short moment’s introspection might confirm this. Look at an object and notice its qualities. Then think about the fact that you are noticing those qualities. Does concentrating on the noticing stop you from actually seeing those qualities in some way? I leave any conclusion in obeyance. 6 So, Elkins may have a point. Images and words at any instant could be immiscible.

Of course, this moment goes past undetected and the next moment brings something else in. We move on; the immiscibility is momentary. When I look at a scene I take it in immediately if the context is suitable. But I only take it in immediately because I have learned to know what to look for when taking in a scene. Trees in a landscape for example. If I saw, say, a washing machine in the trees, I wouldn’t take the scene in immediately. I would need to look at it again, in a ‘double-take’. 7. A scene is not just given. It comes with a lifetime of looking at scenes. Seeing a scene brings in countless other scenes that we have experienced before. So to talk about the ‘insoluble wordless image’ is problematic. It suggests that words and images cannot mix in some way. But are not images suffused with words, and words suffused with images?

Another interesting view is proffered by David Campany:

“Words do many things for photographs, but in general they are used to oversee and direct them, the way parents supervise wayward children. Photographs can be bent to limitless wills, but never precisely so. They always have the potential to exceed the demands imposed upon them. And in that excess, photographs work upon us in ways we still barely comprehend.” 8

What seems to be suggested here is quite complicated. Words do many things but they do them in very particular ways. We understand what sentences mean because of the constraints that they impose over what we think when we read or hear those sentences. What we read and what we immediately think about seem coupled. This follows from how language works in some way.

Pictures are not structured in the same way as sentences. In general they are not signs or symbols, although they may depict them, and they do not aswer to a grammar. They are not built up from smaller elements ‘from the bottom up’ in the way that language is said to be. Because the way that pictures depict things does not involve a construction from building blocks, what we think about when we look at a picture is not tightly coupled to what the picture depicts. There seems to be a greater degree of freedom than that afforded by the coupling of sentences to what we think about when we read them.

Again, the (questionable) notion that images belong to a separate domain, outside of language, seems to underpin this view. In pitting words against pictures, Campany seems to suggest that words are more precise, unable to be bent in limitless ways. But is that really the case? Does not language have its own phenomenology? Cannot a poem be so tender to the particular that we never reach an end to its reading, despite the constraints inherent in words? And does not a poem often achieve this through its sparse economy?

I will not conclude or make definitive statements about the forgoing. The forgoing do not constitute proper arguments. I merely flag up some concerns. It’s clear to me, though, that pictures are much harder to write about than one might expect them to be. And words too.

  1. That pictures and words are closely connected has a long tradition of inquiry. Plato hinted at the idea that pictures and words are tied together. In the Philebus he compares the soul to a book, adding however that besides the ‘scribe’ who writes ‘within us’ there is also “another artist, ‘the painter’, who, after the scribe has done his work, draws images in the soul of the things which he has described.” For the mature Aristotle the body and the soul are not thought of as separate substances but as the form and matter of one substance. Thought requires images so that “whenever one contemplates, one necessarily at the same time contemplates in images”.
  2. As an aside, as a photographer and past director of the Liverpool International Festival of Photography, I have met many good photographers and interviewed quite a few who have taken this line of thought. Although acquiescing to talking about their photographs, I often detected a reluctance to do so, and indeed, it has to be said, many did not interview well, giving clichéd replies to straight forward questions. Perhaps photography attracts those that are uncomfortable with words? Perhaps my photographers thought that their pictures ‘spoke for themselves’ and therefore needed no written or spoken explanations? There are of course notable exceptions – Robert Adams, for example, or Thomas Joshua Cooper. Fay Godwin understood the power of poetry, Wynne Bullock the depth of good philosophical analysis.
  3. Several quotes suggest this is a widespread view, for example: “Photography is the story I fail to put into words.” – Destin Sparks; “I don’t trust words. I trust pictures.” – Giles Peress; “Every picture tells a story “; “A picture tells a 1000 words”.
  4. i.e the lines of thought: knowledge by acquaintance v. knowledge by description; show v. tell and so on
  5. Elkins, J. On Pictures and the words that fail them, (Cambridge University Press, 1998 p. 268
  6. As I sit enjoying my breakfast cup of tea I’m looking at a leaf of a house-plant next to me . I see the how its waxiness reflects light. I then think about the leaf and its waxy surface and how the light is reflected and in that moment I let go of the waxiness I see until the thought dies a moment later when I regain the experience of its waxiness. It’s as if I can’t hold a thought and an image at the same time. If I think about the waxy leaf I see before me, I lose my experience of its waxiness. When I experience its waxiness, I can’t seem to hold onto the thought that I am looking at its waxiness. The transition happens so fast that it is almost undetectable. It’s as if, in order to enter into an experience of the leaf’s waxiness, one has to restrain any thoughts about its waxiness.
  7. What we see seems to be partially governed by what we expect to see within suitable contexts. In this regard perceptions are dependent on the degrees of freedom that a situation subtends, or put differently, perceptions are based on a family of previous ones. This Bayesian condition is alluded to by Ramsey: “If two people are arguing ‘if H will E?’ and both are in doubt as to H, they are adding H hypothetically to their stock of knowledge and arguing on that basis about E’ (Ramsey, 1926 in Ramsey, F.P., 1990, ‘Philosophical Papers’, Edited by D.H. Mellor, Cambridge University Press. )
  8. ‘On Photographs’, Thames & Hudson (UK), MIT Press (USA), Guilio Einaudi Editore (IT), 2020

6 Comments

  1. Greg Shattenberg

    Tony,
    I stumbled here looking for bromoil paper references. Specifically for transfer. I am quite capable of taking a questionable photo and making a complete mess of it.

    Your intrigue with language got my attention. The goals are similar, an art experience. These experiences can happen graphically, these experiences can happen within the realm of language (linguistically?). Combining the two can provoke new vistas, which are most risky in their ease towards tedium. I find it is a challenge worth taking on. There is a vibration in perceptions you describe well in #6 above which moves experiences in a direction of neither. The combination is held together by a discrete environment, not temporal nor document, within art and the mind of the viewer.

    Is there a current paper which works, possibly Foma, I would do multiple inkings to build an image, registration is easy.

    Thank you,
    Greg Shattenberg

    • Sidewayseye

      Hi Greg. Thanks for your comments.
      As you will know, finding consistently reliable paper for Bromoil is difficult. I have had ssuccess with Fomabrom 113 and also Ilford Classic, but I have also had failures with them. This is what drove me to coatimng my art paper with Foma emulsion. This works well but is a lengthy process.
      Good luck with Bromoil and let me know how you get on.

  2. Mick Yates

    Tony, as you know I do a lot of work combining photographs and words, as I discovered that a photograph can sometimes only contribute to the narrative, rather than completely communicate it. I found your post both thoughtful and compelling.

    I offer this. There is a difference between using words to describe a photograph (and that may well be redundant, as Erwitt suggests) and using words to anchor them meaning of a narrative in which the photograph is merely a part.

    In that sense, photograph and text is not immiscible but complementary and indeed necessary.

    What do you think?

    Best, Mick

    • Sidewayseye

      Hi Mick. Thanks for stopping by.
      I think there are several (many?) levels in which language either constitutes an image or participates in it.

      At a basic level, some would say that we see in a propositional way – that is, we see ‘that p’, where p is a proposition. Seeing happens in virtue of language. I’m not sure I agree with this but I am researching it.

      At a different level there is a possibility that words and images somehow intertwine to produce an experience of a picture or seeing in general. So, language is not constitutive in a causal sense but participatory in a logical sense. A bit speculative, I know, but I think there is something to this.

      Then we can physically add words to images. I like to know where a picture has been taken, the general context and date. This kind of title information is useful to help work out the photographer’s intentions. I mostly dislike further words being added either by way of explanation or by pointing out somthing that is obvious in the picture. So, ‘Spring Farm, Appalachian Hills, 1937’ is very helpful. ‘Poor farmer working his fields, Spring Farm etc’ I find detracts from the image. I don’t like to be told how to experience a photograph. I am often in galleries, being a trustee of one, but I almost never read the blurb unkless its biographical or historical. Psychological descriptions of photographs tend to switch me off.

      Then there is a level where words can add to an image in a kind of synthesis. So we can get a poem and an image workimng together, for example. This can work but it can be very difficult to do well. I think Fay Godwin was quite good at this. I have seen some disasters though.

      What do you think?

      • Mick Yates

        Tony, I am in broad agreement with your ‘split’ – which I would define as words as explanation, words as information, words as synthesis.

        The first two seem rather Wittgensteinian as examples of ‘words in use’ providing some kind of definition of an image. The third seems less Wittgenstein and more Ryle.

        I didn’t know if you have read Ryle’s Concept of Mind. He negates Descartes’ duality of body and mind by saying that the question of ‘mind versus body’ is a category mistake. There is no mind without body, though there could be a body without mind (my take on his work). Mind and body are in different categories of thought. When words and photographs are fully complementary and ‘essential’ to the combined image, I see a parallel. The words without a photograph are meaningless (eat your heart out, Monsieur Barthes), but words with a photograph are something else.

        As to your other point on ‘language being participatory’ in some sense, I think that is related to ‘being essential’?

        Make any sense?

        • Sidewayseye

          Yes makes sense. You are referring to the late Wittgenstein here. Early Wittgenstein would see it very differently, closer to my constitutional point.

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