Wednesday, January 6, 2010

1,000 Words

On September 20, 1943, LIFE magazine published a photograph of dead American soldiers on a Papua New Guinea beach. With it they ran an editorial that asked, “Why print this picture, anyway, of three American boys dead upon an alien shore?” One reason given: “Words are never enough . . . words do not exist to make us see, or know, or feel what it is like, what actually happens.”

Is that true? Do photographs speak more volumes than words? Does the writer exist in a glass box inside which she can feel the power spewing forth from her pen but knows that in reality her thoughts and imaginings and voices can never be actually, authentically transmitted to the reader? What about before the camera, or the video, or the lithograph even existed? Were words enough then?

I think words, in fact, have the capability of communicating more than pictures or photographs or footage. Words give each reader an individual identity, so that the same text holds entirely different meaning for two different people. We read through the lens of ourselves. That is, “reading between the lines” means just that- inferring what one will, breathing individualized meaning into what just one person originally formulated into words. A picture, too, can be interpreted as a viewer wishes- but it stands that there is just one image for all audience members alike, just one icon to behold. Words, conversely, can take on a life of their own and conjure a whole mixed bag of visual thoughts. The way Alexandre Dumas describes Edmond Dantès' breath-taking escape from the Château d'If in The Count of Monte Cristo plays out one way in my mind, but with infinite variety in others' minds. I imagine the savage mutilation of the baby water buffalo in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried unlike any other reader imagines it.

But everyone sees the same, singular LIFE image of American war casualties: the same tropical treeline and the same number of bodies strewn like rag dolls over the same damp packed sand. What we choose to take away from the photograph will be quite divergent, yes- and I am a full believer in the awesome power of photography- but words bypass this initial maintenance of a common denominator and skyrocket the reader into a personal imaginative plain right from the get-go.

Where does the digital media revolution come into play with the expressive capabilities of photos vs. words? I don't have any technical familiarity with digital photography, but I do know that modern-day advances have exponentially increased photographers' abilities to manipulate images. In some cases, techniques like High Dynamic Range imaging produce mind-blowing photographs: John Tierney cites one in his TierneyLab blog. As Tierney himself points out, "Some of the images seem otherworldly, but others strike me as more natural than the alternative made by conventional means." So high-tech photography can both expand and warp the power of the framed image to communicate.

But so, I think, does high-tech writing. 21st century writing sledgehammers the quill-and-ink-stand purity of the written word. Outlets like blogs, discussion forums, tweets, Facebook status updates, online dating profiles, text messages- these, and their infinite cousins, change how we interpret writing. "Reading between the lines", to repeat myself, often becomes a moot point with 140-character thought balloons, or one-line status updates, or users' article comments, or Google Reader notes. But that same phrase "reading between the lines" can also ironically become even more relevant with confusing, variously-interpretable text messages, or with adjustable statements on politicians' websites, or with Podcasts that render audible a piece of writing that may not use the same tone or inflection the author intended.

Progress in applying new media to both photographs and writing has also been manifested in the form of text-accompanied slideshows, like this one of Obama visiting New Orleans this past October. We need the fluidity of flipping through the whole selection, and reading the text, to get a grasp of the material. Then is it the captions or the images that feed our brains? Do we need both? Which artform speaks more volumes?

There hasn't ever been a definitive answer, and with the complicating factors of today's technology, there's little hope for one.

1 comment:

  1. "Is that true? Do photographs speak more volumes than words? [...] What about before the camera, or the video, or the lithograph even existed? Were words enough then?" This question should be an english class writing assignment - and you're answer is brilliant.

    P.S. Am I the first person to quote you to you?