Thursday, October 8, 2015

We make our images but others interpret them.

Images do not tell stories with any precision. Stories are best told in words not pictures because we have to bring ourselves, our own interpretation to a picture and so there is no single story to be read from it. Commercial advertising has done a lot to train us to receive what the advertiser wishes us to buy in to, be it a product or a political message. Without words to accompany the image though we are much more free to add our own script.

People who make images use some design techniques to nudge us in the 'right' direction. Colour, shapes, lines etc. can convey some general moods or feelings, but there is no real way to make this universal because we are free to speculate and draw our own conclusions. The political photograph featuring a smiling confident leader might sell more votes or we might just be more than ever turned off by 'that hypocrite'. Words combined with images however can produce a much more reliable result.

Below are two photographs featuring the same 'person' in the same pose. Without a written message to accompany them we are free to attach our own message and although I have used certain design techniques to separate them quite forcefully, there is no guarantee that viewers will be willing to receive the way I might like them to. Even if I add some words, like “Happy or sad?” to guide you it might just depend on the viewer. A stressed out mother of several young children might well choose the 'alone' one over the 'busy' one for 'happy' even though all that colour and action should work the other way.

Carl Jung spent a lot of time thinking about human imagery, those universal symbols that have been built into humans from the distant past, - archetypes. And yet when we or the experts look at cave paintings from fifty thousand years ago we are still left guessing. We enjoy the guessing, the theorizing but without the written text, the speech balloons, we can get feelings but not factual certainty. And it is in feelings that images mostly trade in. The photo of the drowned Syrian child made us feel and urged us to action. A German war photo of a Polish Jewish girl being abused by victorious troops is intended as positive propaganda for the folks back home ( 'Our boys at the front having a good time'), but it makes my blood boil when I see it today. Same photo, different times and audience. Images are slippery things, are so culturally based and even then there are still open to interpretation.

This does not mean we should abandon crafting our imagery to better convey our message, but it helps to understand why it is that photographs or paintings on galley walls can elicit such varied responses. We make our images but others interpret them.
And later: I used the word feeling to discuss how we react to visual imagery but that does not necessarily mean only nasty or warm and fuzzy. I think it relates to the process of brain function: we see something and at one level can process that visually and even go on to make a non verbal decision, but translating that into words is actually quite complex. We think of it as feeling because we know somehow that it is different from thinking with words and concepts.

We see an image ( or something from the world itself) and pass that directly to the visual cortex and react. If we wish to interact with the 'image' and then share our thoughts with others we can draw or gesture or involve other more interactive processes like dance and music and words. That form of communication is a way of thinking that is more rich and complex than the stand alone logical word based kind.

We stand before a picture or a piece of reality and get a visual message, we react visually, but as likely as not we have few words to explain ourselves. The processing into words requires some complex evaluation and translation and it is a temptation to give a simplified reaction - I like, don't like, or we reach for a story to explain it. Perhaps we could also have gestured, waved our arms, danced, whistled a tune and sung a song and that would have been more accurate. That is what our ancestors did and artists still do.

One piece of visual thought stimulates another and sets the ball rolling. There is no such thing as stand alone art. There would be no context within which to understand it. Having a larger contextual and knowledge base is essential for this process. Both the artist and the viewer are responsible for 'birthing' the next generation of ideas.

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