Two Languages: Words and Pictures

Philip Gefter, Photography After Frank.

“Many people approach the act of looking at photographs with an inherent blind spot. They need to know what it is before they can appreciate how it looks.”

Emmet Gowin image: Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969

Pure Seeing. No Caption Needed. Photo copyright Emmet Gowin. "Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969"

For me this statement, and the essay it is from, would alone have made reading Philip Gefter’s “Photography After Frank” worthwhile.  It  is just one of many gems in Mr. Gefter’s series of essays exploring photographers and photography in the 50 years since the publication of Robert Frank’s “The Americans.”

To put the observation into context, the particular essay quoted is entitled: “Reading Newspaper Pictures: A Thousand Words, and Then Some.” Gefter recalls how, as picture editor for the New York Times, he observed his word-oriented colleagues come to photography as though it were a foreign language.  They could not evaluate, or even really see, a picture without words that accompanied and explained the image.Of course, to be fair, (as Gefter is in the essay) for editors of a newspaper it is essential that most  of the published images have some written explanation to place them into context. In fact, we sometimes forget that most of the iconic images by Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Smith, Robert Capa and other great documentarians were first published as feature stories with captions and text.  We have become so familiar with some of these images, that people can view them without any words and still place them into context. Words are no longer necessary, because we have internalized the captions.

But the point I want to make here is that looking at a photograph simply for the sake of looking is one of the great pleasures of seeing. I spend a lot of time (too much) reading about photography. But the words can get in the way.

Highway US 285 by Robert Frank, from The Americans

U.S. 285, New Mexico, 1956, The Americans, Copyright Robert Frank

If The Americans remains one of the most influential books of photographs, Jack Kerouac’s introductory essay qualifies as an eminently forgettable piece of writing. The images overshadowing and embarrassing the words by their visual eloquence.

For years I’ve contemplated why it is that words and pictures have so rarely meshed successfully.  Geftner’s essay suggests one answer: they are two different languages appealing to two different sides of the brain. I’ve spent my lifetime in words and pictures, but admittedly have never really found a way to successfully integrate the two. Instead, the best I can hope for is to strive to become bilingual, sometimes speaking the language of words, sometimes of pictures. If I were to try to combine the two, I think it would be as incomprehensible as  trying to speak Spanish and German at the same time.

I think that is also why I have little patience for over-analysis of photographs. It’s very easy to fall either into complete banality – stating the obvious – or total incomprehensibility – succumbing to vanity with ostentatious and irrelevant pronouncements. (Like this from the Art Institute of Chicago: “Baltz remains substantially concerned over the cancerous spread of our industrially manufactured habitat and how the elements of manufacture can be used to standardize, control, and oppress the inhabitants—ourselves.”)

At the conclusion of his brief essay, Gefter remarks that the difference between art and journalism begins with intention. Journalism is primarily concerned with facts and events. Art with “the contemplation of ideas.”

Perhaps, but there is also art in the pure joy of seeing or hearing for its own sake.

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2 Responses to Two Languages: Words and Pictures

  1. Pingback: Philip Gefter on Chinese Photographer Hai Bo | Unfocused Blog

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