A picture is worth a thousand words

‘The camera never lies’, a statement which is plainly untrue. There is reason to believe that Alexander Gardner improved on what his camera saw before taking certain pictures of war dead during the American Civil War, and darkroom techniques for manipulating images were common decades before Photoshop was thought of. Sometimes the image is manipulated for artistic purposes, no attempt being made to conceal the fact, but when a photographer screws a rainbow filter to the business end of his lens, the camera is made to lie. And by the simple expedient of pointing the camera to exclude information visible to the photographer, the camera is prevented from telling the whole truth. Fortunately, most people don’t seem to believe that the camera never lies, popular as the saying has been.

More pernicious altogether is the statement, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ A Stockholm photographer uses it as the title of her blog. There may be occasions when it is true, but there are many where it is not. There are various ways of testing this idea. Dreams are a series of pictures, but often the dreamer has no idea what the dream signifies. In his book, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, Freud placed great emphasis on the use of words as a way into deciphering what a dream might mean. His advice was to write down what had been dreamt as soon as possible before the memory of it faded, the starting point of the interpretation being the specific words of the written account. (As for whether dreams tell the future, Xenophon had it cracked. His advice was to wait and see.)

Or consider how people react to a camera when they are aware of it. We want to know how Aunt Mildred was when she was celebrating her eightieth birthday in the eventide home. A picture or two will do the trick. Or will they? She looks happy. Good. That’s nice to see. But did she really feel like smiling for the camera when her nephew pointed it at her and said ‘cheese’? And looking over the family photograph album there is a marked lack of down looks. Why is that? Did it never rain? What were these people on?

Which brings us to the question of Aunt Mildred’s false teeth. She normally finds them too much of a chore to bother with and keeps them in a tobacco tin in the top drawer of her bedside cabinet. But she’s flashing them at us in these pictures. In this case you could say that it isn’t the camera which is lying, but Aunt Mildred herself. But you could also say that people often alter their behaviour when a camera is pointed at them, and why would Aunt Mildred be any different?

Architectural photographers don’t have this problem – buildings don’t play up to the photographer. But here at Railroad Realty we want to move our properties, so what do we do? We make that puddle in front of the house look like a duck-pond and hold the property in trust for nation.

Moving on to the serious stuff, when it comes to developing an argument pictures can’t compete with words. Take an essay on existential philosophy and try recasting it as a series of visual images. Pictures have trouble dealing with concepts. They can’t deal with them at all. Which brings us back to Alexander Gardner. You can photograph a dead body alright, but how do you photograph death? You can’t. Concepts are invisible. Pictures can’t handle them, language can.

2 thoughts on “A picture is worth a thousand words

  1. I like to think of it more as images that get a little “nudge” to help them tell a story…the story itself might be an outright lie- I will give you that!
    But the skill it takes to make a flat picture sing and talk and evoke emotion is something I admire. And I totally agree that the bulk of great images have got some help in the darkroom or photoshop or as you point out…posing those bodies to make them look more dead.

  2. I completely agree with you about the effect images can have. I suppose what gets me is the ‘worth a thousand words’ thing, which doesn’t get challenged enough.

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