Column: Peripatetic Postcards

Every Picture Tells A Story

There was a game we played in grad school. Well, actually the professors taught us a "concept" in the classroom that we students converted into a parlor game after. Kids being "clever". We played the game any time it seemed that the gatekeepers were trying to put one over on us. You know, those usual suspects:

Big government.

Big business.

. . . Big effing deal.

The courses we learned it in were Intro to Journalism, Communication Studies, Semiology. Anything with pictures, basically; the game worked equally well in all of them. If the game had had a theme song, it might have been that Rod Stewart ditty:

I couldn't quote you no Dickens, Shelley or Keats

'cause it's all been said before

Make the best out of the bad, just laugh it off

You didn't have to come here anyway

So remember, every picture tells a story don't it

Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells a Story

Sure, every picture tells a story, Rod. However, what we learned -- what we knew, what we applied in the parlor, and the message we carried out in the world beyond -- was that depending on where you sit, what angle you take, every picture can tell a different story. Or, at least, every picture has the potential for telling you a different story.

Which is a good rule to remember, an important caveat to consider, something worth pondering, as one goes through life's (peripatetic) paces.

Take, for instance, the two photos at the outset. The one on the left shows us an artist, sketching a statue in what turns out to be a museum. What we don't see is another story. Lurking behind him, just out of the viewfinder, is a witness, a passing patron, a critic, pausing to regard the artist's handiwork. Each picture tells us a story, yes, it's true. And often each picture tells us a different one.

The idea that key information is missing from the frame, is one point -- perhaps the key point -- of the game we used to play. What gets cut out of the frame, by who, why, and with what (possible) effect -- that is where we get to the more interesting analytic questions. The ones worth playing for. For therein lies matters of politics, economics, class, morality, subjectivity, bias. Enough stuff, in short, to chew on for an hour or more of leisure-time tiffs.

Take the mural, pictured below, for instance.

A street scene, reminiscent, in style, of a collaboration between, say, Chagal and Rousseau.

Zoom in, though, and catch detail which the naked eye might generally miss. Other than delivering greater clarity, it really won't alter either the feeling derived or meaning projected in any significant way.

Zoom out, though, and suddenly you apprehend the actual what and where of this design: it is affixed to the exterior of a brick building (in this case in the Massachusetts town of Northampton).

Proving old Rod right: every picture truly does tell a story. To know which one, you have to have mastered the art of asking some basic questions. Like, for instance: "which one?"

Anyone with a camera can play this game (and probably should). Once one gets used to the logic of looking at what is excluded from the frame, it is only a skip to "well, what is it?" and then a jump over to the deeper query: "what are the ramifications of that exclusion?" (or conversely, its inclusion).

Doing so, one swiftly discerns that the picture-story relation falls into a number of types -- possibly akin to the three types of sign first identified by Peirce. Thus, you often encounter those images that are straight-forward, that tell the story complete on its surface. Something like the shot below, where all appears clear just from first gaze: there is little or no call for widening the off-frame field of vision.

Such photos, like this, are similar to iconic signs: they are depictions that bear an identity relationship with the thing that they represent. In this way, they don't make for great parlor-game fodder, for, there (almost all of) it is. Closed book. End of story.

Other photos, though, are more like indexical signs -- they are evidence of something else entirely -- and, so they enable a little more intra-cranial activity, a little more inter-intellectual interplay.

Still other pictures provide even less connectivity between image and referent (or in this case representation and story). There is either too much or too little information present, but whichever the case, much of that information is off screen, out of the picture, out of sight (out of mind?). In that way, the signs reflected are more like Peirce's symbolic signs: they are things not clear on the surface; invented representations, dependent on social accord; nearly arbitrary in their association to that which is captured on screen.

This notion of off-screen action, of multiple meanings in the on-screen image, of invented symbols associated with representation, got me thinking. Which, as those of you famililar with this blogspace know, is always a dangerous turn of events. But, here it comes: I was thumbing through a book of essays called Light Readings, by photo/cultural critic extraordinaire, A.D. Coleman. One essay, in particular, caught my attention; it expounded on the rules of engagement concerning what I would (charitably, perhaps) call "cultural reference". For Coleman, who was in little mood to be charitable) there was a troubling trend begun (in earnest) in the mid-1970s, whereby artists employed pre-made things (some simple objects, others actual photographs -- some already hanging in galleries!) as the base and launching pad for their subsequent photographic interventions. This development, Coleman asserted, rendered the artistic status -- if not moral standing -- of the derivative works questionable. Without naming names, he described the approach we now associate with Andy Warhol: whereby photographs appearing in a magazine are rendered as a silkscreen, enlarged, reproduced in geometric multiples, all having their own distinct coloration. This, Coleman argues is not art, but rather plagiarism. Nothing more or less. For, in the case of Warhol, the original photographer is neither cited nor consulted to see whether he wishes to be party to this second-generation "collaboration". Most importantly, but for the original, there could be no subsequent "work of art". Creative though it may seem to be.

Of course, we now find ourselves in the age of sampling, of piggy-backing, and endless cultural reference. An early incarnation -- from the 80s -- was Mark Knopfler's Money for Nothing, where Sting's backing vocals urged "I want my MTV" -- a reference to the music channel's tag line at the time, as well as being sung in tune with a tune of Sting's own Don't Stand So Close to Me. By the early 90s, rap was center stage in the cultural panoply, and replete with lyrics fronting prior hit songs. With movies, novels, Internet sites, (and blogs!) jumping into the act, the dividing line between homage and appropriation has faded to the opacity of rice paper. So much so that when Bruce Springsteen's latest song, Radio Nowhere, blasts out a chord progression reminiscent of a pop one-off [Jenny (867-5309)], we in his legion of fans or among the mass of Bruce appreciators wink and say "well, it's the Boss. He's a creative force who has no need to rip off a tune." So, even if we concede that he might appear to have done a spot of pinching here, we would likely insist "he is most likely paying tribute to a sound or a feeling or a moment. You know, like he did with Born to Run: playing off Phil Spector's 'Wall of Sound' thing of the early 60s." Besides, we would be quick to add, "pop is the last place that one would claim original ownership." After all, according to this wiki entry the guitar riff in Jenny, itself, is almost identical to one found at the end of the intro track on The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Bryan Adams Run to You, and The B-52's 6060-842.

So much for originality. And prior ownership. (And wouldn't you know it -- big surprise: The Beatles did it first).

Returning to Coleman, his beef was with those photographers who use someone else's picture to tell their story. My beef with this view is that, to some extent, that is what photography always is: using other people, situations and things to tell our story. To Coleman, the difference may be that when we snatch up our camera from the car seat and snap off a few shots out in the raw world beyond our lens we, whose fingers depress the shutter, are responsible for and actively engaged in the composition, configuration and look of whatever image results. Beyond the confluence of figures in space and time, we are not depending on any other author's intentional efforts to craft our tale.

Distinction may be possible, but as Coleman, himself, admitted, there are close calls and numerous points of contention. Warhol's Campbell Soup Cans may have been the portent, for, in our increasingly commercialized society, the opportunities for our pictures to tell someone else's story -- if only in our own way -- has increased exponentially. Consider the literally millions of logos and announcements and signboards in storefronts on the streets today. Are shots of them "art"?

In seeking to elevate them to artistic status, should we not acknowledge that we picture-takers are benefiting from the labors of others?: designers, painters, engineers, molders, installers, advertisers? Sure we should. Bringing us to the case that Coleman reserves his greatest scorn for: where photographers snap off shots of hanging prints in a gallery -- say the famous image found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by Hiroshi Sugimoto, below left . . .

Is that art? Sugimoto's photo obviously is. But the derivative rendition . . . what of that? It may not seem to be much of a call when the photographer is simply reproducing what is there. But then there is the case where the second shooter adds something that was not previously present. What do we do where the original is used to produce some new expressive figure entirely? Say, where Sugimoto's famous incandescent movie screen suddenly becomes transformed into the head of the photographer, himself -- captured here on the upper right. Art? Plagiarism? Free-loading? Exploitation? Simply flawed photographic technique? (And, be careful how you answer, you may be talking to the [sensitive] artiste, hizownse'f).

These, according to Coleman, are the close cases, the blurred boundaries, that -- though he found himself in opposition to back in '76, also gave him pause. This was the bold new world of expression that Coleman saw society rocketing toward in the 1970s and '80s. It is the world of representation that we have decidely been transported to and are now stranded in today.

Every picture may tell a story, but it is also the case that due to institutional, economic, political, social and moral factors, a picture may not always tell us the entire story. It is also the case, as we have just seen, that due to social (and political and economic and moral) trends, every picture may tell multiple stories. This is as much the result of the times -- the intellectual capacities we all now possess -- as the artist's tools. For these reasons (and more) one picture can now have multiple incarnations, hence liberating latent or previously dormant meanings . . . (in ways that, say, Monet's Rouen Cathedral series couldn't).

The same multiplicity of stories can also result from a single presentation: through the multiple intersections (and potential recombination) of source, medium, artist and audience . . .

Reminding the daily traveler that a picture may tell more stories than any single element privy to that complex combination may think is being told.

If true, this would suggest that, in the spirit of that grand old grad student parlor game, the best approach to adopt when regarding the pictures emerging from our peripatetic journeys is skepticism and flexibility, in equal measure.

Doing so we can be confident in saying that every picture tells a story, my friends . . . probably many stories.

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