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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Shrieking Shrubbery

Every time I see that silly word "imagery," I think of Monty Python and "shrubbery."

Here's the American Heritage English Dictionary definition (AHED) of "imagery":

im•age•ry
n., pl. -ries.

1. A set of mental pictures or images.

2.
a) The use of vivid or figurative language to represent objects, actions, or ideas.
b) The use of expressive or evocative images in art, literature, or music.
c) A group or body of related images, as in a painting or poem.

3.
a) Representative images, particularly statues or icons.
b) The art of making such images.

4. Psychology.
A technique in behavior therapy in which the patient uses pleasant fantasies to relax and counteract anxiety.

As you can pretty plainly see, the use of the word "imagery" to mean photographs or pictures (or even "images"!) is pretty close to a misnomer. It's at least awkward. If not unintentionally stupido.

A little history: photographers used to take photographs. But when photography entered art museums and academe in the 1960s, some of the artworks exhibited as "photography" by "photographers" weren't entirely or completely photographic; therefore, gallery owners, museum curators, and art critics began referring to these as "images." And because the snooty, high-class culture-vultures were suddenly seen and heard here, there, and everywhere calling pictures "images," pretty soon it became pseudo-proper for the pretentious and the anxious to do so as well.

And since even "image" isn't enough for some peoples' image, we get "imagery," which is properly an English word referring to mental pictures or artistic symbolism or iconography.

Nothing I say is going to change the habits of the lexicographically inept and the etymologically ill-informed. But the next time you see the word "imagery," may you hear me in your mind's ear shrieking, "SHRUBBERY!"

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

17 Comments:

Anonymous Terry said...

Yes, I would agree that it seems not quite the right word. In fact, in my 25 years in book publishing, I've never heard it used that way. We call them "images" as a matter of course, but never thought it "snotty." But now that I think about it, whenever we slip and refer to them simple as "your pictures" or "your photos", the photographers that we work with often look askance.

5:02 PM  
Anonymous James G said...

I guess it's just part of the effort of photographers to be taken seriously and not be seen as 'lesser beings' in the 'art world'. Personally I'm never sure what photographers mean when they describe their work as 'Fine Art Photography', but I'm still free to appreciate the work, or not, whatever they call it.

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most important use is that it gives reviewers and critics another word to use in addition to "his pictures" or "his photographs."

6:55 PM  
Blogger Ulli Mueller said...

I'd love to hear your opinion on the term "Fine Art Photographer" and/or "Fine Art Photography", to me this exercise in "self-labeling" seems much more pretentious that using a term like "images". However, I am not a native speaker. Please discuss, thanks.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Yeah, I've never liked "fine art photography" either (I always think, "we'll be the judge of that!"-g-), although it's a useful distinction. Of course, if I had my way, there are a lot of terms in photography I'd change.

--Mike

8:34 PM  
Blogger imants said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The word image has been used to describe photographs long before museums got hold of it. The word image, as relating to photography, has been in use since 1839!

-Dennis

7:08 AM  
Anonymous chris irwin said...

I'd like to nominate the following as photographic words we could do without:

'giclee' (vs. 'inkjet')
'maker' (vs. 'photographer')
'worker' (ditto)
'noise at iso 1600' (grrrr)
'per pixel sharpness' ( step AWAY from the computer!)

7:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as photography is concerned, I'd like to reserve "image" for stuff that gets massaged through image editing programs like Photoshop--as in "digital image"--and retain "photograph" for optical/chemical photographs...but that's me. (Yeah, I just can't let go of it.)

I make a point of never using the word "art" in connection with my photographs or anybody else's. A whole load of crap just slides away if I avoid "art," and I find anything I really want to say about a photograph can be said by holding to "photograph" and "photography."

8:10 AM  
Blogger eolake said...

You know what's worse? People using "literally" when they mean "practically". And people calling orange soda "orange juice".

9:41 AM  
Blogger Dave New said...

My own peeve comes from a friend in the newspaper industry, "key issue". He insisted that something that is an "issue" is already "key", and vice versa.

No need for the redundancy.

Now everytime I encounter this, it grates on my nerves.

10:20 AM  
Anonymous Len said...

"I'd like to reserve "image" for ..."

Are the 2 processes really different enough to warrant different names, though?

In one, photons cause a molecular reaction which is made visible by a series of chemical reactions.

In the other, photons cause a molecular reaction which generates an electric charge, which is read then made visible by a series of mathematical functions - and, if you choose to print the results, various chemical reactions.

Whenever a "film person" tries to tell me how different my camera is from his, I explain how in many ways digital is really just a different type of film ... possibly having a dSLR helps in that regard, since physically they're more like a "real camera" and less like the expected "magic box".

1:33 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Dave,
...Or one Phil Davis told me about, "one of the only," which should be "one of the few"; and one that gets me when I read it, "thought to myself." Who ELSE do you think to?!? "Thinking out loud" is the one that needs the distinction.

A much less egregious example is "friend of mine," which always has a hint of grandiosity about it. It's no howler--it can also usefully distinguish between the writer or speaker's own friends and the friends of someone else--but often, just plain "friend" would do.

It's tough being sensitive to language. Then again, it's tough being sensitive to anything. (g)

--Mike

4:04 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Terry,
I don't think it's automatically snotty when anyone uses it--just pointing out that it's a "social marker word" that is quickly diffusing downward. Pretty soon the drugstore will be calling the snapshooter to tell her that her "images" are ready.

Another really regrettable trend is "guest" used for "customer." When I go to Target, I ain't nobody's dang guest!

--Mike

4:10 PM  
Blogger imants said...

too bad you deleted my comment it was not derogative but I guess it is your say and form of censorship

5:14 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Imants,
It was politically provocative, and needlessly so. I ran a strongly partisan political blog for over a year, and I've promised people there will be no politics on this blog.

--Mike

10:10 AM  
Anonymous A.N said...

Mike,
While you are at it, how about the obviuosly wrong usage of "different than", instead of the correct "different from" or "different to"? And why do we need to say "off of", when "off" would be just fine, like in "the ball came off the bat"? Maybe, these are "outside of" the topic, but I couldn't resist a dig at these kind of silly usages spreading like the bird flu, with no known antidote!

3:35 AM  

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