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Friday, August 18, 2006

Words and Pictures

In amongst the spirited comments in the "What Message Does a Photograph Communicate?" thread, Svein-Frode wrote, "Beyond a photograph's function to show how something looks like (photographed), the message will be more open to interpretation (much like written language in the form of a poem) as the visual codes are less standardised (compared to alphabetical characters, musical notes and more simple icons/signs). Written language, on the other hand, will have difficulty explaining exactly how something looks like."

He's sure right about that. Sometimes we humans seem to have difficulty getting over our own categories. Back when I was at Photo Techniques magazine, we had terrible difficulty selling ads to Kodak because Kodak couldn't figure out if our publication was directed at professionals or advanced amateurs ("AdAms" in Kodakspeak), a dichotomy it had imposed upon the world from within its own gates. The Publisher kept asking me, and I'd always shrug and say, "both." Which was not what the publisher wanted to hear. He and the ad sales folks spent a lot of time trying to convince Kodak that we fell into the "professional" category, because Kodak's professional divisions might have let some advertising crumbs fall our way. (They never did, as things turned out, but we never stopped trying.)

Baby Z

More recently, I've been trying to pitch a book about my son's birth that is equal parts text and pictures. You know, an illustrated book? The idea was to tell Zander's story in extended picture captions (an abbreviated version of this idea was published in last February's issue of Black & White Photography magazine). That might not seem like such a difficult concept, but the gatekeepers at the publishing houses had all sorts of problems with it. Was I trying to sell a written book, or a book of photographs? Well, neither, but both. Pictures with words. Words with pictures. You know.

Fuggeddabouddit. It didn't fit any categories, and thus would suffer the worst fate of all for a book project: bookstores wouldn't know what section to put it in. There is no surer death-knell for a book project than that.

Finally I got a real "in": a personal introduction to an editor at Oprah's "O" magazine from a friend. I sent her my pitch for an article, carefully explaining the words-and-pictures concept. Silence. Finally I got a message back: she liked my pictures and would pass my tears along to the photography editor in case they ever had any work for me.


Sometimes I can't communicate even with words, I guess.

One phenomenon I've noted with interest recently is that when a non-fiction book does particuarly well, sometimes an illustrated version will come out later. This was the case with James M. MacPherson's excellent Battle Cry of Freedom, Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, all four excellent books as text-only (or "text-mostly") as they were published, but even better illustrated. Evidently this is something book-buyers can handle: once they already know the book, pictures don't confuse them into thinking the text is an afterthought. (More candidates for an illustrated version: Gary Kinder's Ship of Gold on the Deep Blue Sea and William Bryant Logan's remarkable little book Oak: The Frame of Civilization).

Svein-Frode's philosophical stance is of course the correct one, although he didn't put it this simplisitically: words and pictures do different things well, and in the right circumstances can complement each other.

Screen-shot of a spread from my book Lenses and the Light-Tight Box



Blogger Paul said...

That's interesting you bring this up Mike. I have a question for you - do you think it's possible to be both a great photographer and a great writer? They are both things that I have shown some promise in (as of this afternoon almost totally unfulfilled). I thought for a while that using both I could explain something in a way that I couldn't with just one or the other.

Or maybe more like: I don't know why I have to choose. Although sometimes you find yourself with two hands in two different parts of a project and you really aren't doing either of them practically.

I was inspired by Linda Butler's book Yangtzee Remembered, which is still one of my absolute favorite books of photography. The book has extensive captions with the photographs. Still they are mostly captions.

Anyway, I'd love to hear your opinion on this.

Paul Mcevoy
paulmcevoy75 {[at]}

8:11 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Ya got me. Wright Morris is the one who comes to mind as equally good at both. Walker Evans was a good writer but he didn't write much. One of my teachers, Mark Power, is good at both--he did a series called "The Victor Carroll series" that used both. W.G. Sebald had a great way of writing about and around picutres, but I don't think he was a photographer. I suspect the only way to be known as both is to work out a style or way of working that includes both as your "medium" of expression, so that somehow neither one gets precedence over the other. I don't think there are a lot of [successful] models for this sort of thing, though.

You know, though, it should be more possible now than it ever has been before to work with both media, since, before digital, it took so much more dedication to be a serious photographer. I was just much more of a chore. Maybe this will be an area where digital actually changes things besides movie special effects and commercials.


9:57 PM  
Blogger Ted Kostek said...

The most interesting thing about your post is that people have fixed categories, and anything that doesn't fit the category must be rejected.

On a practical level, we have to do that to survive; you can't constantly re-examine *everything* and constantly re-adapt your entire conceptual framework.

On the other hand, you better do it *sometimes*.

Tricky bit is knowing when it's time for new categories.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Dierk Haasis said...

The most famous example of the words-only-then-illustrate-it:

Stephen Hawkin's A Brief History of Time.

2:09 AM  
Blogger eric kellerman said...

Words and image: One thing (amongst many) that constantly gets my goat is The Tyranny of Titles. Titles force the reader/viewer to interpret the photo in a particular way, even if the photographer is being ironic or downright whimsical. My favourite example of such tyranny is a photograph of a sullen, emotionless young man staring at the camera, holding a bucket with domestic rubber gloves. Instead of being titled 'Bob', or 'Sullen Man with Bucket and Rubber Gloves', we got somethng like 'Prisoner, Newgate Jail, Pottingham, UK, January 3, 2001'. A clear case of the title being longer than the photograph.

4:00 AM  
Blogger eolake said...

A wonderful book about words and pictures together is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. It is about much deeper understanding than what's in the comics (it's not about that at all), and it is a non-fiction book made in comic book form!

11:47 AM  
Blogger eolake said...

"Or maybe more like: I don't know why I have to choose."

This almost made me scream... you're a "scanner". Look at and buy her book "Refuse to Choose"!

11:48 AM  
Blogger m. said...

There's no reason you can't be both a great writer and a great photographer, depending on how you define "great." It'd be pretty rare to have the kind of talent in multiple fields, but think of Michaelangelo or da Vinci.

But I hate to think of the work it would be to market both your writing and your photography.

1:15 PM  
Blogger nvonstaden said...

One of my first books into understading my profession...photojournalism is "Word and Pictures"An Intro to Photojournalism..,The literature of Pictures by the renowned editor of Life mag, the AP and Univ of Miami teacher... Wilson Hicks. Its a old book 1973 but he lesson are good to hear again..and again....and

3:47 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

I made an error, the site is

Seriously, if are one of those people who are always told "you must concentrate on ONE thing!", then Barbara Sher and her book "Refuse to Choose" is for you.

10:04 AM  

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