thinking with pictures

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Picture first or text first?

clipart of easel for picture making

picture first?

picture of non-Latin keyboard: Tamil, a Dravidian language of S. India

words first?








Very often when putting together a slideshow or writing an essay, the images play a supporting role; that is, they follow from the statements made or questions posed. Or they could be a prompt from which the verbal elaboration stems. Less commonly the images lead and the patterns that they convey are then spelled out derivately from the images. So when there is a big pool of images such as a photo sharing site like flickr or picasaweb, or the physical equivalent found in a stack of back issues to National Geographic Magazine or pile of books pulled from the section for photography, then one can rapidly browse through the pictures. One may begin to discern a pattern to the images that arrest one’s attention; the combination of subject, light and color, framing and moment of shutter release that speaks to one somehow.

At times perhaps only part of the picture makes sense or speaks the language one can understand and respond emotionally or intellectually to. But at other times the whole thing articulates something meaningful and possibly beyond the power of words to describe. In that sense the artful bringing together of the elements that compose the image is similar to religion: it allows communication that goes beyond the spoken or written channel.

There is a winnowing process that takes place when browsing a stream of photos or the lived experiences in the stream of one’s life, whether recorded by camera lens or by notebook or memory alone. This filtering of meaning from dross is similar to the power of social media: human eyes and minds determine which materials are relatively high or low value. And by keeping records of what things (photographs, youtube videos, slideshare presentations, website search results) then the vast ocean of material can be usefully and incrementally sorted into that which has more meaning or less meaning relative to the rest of the materials.

So the next time your eye is drawn to a scene or you venture out with camera in hand in search of light and composition and juxtaposition, consider whether you are seeking an illustration to an idea or statement or question that is in your mind (picture as visual embodiment to verbal notion), or whether the image is primary and the verbal part follows and supports that compelling visual statement. Does the picture speak to you, or does it instead echo what was written or spoken beforehand?


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Your camera as algorithm

On the photo sharing site flickr there is an option to mark “favorite” those photos you find to be compelling for whatever reason. After collecting enough of these you can then review your virtual museum of visual treasures and possibly discover a few common themes or elements that seem to define what it is about the collection that your mind recognizes as significant, delightful or important; what “speaks” to you.

The same is true of your own set of images, not just those curated from others cameras and posted to one of the social media photo sharing services. The mighty search engines sift the usage choices among people online to determine even the faintest traces of significance from the oceans of data. From the patterns and relationships that emerge certain algorithms are created and constantly refined almost instantly as more usage behavior is recorded and sorted automatically. Something similar happens with the photographer’s eye: there is a sorting process for recognizing scenes, moments and compositions. Not all visual subjects go through the complete passage from seeing to capture to print (or online publication) to exhibition and critics’ review. But perhaps a similar process is at work: one’s eye develops, as does one’s power to capture what is imagined through the constraints of a given camera and workflow routine. And as one’s abilities mature to go from spark of creative idea to the final public sharing, this algorithm for refining the one’s themes also grows clearer and more prominent until the point when one can perhaps become aware of what it is that seems to draw one’s attention and reveal new meanings.

composite picture of online albums at my login on picasaweb

sets of photos at

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Lens as curator in the Museum of Life

collage of images marked "favorite"

flickr “favorites” pattern emerges

One begins at the far end of a lens; first meeting a camera while only an infant in many cases. Later in life one may become curious and peer through the other side of the lens and one day be given a camera of one’s own to play with. Many people are bitten by the photography bug and find meaning in the hobby or even therapeutic power in articulating single frames or entire story sequences visually, either for personal significance or to share with others in person or online.

In the course of taking pictures of favorite people, places and things (the proper nouns of one’s world) eventually a sizeable collection accumulates. Then, much like the curator of a collection at a museum, the photographer is faced with the challenge of organizing the content: sorting images that are usable, can be given away as mementoes, ones that exhibit a set of meanings most clearly from ones that are less effective. In the end a few of the images will be shared, while most will be saved and a few will be deleted or destroyed altogether.

Thinking back to the first few cameras that I worked with and my appetite to flip through back issues of the National Geographic Magazine, I can now see how the photos that I viewed and the ones that I then took somehow corresponded: of the many that I viewed, only a few arrested my attention. Of the many visual experiences, only a few called me to raise camera to eye and release the shutter. In sum the lens has given tangible form to things unspoken or too vast to articulate verbally, yet in the fraction of a second some of that meaning can be telegraphed visually. The lens allows us to see patterns and themes that speak to us, but which otherwise are too diffuse and subtle to perceive ordinarily in the flow of lived experience. Just as a curator plucks what best communicates an idea from the storehouse of collections, so too does the lens pluck what is meaningful from the stream of experience: the composition and photo making process results in stacks of images, much like a museum collection from which one portion can go into the gallery for public engagement and comment.

Extending the metaphor of lens as curator further, we can consider the entire life cycle of the museum enterprise. Once a collection has formed, then a suitable site to archive, research and exhibit the materials follows. In other words, the discovery and collecting phase is only the beginning. Working with the collections to find patterns and meanings inductively, then drawing inferences and tracing deductions is the next phase. And finally there is the presentation, publication and exhibition that completes the life cycle; for without communicating the findings and subject, the value of the undertaking is limited.

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fable of eight visions

The panorama view shows the gift shop of the train station at Sapporo, Japan on the island of Hokkaido in April 2009. To the Japanese or foreign visitor in search of a snack or a gift to bring home, the scene is well stocked and well staffed. To the day’s workers at the shop it is just another shift to do: restock the displays, tidy the selections, respond to the shoppers and perhaps keep an eye out for shoplifters. A vendor sees something different: she or he looks for the company presence within the shop and checks to see whether inventory can be extended or shelfspace be expanded. A market researcher seeks answers to the questions about who is attracted to which products and why. Among writers there are four sorts to contrast: journalist, novelist, historian, and social analyst such as ethnographer.

JR Sapporo market for local products (omiage) - 3/2009.