Pictures as Frozen Narratives

Back in my consulting days, whenever we worked on creating compelling pitch slide decks for clients, we would remind ourselves of the old saying: “A picture is worth a thousand words” to cut down on too much text and grab attention with well-positioned infographics or photos. Despite this self-administered advice, of course, it usually depended on both the individuals we were pitching to and the complexity of the ideas we were trying to convey. Yet, when we got it right, we knew it. That the choice to freeze a particular part of our narrative into a single frame on a single slide had made all the difference. Those successes were incredibly rare, though, I must admit (for various reasons not relevant to this post).

The earliest popular usage of this theory seems to have been in the news journalism industry and, then, of course, the advertising industry. This makes sense as both media forms are about capturing mass attention quickly and amidst a lot of other competing alternatives.Aside: And, if you’re interested in finding some of the best photo-journalism online, here’s a great list.

Over the decades, photography evolved from this latter kind of utilitarianism to artistic expression to, well, what genre shall we call the “internet selfies”? Never mind. The important thing is that photography has become accessible to all due to affordable pro equipment (including growing functionality in ubiquitous mobile devices), digitization through easy-to-use and mostly free software and apps, and the internet as the primary means for distribution. Nowadays, the above adage even applies to online media, where bloggers and website creators are constantly exhorted to include pictures, videos, etc., on their pages to capture reader attention, giving rise to more and more stock photo sites, licensing issues and, of course, weird and wonderful captions. We won’t even go into video clips and gifs and suchlike for now.

Before we go any further, let me just say that I’m not suggesting, as Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, said during a recent press event of the popular Yahoo-owned photography site, Flickr, that “there’s no such thing as a professional photographer anymore” (to be fair, she did apologize on Twitter after there was a big outpouring of discontent across the internet about this remark and clarified that she meant there was no such thing as a pro photographer on Flickr anymore as all users had the same access. Nice save, but I don’t think people bought it.)

Walking around with cameras on our phones all day long, do we still appreciate the beauty of a well-shot photograph? Seeing the average of 50-100 pictures/day as we scan / browse our usual internet sites, are we becoming immune to their power? Do we pause for thought much anymore when we come upon those singular moments where people, places or things have been frozen in time like fairy-tales? Have we grown indifferent to the rare talents of composing and framing entire narratives in a single image because, now, anyone can now take and store terabytes worth of pictures forever?

Take this picture:

Pictures as Frozen Narratives
Photograph by Gilbert H. Grosvenor
[Source: National Geographic. An informal group portrait of a family with nine sons in Nova Scotia, Canada, March 1916. Photograph by Gilbert H. Grosvenor, National Geographic]

Nine sons. Five of them looking at the same off-camera point in the distance, even the little baby. What did they see to distract them so? Three of the boys weren’t even wearing warm coats. What were they up to that they couldn’t find their coats before getting in line for the photo? Or, perhaps there just weren’t enough warm coats to go around for all. And, the oldest boy had the youngest in his lap. He must have been the one who had to grow up quickly to take care of his brothers while the mother took care of the housework. How many of these boys survived to adulthood and beyond – what with the harsh winters of Nova Scotia and the hard graft poorer families had to put in?

Mother looking so grim and weary at the same time, mouth set firmly but arms hanging passively.

Father standing just that little bit aloof from his brood, staring straight into the camera but with that about-to-walk-off stance and the slightly bemused look that might be saying “I haven’t got all day for this picture-taking malarkey.”

Of course, part of why the photograph makes all those in it appear very still or stern is the camera equipment in those days – the exposure times required holding very still to avoid blurring.

And, while I’m no pro, I wonder about the photographer’s framing choices. Why he decided, for example, to have them all stand in a horizontal line vs the more common practice of a group sit-stand configuration. Why did he make the vast open white space take up so much of the top space, with just the faint outline of the mountains in the background? And so on. A professional photographer I once met remarked casually that framing is as much about what you leave out as what you include in your photograph. He might have been quoting someone else – I cannot recall. So, capturing a single moment like this in a memorable and thought-provoking way must have required so many micro-decisions.

For viewers like us, the non-experts, there are at least three things that happen with a great picture like this one.

First, it catches the imagination. As Joan Miró said:

You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.

[Source: Joan Miró: 1893-1983 (Basic Art) by Janis Mink, 1999]

Second, it makes us want to probe its secrets. As Diane Arbus said:

A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you, the less you know.

[Source: “Five Photographs by Diane Arbus.” Artforum, volume 9, May 1971]

And, third, like all great narratives, it enables us to bring the sum total of our experiences to it. You likely did not have the same sorts of questions or thoughts as mine when looking at this picture. Ansel Adams described this as follows when speaking about people taking photographs, but I believe it applies to how we view them as well.

You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.

[Source: The Camera, by Ansel Adams, 1995]

Pictures do tell a thousand words, but only when we take the time to thaw their frozen narratives into rivers of our own thoughts and words. Without that, the resounding silence kills not only the story that the photographer was trying to convey, but it also kills, within us, our own finer and natural narrative instincts and impulses.