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Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

A picture can be worth a thousand words or even more but, as I will argue, that depends on who looks at it, why they look at it, and in what circumstances. In other words, a picture’s meaning is relative to the viewer, and changes as the viewer changes.

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Once upon a time pictures had a significance greater than themselves but that was when only the most skilled artists working in a difficult medium were able to produce them. Now pictures are everywhere we look and their significance has diminished as a result.

We take them for granted, we no longer study them but give them a quick, practiced glance and move on to the next picture. Some pictures will hold our attention for a little longer because the subject is unusual or amusing but mostly we see pictures as we see cars, people, traffic lights, and buildings. They’re part of our environment and hardly register in our consciousness. In the public sphere, then, pictures are mostly background colors consisting of advertisements, posters and billboards. These pictures are not meant to do more than direct our attention to the brand name.

In some countries, public pictures include portraits of dictators that are designed to unify people or make them accept the dictator as their rightful leader or make them more obedient to the leader. Propaganda posters may also brighten those streets, along with social realist depictions of model citizens. Such pictures are easily recognized as having a message and are thus negated, canceled out by people who have been bombarded with too many pictures like them.

Private pictures, such as a drawing made by a child or photos of our loved ones fascinate us because they bring back memories or mark an occasion or may even fill us with the love and tenderness we feel for those persons. However, that is a highly subjective response, one that certainly does not hold true everywhere and at all times. In these pictures, only the subject speaks to us, and if we know the subject well, if we are emotionally involved with him or her, then that is what we think about or why we feel the way we do. In those pictures, it is the subject that communicates, not the picture itself.

We go to a museum to look at paintings but there it is the making of the picture that most interests the viewer. A painter does not just point and click. He or she must first learn the techniques required to paint a picture, and after that must make a thousand different decisions about the picture to be painted. The pose, the angle from which the subject is viewed, the lighting, the composition, and much more are worked out in quick sketches.

The end product is a human artifact, something created mostly by the artist’s hands with a little help from the industry. We look at the picture but also at the other aspects of the work. Students spend years copying masterpieces in order to learn the techniques employed by these artists, and as part of their studies, they interpret the paintings in the context of the artist’s time and his other works until by the end the picture speaks volumes to them. For most viewers, however, the experience of looking at Rembrandt or Vermeer is one of wonder; but are they more interested in the image or the draftsmanship?

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Where photos and paintings are equal, however, is that the more the viewer brings to them, the more they will get out of them. That is not just true of pictures but also of visiting the places we have only seen in pictures. Perhaps so many tourists take pictures of the places they visit to look at them later when they are back in the comfort and safety of their own homes.

There, relaxed and with far more knowledge of those places, they can look at the pictures and get a new story from them made up equally of the subject and their experience of it; or to put it another way, they can see how their travels have changed them by looking at the pictures, and what the picture tells them will reflect those changes.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 17). Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/is-a-picture-worth-a-thousand-words/

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