Tuesday, May 24, 2005


They say one picture is worth a thousand words. It occurs to me that this maxim is true only if you and the picture speak the same language.

Here's an example of what I mean.

I was discussing with a friend of mine the other day an incident in which I was involved back in my college years — an incident catalyzed by a photograph. In the incident, another student and I became involved in a heated exchange because both of us looked at the same photograph and drew markedly different conclusions. I looked at the picture and saw a thousand words. He looked at the picture and saw, at most, a handful of words, none of which could be found among my thousand.

Why the difference?

When I looked at the picture, I saw the subject, because the subject was well known to me. I viewed the photograph through the lens of my experience — hundreds of thoughts, emotions, and memories that connected me with the subject, and that superimposed themselves upon my visual impression. I saw truth and beauty beneath the surface of the image, in the subtext, because I had intimate knowledge my disputant did not possess. I saw life and worth in the background because I had deep personal investment in that environment.

To my antagonist, who had no prior experience with the subject, the picture was just a picture. He could therefore only judge it on a superficial basis by the values he brought to it.

This is the reason, of course, that we say that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." It's the reason one art collector will pay thousands of dollars for a piece of cardboard or canvas with some ink or paint applied, where another wouldn't dream of spending a dime for the same piece. What speaks to one collector, who finds a visceral connection with the artist's vision or technique, or with the subject matter, may leave unimpressed one with different perspective.

What occasions this seemingly random musing, you ask? It so happens that as I compose this post, I'm looking at a recently created photograph depicting the same subject as the picture that caused such inflamed debate when I was but a lad. As things transpire in this world, much has changed in the subject since the original snapshot was taken more than 25 years ago. And yet, it's remarkable how little the changes affect my perception of — and appreciation for — the subject at hand.

If anything, my growth as a human being (in a quarter of a century, I should think I've grown) enables me to see even more in this picture than I could in the original, even as a lifelong admirer of the Renaissance masters perceives nuance and detail in their work that the uneducated eye cannot hope to find. I understand the subject better now than I did once. That understanding colors and flavors and enhances the time-altered image captured by the uncompromising eye of the camera, like Photoshop for the mind.

As was true of the original picture — whose existence is now lost to time and distant tide — this new photograph speaks to me a thousand words or more. Not surprisingly, in 25 years many of the words have changed. More surprising is the number that have not.

Like a rewritten arrangement of an old familiar standard, some notes are different. But I still recognize the song.

2 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Andy Saunders offered these pearls of wisdom...

Now I'm curious.

What's the picture about? Or is it not scanned/for general public consumption?

10:33 PM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Ah, but don't you see, Andy?

The subject of the picture is a MacGuffin. It doesn't matter what it is.

I wanted the post to be general enough that every reader could identify with it, and decide for him/herself what the picture is about. It could be anything.

(It isn't "anything," of course. There's a real picture with a real subject. But it's the principle, not the picture, that matters.)

1:50 AM  

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