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When Words and Images Collide

“Thought is impossible without an image.” Aristotle

A lone man stands stock-still before an armored tank, daring it to move forward, small yet large in his defiance. That picture, a frozen moment from the student uprising in Tiananmen Square, resides indelibly in the minds of all who gazed upon the portrait of singular courage. But now try to remember the headline that accompanied the photograph displayed above the fold in the morning paper. Try to recall the caption below that defined the image, the body copy running in column inches beside and beyond that detailed the drama. Odds are all those hundreds of words, painstakingly selected, words that loaded the picture with meaning, put it into cultural context, have faded from thought, while the image remains.

But fret not the forgetting; it is simply a part of the human condition. Because, as visually oriented systems, humans are programmed to store more pictures than text in their long-term memories. In fact, according to research cited by educational psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University, the average person remembers only 30 percent of what is read, but nearly 80 percent of what is seen.

Why is it then, given the quantifiable and undeniable persistence of visual messages, that pictures are so often regarded as mere supplements to the text? Why, for centuries on end in Western civilization, has the word lorded over the image in the hierarchy of communication?

Blame it on Gutenberg.

For tens of thousands of years before clever Johann reached into this tray of moveable type and composed a revolution, the visual ruled supreme in the realm of communication. Since the time when the Cro-Magnon cave painters of southern France first dipped their fingers into wetted earth and covered the wall with pictorial displays of their hunting prowess – an act the philosopher Marshall McLuhan declared the dawn of advertising – symbols and images, mediated by artists and laden with thought, gave humans their understanding of the world. Cultural critics, looking down from the intellectually arrogant vantage point of the 21st century, desparagingly refer to such image-only societies as “pre-literate” – a term that only underscores the critics’ own bias toward the written word. Yet these were visually literate societies, fully capable of conveying complex ideas solely through the arrangement and juxtaposition of images; even if they existed, no written words were needed.

The ancestors of those ancient French artists live on in the guise of modern advertising art directors, who, as Stuart Ewan, author of Consuming Images notes, still ably demonstrate the persuasive power of purely visual communications. Then as now, Ewan says, “there’s an assumption that if you really want to move people, don’t use words, use images. There’s this sense that symbols and images have a force of persuasion which is undeniable.” But from print ad back to cave painting, what infused those wordless communications with power was a shared recognition of what each image represented, and a culturally agreed-upon interpretation of the greater meaning that was signified by their linkage. That commonality of understanding between artist and audience, that connected through-relationship between sender and receiver, was and remains the basic tenet of effective communication: after all, the word itself is derived straight form the Latin “communis,” or common.

And there’s a certain irony in the fact that the little letters that would eventually form “words” first came into this world as images, the inspired work of Phoenician graphic designers who, around 1000 BC, set out to create a visual identity system for the daily encountered stuff of life. The original meanings conveyed by their elegant drawings can still be detected in their modern-day lineage, whether it is the gentle waves of the Mediterranean captured in the undulations of the letter “m,” the Phoenician sign for “mem” or water, or the intense, wide-open gaze of the letter “o,” the sign for the eye. And while those individual letter-pictures would some day grow up to be words, then further mature into complete written languages, reaching a first apex in classical Greece, the child was never seen as supplanting the authority of the parent. In the Greek pantheon of communications, text and picture ruled side-by-side, inseparably linked, culturally equal. As the philosopher Aristotle succinctly noted, “There is no word without an image.”

But on to Gutenberg. After thousands of years of peaceful co-existence, Johann’s magic printing machine would disrupt the harmonious balance between words and images. Suddenly, text-based communications had a quick and easy method of dissemination; development of an equally efficient means of reproducing the color, depth, form and movement of visual communications would languish far behind. Now, as words sped out of the printer’s blocks, leaving images in a cloud of ink, the former partners found themselves pitted in a race for cultural superiority. Text crossed the finish line first, pictures came in a distant second, and the result was a one-two hierarchy that would remain for centuries to come – and an intellectual valuing of words over images that would be passed on from generation to generation.

To a toddler, “a b c d e f g” is merely the first line of a nonsense song, and watching an adult draw a “z” is simply witnessing a graphic artist at work. But soon the child is presented with an alphabet picture book, shown that “a is for apple, b is for ball,” and gradually comes to understand these letter-pictures having meaning beyond their own aesthetically pleasing lines. Once that connection is firmly made, however, the child is taught to put the picture book away, because the “chapter” book, filled with page after page of imageless text, is somehow believed to be of greater worth as an intellectual pursuit. And yet, as educational researchers W. H. Levie and R. Lentz suggest, that artificial valuing of text over pictures, and the diminished role visual communication has come to play in the educational process, may in fact be a detriment to learning. In an intriguing study reported in Educational Communications and Technology, Levie and Lentz presented students with information in two forms, text only and text with illustrations, then tested the two groups on comprehension. Significantly, scores for the group using the illustrated texts were 36% higher than the text-only group.

Despite such findings, in the dance of communication, words continue to lead, images follow. But there are indications that, after centuries of subservience, visual communication may be regaining equality and, indeed, asserting dominance. Spurred on the by the rapid development of imaging technologies in the 20th century, from television to advanced print production, accelerated by the proliferation of picture-rich computer-based media such as CD-ROMs and the Internet, the world of communication is once more becoming visually intensive, and the culture as a whole is reawakening to the realization that ideas expressed purely through images, as philosopher Suzanne Langer notes, “are just as capable of articulation, i.e. of complex combinations, as words.” Still, vestiges of the old world order remain: the Wall Street Journal, staunch defender of conservatism, refuses to let the sanctity of its word-dominated front page be defiled by images, continues to hold them down to a reduced role of engraved embellishments, banishes the pictures to the back of the paper. Yet the computer-fueled collision of images and words only promises to restore the lost partners to a shared throne of authority – and bring back to the forefront Aristotle’s long suppressed vision, that “thought is impossible without an image.”


About markwalston

Writer, historian, creative director, poet, playwright, author of nine books and nearly 200 essays and articles exploring a broad range of American social, cultural and historical topics.


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