The Thousand Word Picture

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0
Exhibit A: Akina from Akina Trip.

Let’s pick apart that saying, “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” Experience seems to teach us that this is true… but one can also argue that we’re discussing apples and oranges, media too different to truly reconcile with each other. The phrase “dancing about architecture” immediately comes to mind…

However, neither of these truisms are entirely true. Yes, pictures and words depend on different kinds and ranges of stimuli, and images often speaks to us in a manner quite different from text. The common wisdom is that images have an immediacy that text does not have – a belief that informs the aphorism we started off with. However, I would specify that the text-versus-image comparison is applied most often in terms of instruction, of a practical use for both kinds of media. A pictograph of a choking man does hit us faster and more powefully than a sign reading “Do Not Eat the Poisonous Mushrooms”. A map does make for easier comprehension than a set of oral directions.

So as I see it, the saying best applies to particular kinds of pictures supplanting particular kinds of words, and a whole lot narrower than most people would assume. The utility of pictures as a surrogate depends on simplicity and clarity: a simple topographical map of an area may not be as helpful as a simple list of directions, after all. You’d need a map that was specifically suited to your needs. For that matter, an ideogram of a man choking may not be very clear to everyone – maybe someone could see it and think, “The man is putting his hands to his chest because he loves what he’s tasting!” (Think of how easy it is to misinterpret ideograms in day-to-day life, if you’re of a willful enough bent.) More explanation would certainly be helpful in these scenarios – and that’s why text and images are often used together, to buttress each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Exhibit B: Berryz Koubo from their first photobook.

Now how about the aesthetic judgment implicit in the saying? That is, a “picture is worth a thousand words” seems to tell us a picture has an immediacy, a power, that requires a wealth of words to capture. That images have a certain semiotic fullness and clarity, while words need to be piled up on each other to even begin to match that power.

My response: so what? If we explore this comparison, one word is like one brush stroke in a painting, or one element of a photograph. A painting requires many brush strokes to complete, photographs require many elements to be well composed and interesting to look at, and a passage of often text requires many words to create its effect in the reader’s head. That is, from an aesthetic perspective, this comparison of numbers – one picture, a thousand words – may be itself a false categorization. Why not “one picture is worth one textual passage” or “a thousand brush strokes is worth a thousand words”? That seems a more even playing field rhetorically.

Further, once we stray from the solid ground of words and/or pictures used for simple information and into something more creative, more allusive and ambiguous, we must necessarily rely on individual instances and not the kind of media employed. A painting like Gerhard Richter’s Kerze series is slow and meditative – it takes us in and invites us to stare, ponder. In contrast, the writing of Dashiell Hammett is more immediate, more forcefully dynamic. And it’s just as easy to find a reversal of this point: Andy Warhol’s pop art versus Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, for example.

Exhibit C: Rika from Chain! Chain! Chain!

I could go on, but I think my point is made enough: like any other saying, the truth in the statement “a picture is worth a thousand words” is contextual at best. We make use of it as we will, but should be careful in doing so. Ultimately, the trope “1 pictre = 1000 words” is just that – a trope, a figure of speech. An image can be worth zero or tens of thousands of words, depending on its composition and its impact on the viewer. As a writer, as a Jpop blogger in particular, the trope gives me a handy benchmark. When I look at pictures through this prism, I realize that Jpop has its own peculiarities to consider.

We live in an intensely visual culture, and the vast majority of still images simply don’t call for much focused attention or critical acuity. Unless you want to play wild and free in the semiotic fields – and most of us seem to want to in this postmodern world (myself included) there’s a certain utility and bang-for-the-buck mentality in our visual culture that detracts from the complexity that requires a thousand words to describe. Part of it is because our visual culture has in many ways moved past the still image and towards moving images. Another part is that our culture of accelerated thrills and instant gratification doesn’t reward sticking around too long – you see an image, it has its “impact” on you, and you move on. Even visual irony is often played out simply: not as a complex weave of ambiguous responses, but as a straightforward reversal of expectations, the simple gag cartoon as opposed to the tableaus of Bosch.

Exhibit D: Sayumi from the Ecomoni photobook Angels.

A picture worth a thousand words is a difficult task to pull off, requiring the right combination of creativity, skill, and context. And in saying that much of our visual culture doesn’t have many such images, I’m speaking in terms of proportion – so in a world where we encounter thousands of visual examples a day, I’m sure there are still dozens that pass our eyes and may or may not get the attention they deserve. There is a satisfaction in lingering over a beautiful image – whether a photo or painting or even a moment in a video – that not only provokes a deep emotional reaction, but also a deeply intellectual one. It is worth pausing and appreciating, if we had the time and the wherewithal to recognize its value.

But ultimately, swooning over my Berryz calendar is one thing; mining that imagery for broader pop cultural significance is a slightly different ball of idol wax. However, that didn’t mean Jpop is completely bereft of such images. Can a bikini shot – or any other eyecandy cheesecake shot – be worth a thousand of my words? Are idols able to provide thousand word pictures, works of visual complexity and richness?

Exhibit E: SweetS from the cover of Lolita Strawberry in Summer.

Most definitely. After all, I can think of a dozen or so that have burned into my memory and imagination in the past several years. They’ve become totemistic for me, often becoming wallpaper on the computer or PDA, or carried as a file I can look at once in a while, or even hanging on my wall as a poster.

As a genre, Jpop is intensely visually-oriented – as are all kinds of pop music.The depth of commerialization and merchandising relies on a kind of iconography with the idols themselves, with how they present themselves and in what context they sell their image. However, the emphasis on commercial concerns also means it often isn’t a complex iconography: from a marketing perspective, you would want the imagery of Jpop to carry the right signals and have some novelty, but also appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Too much obscurity or ambiguity is simply bad for business.

However, Jpop sometimes does have iconography and imagery that is striking and extraordinary – thousand-word pictures, so to speak – and this is as true for still photography as in their PVs. Certain things contribute to this effect: the possibility of narrative, attention to detail, cultural allusions, and self-reflexivity are four criteria I’d start with. All of the photos I’m including here are worth at least a thousand words to me. The reasons why – the emotional response, the critical picking-apart, the associations they bring up in my head… well, that’s the fun part of it.

I think if I choose one important image from Jpop a week, I’ll probably run out of thousand word pictures in three or four months. Or who knows? Maybe learning to look and appreciate and write in this manner will open up a wealth of possibilities, open my eyes to complexities I’ve yet to notice. That would be a reward in its own right, as well.

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3 Responses to “The Thousand Word Picture”
  1. Chuck says:

    This is probably a little less philosophical than where you were aiming, but the “worth a thousand words” originally did have a specific context. It comes from advertising. The idea it was meant to convey is that you can write 10,000 words about your product, but it won’t have the visceral impact of one good picture.

    I think that’s really the point of it: A picture may not convey as much information as a thousand words (or it might, depending on the picture and the thousand words), but you can accomplish something with a picture that you couldn’t with a thousand words.

  2. P. says:

    What about comics?

  3. P:

    As Scott McCloud pointed out, much of the meaning in comics lies in the gutters – thousands upon thousand of words worth of meaning between each panel when in the right hands.

    From my grad school days, I remember a study conducted once on how experienced comic readers look at a comics page – it’s a constant shifting from elements of images to elements of text. In the particular way it’s constructed and consumed, comics are a unique medium.