Friday, December 23, 2011


"A picture is worth a thousand words."

Well, maybe. A picture can be worth almost nothing; take a look at 100 random images on Flickr, and you'll see that very few of the site's 6 billion images are worth more than a sentence.

But, when properly applied, a single image can replace thousands of words. I probably read through several thousand words of blog posts, forum posts, and old newspapers to trace the former Green Line branch that once surfaced at what is now Eliot Norton Park in the Theater District. Descriptions of streetcar lines and that "...the right tracks went under the grade of the left tracks and split, with the left branch going to City Point outbound..." are simply insufficient to describe a complex, multilevel three-dimensional track crossover - particularly one that has not been seen in 4 decades and thus no good pictures exist.

If I may toot my own horn a moment, then take a look at this map that I created. I designed it to quickly show a viewer which tracks went where, and in what configuration. In this case, it tells the reader as much as those thousands of words of prose and even more than the few grainy photographs available. It does not replace them; it cannot entirely replace a picture, however poor quality, that shows the actual tunnel rather than simply a schematic. It is helpful, too, to know that the Orange Line connected to the portal between 1901 and 1908, or that the #43 streetcar to Lenox Street was the last route to use the portal. Even when included with the images (as I did with the Orange Line), it still requires text. But the map both elucidates and replaces text, and thus the old maxim holds in this case.

Of course, pictures can replace words without being merely informative. A picture of, perhaps, a lonely pond can show desperation and loneliness just as a poem or story could. Our vision is one of our most powerful senses; like taste and smell, it can have a strong correlation with memory. How else, for example, could my father recognize a cousin that he had not seen in decades? His brain could combine old images with its knowledge of aging and provide a plausible composite which it then compared with each passerby until it found a match.

The human face, in particular, is a subject where image is superior to the written word. One ran write about a person and get a reasonably accurate portrait of their body, their mind, their mannerisms and even their voice. But the face is a masterpiece of subtlety; tiny variations cause huge changes in the way it is perceived. A few millimeters in the symmetry of the features and the relative locations of nose, mouth, and eyes is much of the difference between average and beauty, or especially between merely beautiful and truly gorgeous. Emotion is written almost entirely in our faces: the way the eyes change direction, the separation of the lips, and the minor movement of the eyebrows can signal almost anything. The features are difficult to quantify and even more difficult to describe in a nonvisual medium; the mediocre artist will find themself able to produce a tolerable if slightly lopsided facsimile of the human body, but the face will be downright unrecognizable. Much artistic skill is required even for the most basic outline, and even more if that outline is via prose, yet even the grainiest photograph provides instant recognition.

So a picture can be worth one word, or a thousand, or more than any writing could ever produce. A poor graphic, perhaps on a Powerpoint slide, can do more harm than good: instead of saving words, it requires more to explain it that it would to simply leave it out. When dealing with something complex yet quantifiable an image can disambiguate text and render only a caption necessary - but only if the image is in fact superior to the text. Only when dealing with subtle subjects: the face, or an object of beauty, or simply something beyond the ability of human language to render it - does the printed word fail completely.

But what about something for which there is no equivalent in words? Some photographs are true art; they tell a message which is as clear as if it was spoken. They express ideas and feelings. But others simply exist. They are not high art, even if they are artistic in style. (And by 'artistic' I mean legitimately artistic, with attention paid to exposure, color, and framing - or developed by mere stroke of luck. The trend of 'tilt the camera, vignette the edges, and make it greyscale' is not nearly as artistically interesting as its practitioners would like to believe.)

Some would say that these are not worthy photographs, that they must either be useful or meaningful, and I do not deny that there may be merit in that statement. But I would like to believe that a picture can simply be.

I carry a camera everywhere and I take pictures because I find the subject interesting. The two following are from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, where a friend attends. The first was a spur-of-the-moment shot; the second I saw in an instant but it took a few moments to align.

This was from my walk on Tuesday, where I followed Massachusetts Avenue to Harvard Square. I will confess to taking a color image here and converting it to greyscale. I did so not because I think it of artistic value, but simply because I wanted the silhouette of the church. Frequently I will use such digital post-processing to improve or modify my photos; it is one of the joys of the digital age. In this case, I actually created several copies and experimented with fill brightness, contrast, and shadows to produce the effect I wanted: a blank church against a mottled background of the incoming storm.

(A note: I wrote this and posted it on my other blog back in October, and I never cross-posted it here. I felt it was worth cross-posting.

It's also an experiment in style; check carefully and you'll find that the post is precisely 1000 words in length.)

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