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Location: Stevens Point, Wisconsin, United States

Monday, June 09, 2008

What do pictures show?

Biking in France this year I got to thinking about the pictures people take. I began to take notice because I was particularly conscious, after last year's accident, of how few such travels there may yet be for me. My initial notion was that the typical images are intended to show you were there. These are the ones you see being taken at every historical or scenic site, with the attraction being used as background for a shot of you, or your companion, or your children, or all of the above. One morning I came across an Italian fellow with his camera on a tripod, posing his wife and kids against a view of Gordes across the valley. I imagined it was destined to be on a christmas card. That would certainly be true if they were Americans. This is surely OK, though we all know how few such pictures are tolerable when you're asked to watch someone's slides of their trip. We become bored with images of people smiling or cavorting in this place or that because there's nothing to learn; mere pictures of people have little aesthetic content. One important element of aesthetic content is the possiblity of picturing ourselves in this landscape, or in relation to this scene. If the natural or architectural context is reduced to nothing more than background, we are, as viewers, deprived of this experience. For the same reason, mere landscape shots quickly become tedious, as we are provided no sense of human scale. Therefore, images which incorporate people in relation to their setting are of intrinsic interest. Now I can see the context in human terms, and I'm also invited to imagine my own possible participation in the scene. So at the very least we ought all to limit depicting ourselves to, say, a half dozen or so images and for the rest offer our audiences plenty of opportunities to see themselves in the places I've been. This changes the import from a kind of gloating--"Look! I'm here and you're not!"--to something more like an invitation--"I'm glad we can share this experience"--which may then contribute to our joint enjoyment. I hope I have more adventures to share...



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