A Picture is Worth How Many Words??

you go first, photograph

“I have been urged … to write about my paintings… Why? Haven’t I, in a way, painted them?”

Charles Demuth

This quote is referenced in a wonderful short essay (Writing) by Robert Adams in his book, Why People Photograph. Adams discusses the topic of artists writing about their own work and makes some interesting observations.

As you might expect form the quote, Adams concludes that photographers (and artists in general) are not good at describing their own work and, in fact, do not want to do it anyway. Artists feel their work should speak for itself, be self-sufficient, and having to talk about it admits a modicum of artistic failure. Too much talk also risks the kind of over-analysis that can get in the way of spontaneous creativity. Since photography by its nature is often more representational and less subjective than painting, the public often feels more need to have the photographer describe their work to get at what they were feeling inside.

I know as one who has had to try to write about specific work in the past, it is extremely difficult and makes me feel very self-conscious. I usually feel that I’m tacking on these descriptions after the fact and that they were not really present at the time of artmaking or prior to it. Much of what I read from critics or other artists about their work gives me the same feeling.

What value is this post-analysis? Is there real benefit to oneself or others in attempting to truly describe one’s work from a sincere perspective. Can it provide insight into the creative process that allows others a deeper appreciation of your work? Can this effort force you to contemplate your own work in a way that might prove beneficial?

Ultimately I think that words are inherently insufficient to describe what is going on in the art as well as is the art itself. Words themselves are an art form. I’ve seen wonderful art which combines painting or photography with words, where both are equal partners in the product. Neither tries to explain the other. Can you imagine someone trying to explain a symphony by painting it? My wife, Susan’s, art journals are a great example of the power of combining words with visual art, rather than trying to use one to explain the other. I think it is useful to contemplate our own work but the effort to translate those ruminations into words useful to others seems doomed to failure.

Adams recommends that if we want to understand an artists work, the best strategy may be to look at the work of other artists that they like. The reflected light from that art may illuminate their work more than any direct explanation could possibly do.

By the way, I’d also like to announce the launch of my new website, www.bobcornelis.com, which replaces my old site (cornelisarts.com). I recommend taking advantage of the full screen mode in the galleries to see the best view of the work. Enjoy!

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8 responses to “A Picture is Worth How Many Words??

  1. I am honored by what you said about my art journals. I totally agree about how hard it is to write about your work after the fact. Seems like it could get in the way of other people’s direct perception of the work. That’s why I write so little on my blog, so that people will look harder at the image and relate to it directly. But it’s the personal details of the artist’s creative life that we are all interested in knowing. The personal stuff which we can all generally relate to.

  2. This is a good post on a topic that causes a lot of head-scratching.

    I don’t particularly find most artists’ statements or descriptions of their work helpful; many comprise just a lot of wasted words that someone told them will help them sound profound. I do appreciate, however, information that helps me understand a technique or process used in creating something. I don’t need to know why something’s created or for what purpose. Often, what an art critic or even the artist himself describes as an object’s “meaning” detracts from my viewing experience. I’ve stopped reading reviews before I go to shows.

    I recently attended an exhibition of work that draws considerably on mythology. The work was beautifully realized; I was not privy to all the references depicted but also didn’t have to know what every symbol meant to enjoy what I was seeing. There were some at the show who kept pestering the artist to explain what she was thinking when she was painting.

    Recently, I read about an artist who refuses to name his paintings and will not allow exhibitors to include any wall text, including his name. I think he perhaps has gone to the extreme, although I understand his reasons.

    • Maureen

      I agree that information about process or technique can be useful and interesting, particularly to other artists. Work that involves a lot of references, like the mythology example you cite, can also benefit by some contextual explanation. But when the artist starts getting into “meaning” it can go into a tailspin quickly.

      I used to think I was just bad at explaining the meaning in my work – finally I realized it wasn’t me!

  3. In my experience, I know some people appreciate knowing the “inside scoop” of the why a photographer chose to make a particular photograph or a timeline of the surrounding events. Perhaps they want a little story to go along with it. A viewer’s imagination and own personal perceptions can form one interpretation of an image, and perhaps that may be entirely different than the photographer’s interpretation.

    I wholeheartedly agree that there are some images that I just cannot describe with words.

    • Mark

      Factual information tends to be safe and, as you say, can be of interest to a viewer. Sometimes even that can get in the way of the viewer creating their own story and can diminish their creative experience of the work. It’s a delicate balance…

  4. Very nice article!

    I think there is definitely some good to come out of the post-analysis of your own work. When I started my own photography blog last year, I tried to take the time to write down the things I liked and disliked about each of the photos I posted as well as any special techniques or other information about it. And, at least for a photographer just starting out like myself, it was extraordinarily helpful, probably more so than just reading articles that other people have written about photography. I think it really gave me a better sense of the right way to approach my photography as well.

    On the other hand, I find that I always have a hard time writing about the non-technical aspects of photos. Certainly each photo I use has a special meaning to me, but how can I expect someone who wasn’t there to experience the same thoughts and emotions based solely on my written description. I guess it can also be a limiting factor for those who read it and never try to look beyond just what the artist or photographer has written.

    • Ben

      A good distinction to make, between the technical and non-technical aspects of the work.

      Sometimes I even wonder why the technical information is needed by anyone else. Often people get distracted by the technical info, especially in the world of photography, and lose sight of the artistry.

  5. I agree with Charles Demuth–
    when I like the art work, I put it out for viewing– and don’t feel compelled to say much or explain it or talk about it or write about it– I hope for a connection– but whatever the viewer gets or takes away is up to them and their experiences and their reactions might be different from mine.

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