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Beauty,Spring 2005
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The Stories Pictures Do Tell

Katy McGinness

Coming across the phrase "reading a picture" as the topic for this paper, I was initially baffled. I felt it was far too vague a description for a 5-page paper; I did not know what it meant, and I had no real idea what to write about. Upon visiting the Barnes Foundation again and reading some of the essays on the Serendip website, however, I have a stronger grasp of the concept now, although it is still very much in the air. Thinking about it, though, it is precisely that it is sort of in the air that has allowed me to greatly enjoy writing this paper. "Reading a picture" means many things to me, but mostly it involves for me the highly subjective, personalized process of creating meaning for an image—be it a photograph or a painting—fixed in time and then experiencing this meaning through the image.

It is only natural that, when one looks at a photograph, she/he is transported to the particular spot at the particular time at which the photo was taken. After all, is this not in all likelihood why this picture was even taken? If the person experiencing the photo was there when the photo was taken and knows all about it, then the story that this person reads in the photo will most likely be the story that actually did take place. However, if someone who was not there happens to view this particular photograph, then that person may read an entirely different story in the photo than the one that actually took place. To illustrate my point more clearly, let us pretend that I am holding a photo that was taken of me, and in this photo I have a scowl on my face. I know exactly why I am scowling in this picture—I was there, obviously, and I know the true story of the photo. I had just arrived at a party and had been taken by surprise when a few boys jumped out of the bushes at me. Upon arriving at the door with the host taking my picture, I gave the host a mock "I'm-pissed-off-at-you-for-being-such-a-poor-host-as-to-allow-this-to-happen" look. It is all in good fun.

Now let us imagine that my photo has somehow made its way to a busy, public space, and a certain individual happens to find my photo and begins to examine it. This person—a complete stranger—knows nothing of the real story behind the picture, so he can only read his own subjective interpretation into it. From the expression on my face in the photo, the stranger may interpret virtually anything he wants—i.e. that I am genuinely angry at the photographer, that I am scared, that I am annoyed over something, etc. While the stranger's reading of the picture is not the real story of what actually was going on with me in the picture, his interpretation of the story is nonetheless real for him. He has the freedom to read whatever he wants into this picture since he knows nothing of the circumstances surrounding its actual taking. Let us suppose further that he shows the photo to one of his friends. The stranger's friend now has the opportunity to read an entirely different story inside the photograph, one that may or may not have anything to do with the stranger's story of the photograph. Because they do not possess the knowledge of what actually transpired in reality when this picture was taken, these two people are free to create stories at will for my photo. We all have unique perspectives of photographs and paintings that allow us to create alternate realities inside of these images. That these alternate realities—these stories—are not the same for any two people does not mean that one story has more legitimacy than another's. Only those who know the TRUE story of the photo (the real-life circumstances in which it was taken), such as the photographer or the one(s) being photographed, have a slight edge over those who must create their own stories. However, even this edge, this advantage, means relatively little. I could inform the two hypothetical strangers of the real story behind the photograph of me at the party, but chances are that their own subjective interpretations of the photo will not be altered (except perhaps only momentarily). Our own subjective readings of images are strong and tend not to change even if we are open to alternative readings from other people.

Equally important is the fact that, while indeed no two individuals experience exactly the same story described by a single photograph, basic similarities nonetheless exist in all stories. Going back to my example of the photo of me at the party, while specific details of the photo's story will be colored differently by each viewer's subjective, individual perspective, the stories will all be united by the fact that all (should) involve me and the expression captured on my face. The details, the mood, the theme...everything will vary among each individual viewer, but because the image of me is so central to this photograph, all of its stories will carry the unifying fact of somehow involving me.

Comparable to the experiencing of photographs is the experiencing of paintings. Indeed, in the pre-camera era many paintings (such as realistic portraits, landscapes, and still-lifes) served purposes that have largely been taken over in this time period by photographs. But perhaps even more so than photos, paintings tell stories. And while the painter usually has his/her own story in mind when making a particular painting, subsequent viewers will consider the painting's story in a manner biased toward their own individual perceptions. I have always read the famous painting "The Scream" to be a story about a poor soul who has been driven to the edge by mental illness and is screaming in horror over the cesspool that his mind—and his world—have become. Whether or not Edvard Munch intended his masterpiece to tell this story is immaterial to me. Much like the photographer has a slight—though ultimately irrelevant—edge over other viewers of a photograph in that the former knows the real story of the photograph while the latter do not, the painter has a distinct edge over viewers in knowing a painting's true story. Still, though, the fact that a viewer is reading a different story in a painting than the one that the painter told does not necessarily jeopardize the viewer's own personal enjoyment of the painting. Of course I am interested in the story that Munch had wanted to tell, as it was his brainchild after all. But it is my own personal version of "The Scream" that endures every time I see it. Another person may view the painting and conjure up a story of a man who has just run out of his home screaming because he believes it is haunted by ghosts. My story and this person's story are different yet similar; they are both subjective interpretations of the same image, and while the content of the two stories are very different (mental illness vs. supernatural horrors), both of these stories involve as the central character a screaming man set against the backdrop of a mysterious and slightly menacing sky. Thus, paintings are like photographs in that they both tell stories, and these stories share some central similarities while simultaneously varying significantly among different viewers.

Thus it does seem to be possible read pictures. It is a highly subjective activity that nevertheless contains similarities across multiple different viewers and their own stories. Whether one is reading the story inherent in a photograph or a painting, the process is basically the same—personalized stories that are different in many respects but still retain a shred of similarity.

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