Pictures Don’t Always Paint a Thousand Words
John Berger makes a bold statement in saying ‘ No other relic or text from the past can offer such a direct testimony about the world which surrounded other people at other times. In this respect images are more precise and richer than literature,’; (Ways of Reading, 106). This statement is very untrue. Literature has been the focal point of all modern learning.. Literature lets the reader feel what the author is thinking, not just see it as you would in a painting. This can be proven after reading Berger ‘s descriptions of paintings in Ways of Seeing and also reading parts of literature written by W.E.B Dubois.
When a reader reads literature it is easy to feel what the author is writing about . An author’s job is to show the reader his point of view. He does this by describing things, offering opinions, and making conclusions. By doing this the author can get his point across and the reader can hopefully relate to him. A good author will also paint his own picture by words. He will leave the reader with a picture in his head of what he is describing. A writer’s words are stronger than the stroke of an artist.
An example of this could be from W.E.B Dubois ‘s Of the Meaning of Progress . DuBois paints us a picture of his life . On page 225, DuBois describes a child , he says ‘ Thenie was on hand early ,-a jolly, ugly ,good-hearted , who slyly dipped snuff and looked after her little bow legged brother.’; This description is something a picture can not describe. A picture cannot significantly show someone being jolly or good hearted. These two descriptions are important in learning about the character, thus literature is more precise than images.
Berger’s also states that paintings leave the reader to make many conclusions. Berger is talking about the sitter in a painting by Frans Hals. He says ‘ It is not possible to produce circumstantial evidence to establish what there relationships were, ‘;(110). Here he is saying by looking at the picture, there aren’t many valid conclusions one can make. The viewer can see five people and describe what they look like, but he cannot dig any deeper. Any other conclusion a reader would make would be built on circumstance and not evidence. Literature would be able to describe these people and possibly establish relationship and feelings, something art and pictures cannot do.
Another example, that writing explains much more than a picture is Berger’s On Rembrandt’s ‘Women in Bed.’; When I look at this painting I see a young woman looking up at something from her bed. He writes ‘ there is a complicity between the women and the painter. This complicity includes both retinence and abandon , day and night. The curtain of the bed which Hendrickje lifts up her hand , marks the threshold between daytime and nighttime.’;( 129) From this painting I could not see any of this. The writing paints this picture in the readers mind, much better than the actual image. This explanation also enables a reader to relate to the writing. From this writing I can see this girl in the bed and almost feel what she is thinking. From the picture all I saw was a girl laying in bed, nothing more.
Again Berger describes Caravaggio’s ‘The Calling of St. Matthew’;. In this picture, to the naked eye, all the viewer would see is group of men in a dimly lit room. But through Berger’s description a reader or viewer can see much more . Berger’s says this painting depicts ‘ five men sitting around their usual table , telling stories , gossiping, boasting of what one day the will do, counting money .Suddenly the door is flung open . The two figures that appear are still apart of a violent noise and light of the invasion,’; ( 132). This description is amazing, because reading this , one can easily picture this scene in their head. It shows action and thinking, which the painting doesn’t. Again, the painting proves to lack description and thought. The artist cannot get his point across to the viewer though the painting . It is left up in the air for the viewer to make any conclusion he wants , where in Berger gives the reader straight forward evidence through description as to what is happening in the picture.
Again Berger contradicts himself in talking about the one Regent in the picture on page 111. Berger talks about how the painter must seduce the viewer into seeing what he or she wants them to see. He says ‘ Hals must almost seduce us into believing that we know the personality traits of the men and women portrayed.’; (111) He talks about the Regent being drunk , but there is no evidence to support this. My interpretation of this picture is a man with a white and black cloak with long hair. The idea of the man being drunk is inconclusive. This man could be seen in so many different opinions and states. He could be seen as tired or sick, or hungry. If this man was being written about in literature there would be a definite described state. The author would most likely tell us he was drunk or lead us into what he wants us to think.
Photographs are not a good way of expressing images either. Berger says ‘ The camera isolated momentary appearances and in doing so destroyed the idea that images were timeless,’; ( 113) . He is saying that when you take a picture it is no longer a picture that can be looked at forever and ever, it is just a quick pause in the scene. This quick pause is not long enough for the viewer to make any valid conclusion. Life can pass one by in the blink of an eye. This is how long it takes to snap a photograph, therefore no central idea or picture can be seen.
Finally, Berger talks about how photographs or reproductions of paintings destroys the image the painting is trying to give. This is very true. When a painting is broadcasted all over T.V. screens it lends a different meaning to each person that sees it. Bergers says ‘ each of them , is seen in a different context,’;( 115). If one draws a picture and sends it to millions of people it very possible there could be a million different interpretations. Paintings are left open for the viewer to make his own conclusion. An author could send out an essay to a million different people and receive and still have only one interpretation. An author often will write a thesis statement which lets the reader know exactly what the writing will be about.
In conclusion, literature is what has built this nation and world from the ground up. Unfortunately John Berger did not feel this way. Images give us a picture that we can see with our eyes, but images leave out the feelings we see in our heart. Literature gives us the power to see and feel everything. The heart and mind will forever be more powerful than the eye.
Berger, John. ‘Ways of Seeing.’; Ways of Reading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Bedford/St. Martin’s: New York, Boston, 1999. Pg 104-132.
Du Bois, W.E.B. ‘Of the Meaning of Progress.’; Ways of Reading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Bedford/St. Martin’s: New York, Boston, 1999. Pg 224-231.