January 13, 2009 ·

Mike Johnston

A Weekly Column By
 Mike Johnston

As some of you know, I write and publish an independent (we accept no advertising) ink-on-paper quarterly calledThe 37th Frame. It’s so small it’s almost "private"‚ it goes out to a select few diehards and fanatics in all corners of the globe.

One of the features of every issue is what I unoriginally call "The Rant," which is a venting of prejudice, spleen, and sundry other less attractive aspects of my character and thinking. So, naturally, it’s been a very popular part of the newsletter. <g>

Herewith, a sample, extracted from Issue #3. If you disagree with this, please don’t be offended‚ my rants are personal opinions, nothing more.

Image is Everywhere

The word "image" has lately been spreading like a sort of verbal kudzu, choking out everything in its path.

What appears to be causing this linguistic plague is one part monkey-see monkey-do and two parts snobbery. Critics and academicians have long employed the word "image" to imply that what they’re talking about are more serious than mere pictures. They also use it because not every photography-based creation that merits their interest and attention is a picture. And because critics and academicians (who are thus excused) employ the word so frequently, "image" has spread downward from the ivory tower like a virus until it has infected the entire art-photographic community. The word has become a signifier: an image is worthy of attention; a picture is a common low-class fillip that any tourist can make with a disposable. The implied hope seems to be that an "image", as opposed to a humble "picture" or "photograph," is something special, something that shows artistic intent, skill and sensibility, and accomplishment. People who make images must be artists, since "image" is the word that folks who talk about art use when they talk about photographs. Right?

"Image", unfortunately, is also a weak-willed, dirty-dishwater, sniveling little sot of a word. It’s an umbrella word‚ bland, characterless, general. It takes in everything. You don’t see a photograph of yourself in a mirror, you see an image. A line drawing of a smiley face isn’t a picture, but it’s an image. Man was made in God’s image. Caricatures, fantasy posters, the Proctor and Gamble logo, Messonier paintings, a cloud reflected in a puddle, Flash Gordon streaking across the page of a comic book, the mountain troll in the Harry Potter movie, Apple Computer’s apple‚ even the beautiful specter of the world cast by a fine lens on a view camera’s ground glass‚ they’re all images. But none of them are photographs.

We shouldn’t be afraid to get more specific, and to hell with vague connotations of status. Photographs are distinct from most other images, and photography is distinct from most other means of creating images. The word "photograph", thought to have been coined by Sir John Herschel and the sole survivor of the mixed-up jumble of nineteenth-century descriptive terms and coinages (taken any good Heliographs lately?), is a good, specific, muscular descriptive term that wears its etymology proudly on its sleeve. Even the cheerful proletarian word "picture" is more specific than "image", since it is "A visual representation or image _painted, drawn, photographed, or otherwise rendered on a two-dimensional surface" (AHED, mod. auct.; italics mine). In other words, a picture is a particular kind of image‚ the kind that most photographs are.

So why doesn’t anybody take pictures any more? No one seems to; everyone makes images. Yet the overuse of this pale and tremulous little word has become ludicrous and middlebrow. The phrase "would you like to see my images?" sounds to my ear faux-proper, like saying "would you like to come to dinner with George and I?"

The dull-witted term "digital image" is, on the other hand, perfectly suitable, because it describes something specific that isn’t quite a photograph and isn’t necessarily a picture or a representation either. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate to other cases of declension very well‚ no one calls themselves a "digital imager" (they say "digital photographer," a truly woeful hybrid) and the term "digital imagery" sounds like you got forced to sit through a government seminar in Verbal Obscurantism three jobs ago. Various alternatives have been proposed‚ I like "digigraph, digitographer (dij-ih-TOG-raf-er), digitography" myself, not that anyone cares. But the actual terms are evolving pell-mell, without forethought, and we’re going to get stuck forever with whatever evolves.

Whatever. Strong-minded men and women are not timidly fearful of being thought to use gauche terms if those terms are correct, and have no compunction about saying what they mean. I think we should show some backbone, and call pictures "pictures," and photographs "photographs," and reserve the squirrely little pseudo-euphemism "image" for occasions when it’s really what we mean.

© Mike Johnston 2002

Mike Johnstonwrites and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine calledThe 37th Framefor people who are really "into" photography. His book,The Empirical Photographer, is scheduled to be published in 2003.

You can read more about Mike and findadditional articlesthat he has written for this site, as well as aSunday Morning Index.

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