On Images


I feel very strongly about images - about photographs, magazine spreads, billboards, films, paintings, and memes. In the mediated environments in which we live, our first contact with things is often through facsimile - in the shapes of colorful teething toys, in picture books, in the things we deem suitable for children to watch. We tell a child that a giraffe is a giraffe by pointing to a cardboard book with a drawing of a giraffe. Our understanding of the world is stylized from the start, and it is all built on images. 

The trouble with images is that they themselves are constructed. There is an edge, an end, to every image. It means that what is within that image’s edges must be placed there intentionally, and at the expense and exclusion of information external to the boundary. The frame, or “crop”, structures our understanding of the reality of an image in a way that the limits of our peripheral vision do not. We implicitly understand that the rest of the world, in all its messiness, exists beyond the limits of our physical vision. We do not necessarily have that same privilege with images. We are not obliged to consider the thought and craft and craftiness that go into an image, because that is the art of the thing. A good image is seductive. It convinces you that it is the reality of the thing. The danger is that we are not obliged to understand the technicalities of construction and illusion that go into making images, unless we are in the business of making images ourselves. We are not obliged to understand that seductive images are seductive for a reason. 

And I think that is the trouble with images. A naive pair of eyes does not know not to take an image at face value. As we grow out of teething toys and cartoons, we learn about movie magic, develop a cynicism about the media, and jadedly declare that everything is Photoshopped, but not before constructed images structure basic ways in which we think. I am as world-weary about images as the next person who came of age in the early deluge of selfies, GIFs, and memes of the information age. I know that there are visual devices that go into making something look “beautiful” or “moral” or “good”, but that does not change the fact that I still have basic conditioned responses to images that are meant to be beautiful, moral, and good. And so I care about making sure people understand that images (and not just “art” images) are not uncomplicatedly about beauty or truth or representation, because I am a victim of images as much as anyone else.

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