Reading images: Narrative imageries

Abstract (French version). Examining the interpretative visual logic at work in popular culture, this article proposes to recognize as a heuristic tool the iconographic group formation process, called narrative imageries, on the model of narrative identity by Paul Ricœur. Dynamic sets generated by commercial success of a representation, these imageries are characterized by a productivity identified as a social signal, an effect of norm. Their association in context to signifiers or implied narratives distinguishes them from the circulation of graphic patterns, and allows them to be used as a key to read isolated images. The famous images “that are worth a thousand words”, press cartoons, advertisements or iconic photographs are examples of this interpretative mode by correlation with corresponding imagery. Iteration constitutes the prototype as a source and substitutes the external reference to which the image is supposed to refer, by a principle of iconic auto-referentiality that makes its subject autonomous. The capacity of narrative imageries to impose their own meanings enlighten works such as Mythologies by Roland Barthes or The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord, which have in common to target visual productions of cultural industries, emphasizing the omnipresence of popular representations, but also their ideological and narrative coherence.

Ref.: André Gunthert, “Comment lisons-nous les images? Les imageries narratives”, in Gil Bartholeyns (éd.), Politiques Visuelles, Presses du Réel, 2015, p. 195-210 (à paraître).

Visual Studies are today widely disseminated in fields of anthropology, gender studies, cultural studies, history, media or social psychology, especially as a resource for analyzing identity construction. Moving away from specialized knowledge that once structured the approach of images, this dissemination takes place at the cost of renouncing formalist tools, and often reducing the role of visual documents to illustrations of a discourse that it would only confirm or extend.

While it is true that images cannot exist in the social space outside a broader context of intelligibility, where they live alongside many other cultural forms, their role is more complex than this simple figuration. A characteristic of cultural industries’ visual productions, that art history is reluctant to study, is the existence of plural forms, where the unique document is seen articulated within larger groups. This articulation, which fundamentally modifies all parameters of analysis, gives images features that have sometimes been assimilated to mysterious “forces”, thought as specific properties of the visible1. I propose to regard it rather as the application of social models, from which the presumed “power” of images follows.

Imagery, a visual economy: Dinomania

Only very few analytical works exist on large iconographic sets of popular culture. The most important is The Last Dinosaur Book, by W.J.T. Mitchell who proposes to address as a specific cultural production, a vast group of images that make up dinomania, or the dinosaur vogue. Besides its American development during the 20th century, or its links with scientific culture, the particular interest of this exploration lies in the projective nature of a corpus formed exclusively of reconstructions. Nobody having ever seen a live dinosaur, the images of these animals are «products of creative imagination, assembled out of fragments and augmented with speculations about skin color, ornamentation, sounds and movement».2

Questions which interest Mitchell relate more to the meaning of this iconography than its nature. These meanings are supposed to supply the oil spot dissemination of cultural productions, starting from the initial site of scientific research. While it is undeniable that features specific to dinosaurs, such as their big size or their extinction, stimulate imagination, the economy of their representation is also involved in their cultural success.

George Baxter, lithographie des dinosaures du Crystal Palace, 1854.

George Baxter, Crystal Palace dinosaurs, 1854.

Groupe de dinosaures, Sydenham, 2009 (photo AG).

Dinosaurs group, Sydenham, 2009 (photo AG).

The famous reconstitution in 1854 of a set of antediluvian animals as life size statues, including most of the dinosaur species known at the time, commissioned by the Crystal Palace from the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and the paleontologist Richard Owen (see above), perfectly illustrate the establishment of an autonomous visual dynamic. Placed under the supervision of the one, who had proposed a few years earlier the term “dinosaurs” to refer to a group of fossils previously identified as giant lizards, the scientific attraction exhibits new interpretative hypothesis, latest state of the art research and breaks away from the tradition of romantic representation of monsters inspired by dragons3. It is a hyper-realistic and spectacular representation, and its considerable success would entail a typical effect of cultural industries. A new visual source, the Sydenham park offers illustrators a new range of models which would be copied or adapted by publishers and popular science for over a quarter century (see below).

Punch, “The Effects of a Hearty Dinner after Visiting the Antediluvian Dept”, 1855.

Punch, “The Effects of a Hearty Dinner after Visiting the Antediluvian Dept”, 1855.

Louis Figuier, La Terre avant le déluge, 1864.

Louis Figuier, La Terre avant le déluge, 1864.

This elementary process allows us to understand that we should not regard an iconography as a rigid state, but as a dynamic animated by economic and social forces. The mechanism which encourages reusing images is the same as the one which governs the creation of a market. The success met by a cultural proposition encourages its opportunistic reuse by other actors – possibly subject to copyright, which prohibits outright copying and requires use of adaptive systems. Sign of a favorable reception, this objective process, which multiplies occurrences of related forms, produces a social signal: the repetition of variants is identified by their reception as a fad or a norm. This reception tends to strengthen the process, which then enters into a self-referential loop.

The fact that this economy can be found within cultural industries is not surprising. However, its visual dimension includes specific features. The iteration mechanism transforms the prototype into a source and substitutes the external reference, to which the image is supposed to resend, by a principle of iconic auto-referentiality with a great outreach. As shown by Sydenham’s group, once an adaptative repetition process starts, an interrelation is created between groups of images and meanings that are associated to them in context. The introduction of formal variations or their intermedial distribution produces a complex representation, which makes its subject autonomous. The extension of its cultural imprint, an expression of a choice by a diverse set of actors, is seen as a validation, an increase in its symbolic capital.

In response to the question: what do images do? one can answer: they produce other images. This characteristic productivity allows to distinguish between iconography, group of images isolated based on any criterion, and imagery, defined by its public success, which presents coherent internal features, but also an evolving dynamic, which is accurately translated by the term dinomania. However, an imagery is not only limited to visual forms. Within the social space, images never show up alone, but are always associated to captions, statements or contexts which specify their meaning. Identifying visual signs, in other words to acknowledge the association of a figure to an imagery, comes from this complex narration, structured by the dialogue between images, statements and their contextual effects.

Most social uses of images belong to this dynamic, that helps recognize in a glance conventional meanings, rather than undertaking the hazardous task of interpreting visual forms. In front of an image, we first try to identify to which imagery it does belong. Reducing the range of possible meanings, the imagery repertoire available at a given time acts as a framework limiting the ambiguous message of images to a small group of stereotypes.

I propose to call “narrative imagery” this production of cultural industries, where the image can no longer be considered as an isolated form, but as a network node. In the same way as narrative identity (Ricœur) installs benchmarks by progressive accumulation of information4, visual dynamic constitutes over time an increasingly dense set of signs, whose coherence is ensured by the identification of their thematic membership.

Unlike a graphic pattern, a reproducible form, but which can be associated to various meanings, narrative imagery is defined as a coherent thematic corpus, linked to a context that shapes its meaning, with a generative capacity that certifies and maintains its success, existing on different media or in various domains, and maintaining through the spread of representations a presence and an autonomy of figures. While the image represents a group of fixed features, narrative imagery is plural, shifting, adaptable and presents consequently fuzzy contours and a certain variability in features, whose identification is ensured by the meanings it conveys. It offers a kind of plastic stereotype, of which each variant helps change the narrative.

The mystery of images “that are worth a thousand words” or that can be understood without a caption5, is easily explained by the principle of narrative imageries. It is not by the virtue of a specific property of images, that it is possible to decode their meaning without difficulty, but because some of them, such as press cartoons, advertisements or iconic photographs, belong to a well identified scheme and deliberately repeat elements of an implicit narrative, that they offer a stereotypic interpretation.

Augmented presence: Santa Claus

Imagery also adds to the narrative an augmented presence and a naturalizing effect. When the phenomenon of adaptive repetition creates an imagery, it substitutes the semiotic process, which links an image to an external referent, by a self-referential loop, that makes its subject autonomous, and designates it as the source. This is the same principle as the one that creates the fictional narrative, in its most elementary understanding. Its application to the visual field gives it a special quality: while formal information conveyed by discourse is subject to individual updates, the image produces a shareable appearance. From reading novels, each one of us can forge their own idea that they want of Old Goriot, but an illustration or a movie, objectively answers the question about his appearance.

On the other hand, the reading of an image, because it is based on an unconscious assimilation of information, provided by statement or context, in other words by forgetting their extrinsic source, the visual form gains a powerful mechanism of naturalizing narration.

These characteristics give subjects of imagery a quality often acknowledged as a property specific to images: presence6. A state that is different from the existence of real objects, but one, which through the multiplication of representations, increases their cultural imprint. The custom of Santa Claus offers a concrete example of a character, whose existence is precisely denied by the myth7, but whose imagery ensures an overabundant and multiform presence across a wide range of representations, ranging from children’s book illustrations to physical embodiment, including toys or countless ornaments8.

Secular custom, attached to the commercial world, the Christmas ceremony is an example of spontaneous ritual construction, an extraordinary bricolage, combining different elements from various sources – the old tradition of gifts on New year, the Alsatian christmas tree, German carols, the English “Christmas spirit”, the American Santa Claus etc. This assembly reflects both on a real adaptive work by populations, plasticity of cultural material, docilely subjected to appropriation, but also a weak symbolic and anthropological nature.

Custom does not need a strong foundation of meanings. It is a practice, whose dissemination is ensured through mechanisms of mimetic repetition, commercial opportunism and normative pressure, on the basis of a symbolic material, characterized by its simplicity, consensual aspect, appropriability and certain elementary signs, such as the calendrical boundary at the end of the year. In the absence of any written law or identified institutional referent, the iconographic corpus assumes the role of source and mediator of a ready to use information, whose visual dimension favors appropriation.

Claude Lévi-Strauss or Martyne Perrot emphasize on the American origin of the custom’s mutation, perceived in France after the Second World War, but the dissemination of the new Christmas festivity regime already bears the mark of globalized immaterial exchanges, noticeable from the late nineteenth century. This globalization is undoubtedly driven by the increase in trade. As Santa takes over as a global icon in the 1930s, alongside Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Mouse or Hitler, the new Christmas festivity regime contributes in demonstrating the power and autonomy of the market.

More powerful than all the folklores, this imagery does not exist independently of cultural industries, but is constantly articulated with it. The Christmas custom combines secular traditions with their updated versions through literary works, such as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night before Christmas, but also through educational institutions, advertising campaigns or the actual practice of purchasing gifts.

As the Christ or dinosaurs, Santa Claus is the image of a referent that nobody has seen – a character who exists only in image. However, to qualify these figures as unreal seems an insufficient description. Like other conventional forms, Santa Claus is an institution equipped with concrete properties. The presence conferred by imagery is enough to install this character alongside other cultural references, which together form a world of our shared representations, ballasted from the weight given to them by our belief9.

Reflexivity of imagery: Che Guevara’s portrait

If augmented presence brought by imagery particularly affects objects without denotation, what about those provided with a real referent? The narrative imagery of Che Guevara provides a valuable example of the referent’s work through its visual echo. Analysis of this iconography is the seat of much confusion, to start with the assimilation of the most disseminated version of the hero’s portrait to the “matrix” photograph taken by Alberto Korda in 196010. In fact, the image often identified under the title “Guerillero Heroico” is a graphic, a drawn adaptation whose most striking prototype was the one made by the Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick in 1968, after Che’s death11.

Posters à l'effigie du Che.

Che’s posters.

This adaptation that goes unnoticed represents nonetheless the real kickoff of this imagery. Similar to Andy Warhol’s posterization applied to several celebrity photographs in the early 1960s, the original graphic versions of Che’s portrait modify the image by simplifying the grayscale, translated into only two tones – a formula imposed in contexts of low cost reprography, such as the political poster.

The abstraction of graphics processing is not a trivial element. If Korda’s source photograph, reproduced particularly by the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli as a poster, resonates with the pattern of the romantic hero12, its graphical version, incomparably stronger, refers to the radical leftist political posters, or more directly to posterized portraits of pop music stars of the same period. Connoting deprivation and urgency, multiplication and dissemination, the posterization also has the effect of transforming and embellishing the hero’s face by abandoning the details of the modelé. A flattering idealization which explains the success of this formula in a posthumous context of use.

Affiche Beatles Blitztournee, 1966.

Poster Beatles Blitztournee, 1966.

The posterization style also reflects a pragmatic choice. Besides simplifying reprographic operations, it enables appropriation of the pattern through manual recopying – an option widely exploited in the late 1960s, at a time when large scale industrial posters were not available, and still commonly used today in some Latin American countries, marked by the personality cult of the Argentinian ideologist. Finally, let us note that this adaptive work contributes in liberating editors from the application of copyright restrictions – the absence of protection constituting an essential parameter in the dynamism of Che’s imagery13.

More than a formal category, the graphical style that characterizes Che’s image refers to a format: that of the poster, brandished during demonstrations or placarded in public space, and moreover that of a low cost decorative poster of the domestic space. Before becoming a popular pattern for T-shirts, mugs or backpacks, Fitzpatrick’s portrait and its countless imitations have represented the symbol of an era, particularly in the form of the private poster, pinned in male teenagers’ bedrooms, less as a political claim than a projective surface for identity, alongside portraits of equally charismatic pop singers, new heroes of the «global youth culture».14

Bartolo © (7Bart), "My old room", 2005, Flickr (licence CC)

Bartolo © (7Bart), « My old room », 2005, Flickr (licence CC).

If meanings associated to revolutionary ideals or Cuban history, just as their periodic remobilization15, have well played the role of a shifter for guevarian imagery, its graphic and pragmatic characteristics have given its exceptional appropriability. It is futile to regret the disparity between the myth’s political sources and its commercial retrieval: the very origin of this imagery’s vitality rests on visual choices that have favored its allegorical character, giving the symbol an adaptability worthy of the best advertisements.

Despite the existence of a real person, imagery’s dynamic can take over and, in this specific case, erase the identity of the referent. Industrial production pursues an attachment that took this image as an object, and only reproduces the heroic pattern that was chosen by thousands of fans and activists, to whom it serves as a screen to better project themselves. Che’s image, it is first their own, one that they chose as an emblem to better present themselves, demonstrate and be acknowledged.

Libération, Une du 11/05/2015.

Libération, 11/05/2015.

On a global scale, meanings associated to Che’s portrait are plural, but what this icon refers to in the West is fundamentally a particular use of the image: its display as a medium of self-identification. This has been confirmed by the recent cover of the daily Libération, showing a collage of the French president’s face on the famous portrait, published on the occasion of François Hollande’s visit to Cuba, on May 11, 2015.

Associating the socio-democrat leader with the charismatic figure of the guerillero fails to have any political or historical meaning. Johan Hufnagel, co- director of the newspaper, mentions Obama’s poster Hope by Shepard Fairey and justifies this montage by the icon’s polysemy: «It is precisely these different readings (..) that we chose to accompany the event and ambiguities of the island, (…) on an iconic image that no longer means much or too many things».16

Because of Cuba’s normalization, for Liberation, Che’s portrait, is quite similar as the Eiffel Tower for a tourist: a folklorique indication, with a vague historical connotation, which brings a local flavor. Rather than a political, it is an iconographic reference, reused here under the form of a visual game, for its ability to provide projection and appropriation, far from any claim of a revolutionary legacy.

The capacity of narrative imageries to impose their own meanings can enlighten works such as Mythologies by Roland Barthes or The society of the spectacle by Guy Debord, which have in common to target visual productions of cultural industries, emphasizing the omnipresence of popular representations, but also their ideological and narrative coherence17. With the triumph of the consumer society and mass media, the post-war period indeed sees a strengthening of dynamics that had until now only been taken into consideration in advertising and propaganda. The massive growth of imageries gives them considerable grasp over our imaginary. Reading images in social space relies mainly on the filter of these repertoires.

Translated from French by Fatima Aziz

  1. David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1989. []
  2. W. J. T. Mitchell, The Last Dinosaur Book. The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 50. []
  3. Martin J. S. Rudwick, Scenes From Deep Time. Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992. []
  4. Paul Ricœur, Temps et récit. III. Le temps raconté, Paris, Gallimard, 1985, p. 355-359; Johann Michel, “Narrativité, narration, narratologie. Du concept ricœurien d’identité narrative aux sciences sociales”, Revue européenne des sciences sociales, XLI-125, 2003, p. 125-142. []
  5. Robert Hariman, John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed. Iconic Photographs: Public culture and Liberal Democracy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2007. []
  6. Louis Marin, Des pouvoirs de l’image. Gloses, Paris, éd. du Seuil, 1993, p. 12-13. []
  7. Claude Levi-Strauss describes the modern custom of Christmas as an initiation rite, where the belief in the figure of Santa Claus is the subject of a transaction between parents and children (Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Le père Noël supplicié“, Les Temps modernes, 77, 1952, p. 1572-1590. []
  8. Martyne Perrot, Le Cadeau de Noël. Histoire d’une invention, Paris, Autrement, 2013. []
  9. François Flahault, “Récits de fiction et représentations partagées”, L’Homme, 3/2005, n° 175-176, p. 37-55. []
  10. David Kunzle, “Korda Matrix”, Che Guevara, Icon, Myth and Message, Los Angeles, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1997, p. 56-60. []
  11.  Jean-Hugues Berrou, Che Guevara, la fabrique d’une icône (video, 53 mn), TS Productions/Public Sénat/Toute l’histoire, 2014. []
  12. The model for which is Lord Byron’s portrait, in the version engraved by Edward Finden, based on the painting by George Sanders, published in the frontispiece of the posthumous edition of 1848. []
  13. Ariana Hernández-Reguant, “Copyrighting Che. Art and Authorship under Cuban Late Socialism”, Public Culture, vol. 16/1, Winter 2004, p. 1-29. []
  14. Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991, New York, Vintage Books, 1994. []
  15. Jeff A. Larson, Omar Lizardo, “Generations, Identities and the Collective Memory of Che Guevara”, Sociological Forum, vol. 22/4, December 2007, p. 425-451. []
  16. Tweets exchange with the author, May 12, 2015. []
  17. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Paris, Le Seuil, 1957; Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle, Paris, Buchet-Chastel, 1967. []

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