Importance of the Image Context

February 21st, 2011

While reading both Whitman’s account of the civil war in his entries in Specimen Days and Trachtenberg’s argument regarding Brady and Gardener’s civil war photographs, the popular phrase ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ kept coming to mind.

Whitman’s entries are remarkable because no image is accompanied with them, yet the reader could easily imagine what Whitman as an observer of the events is seeing or has seen for himself. In his entry titled An Army Hospital Ward Whitman writes “Let me specialize a visit I made to the collection of barrack-like one-story edifices, Campbell hospital, out on the flats, at the end of the then horse railway route, on Seventh street. There is a long building appropriated to each ward. Let us go into ward 6. It contains to-day, I should judge, eighty or a hundred patients, half sick, half wounded. The edifice is nothing but boards, well whitewash’d inside, and the usual slender-framed iron bedsteads, narrow and plain. You walk down the central passage, with a row on either side, their feet towards you, and their heads to the wall. There are fires in large stoves, and the prevailing white of the walls is reliev’d by some ornaments, stars, circles, &c., made of evergreens… Most of them are entirely without friends or acquaintances here—no familiar face, and hardly a word of judicious sympathy or cheer, through their sometimes long and tedious sickness, or the pangs of aggravated wounds” (Specimen Days, p. 31). The descriptiveness of Whitman’s words provides the reader with not only an image that can be constructed in their mind efficiently, but the words also convey a feeling in which Whitman is expecting us to acknowledge. Through his words he is not only forcing us to envision the scene, but to experience the scene by relating to the emotions that he himself is feeling. An image could have been very easily taken of the scene Whitman is describing, but if there were no words to accompany it than we would not know what we would have been intended to see, or why this scene was chosen and what we should be taking from it. This is part of the argument that Trachtenberg makes in his chapter Albums of War.

The presence of photography during the civil war and the ability to capture history in an image record is an astounding achievement in technology and Trachtenberg is not arguing that. What he is arguing is the relation of the photographs that are included in Brady and Gardener’s collections. Trachtenberg is arguing that an individual image or group of images cannot simply establish or communicate an intention without any specific direction. Pictures with no direction attached to them can be interpreted in a variety of ways (hence ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’). Trachtenberg writes “The Gardener text is more helpful, though here too the explicit message remains invisible in the image, while the actual even recorded in the image- a group of soldiers in a particular landscape having their photograph taken remains unacknowledged and explained” (301). Just by seeing the image of the group of soldiers we may be able to derive the who, the where, the when, and while those answers are all interesting and important the why is what is missing. Why is this image of these particular soldiers on that particular day is included and more important than an image that could have been taken 10 minutes before that.

In Whitman’s entries the why is often self-evident. We understand why Whitman is explaining what is his explaining and we understand what he wants us to understand, and what he feels about it although there is not a physical image. In the case of Brady and Gardener, their works are clearly of the war, but their individual subjective intentions of the images as single or as a group can be interpreted differently.

Mind over Matter in Emily Dickinson’s Poem “What I see not, I better see”

February 21st, 2011

During the first read of Emily Dickinson’s poem number “869” or “What I see not, I better see” it is observed that the speaker is partial to the minds imagination over physical imagery. The irony of being able to see more clearly in the dark than in light is present in the first line of the poem: “What I see not, I better see” (1). This favor for darkness over light can be a direct response to the photographic culture that was appearing at that time. Since a photograph is produced as a negative, which becomes clear when exposed to light, light is what provides the reality of the image. Dickinson in her poem is commenting that this reality is not true reality, and ironically reality is clearer in the darkness of your own mind.

Dickinson makes it clear that she values her own minds perception over the perceptions that can physically be absorbed with her senses when she writes: “For frequent, all my sense obscured” (5). This line reflects Dickinson’s argument that we can trust what we seen in our own mind because our senses sometimes fail us, and we can not be certain to whether or not what we are seeing is reality. What we can trust is our own perception that is clear in our mind. Dickinson writes: “Till jealous Daylight interrupt-/ And mar thy perfectness” (11-12) she is expressing the relatable feeling of the morning soiling a pleasant dream, and using that analogy for what the photographic culture is doing: replicating copies of reality in the attempted to provide a subjective experience, which Dickinson denounces as a capability.

The Observer – Blog 1

February 7th, 2011

In Jonathan Crary’s essay “Modernizing Vision” he explains that the camera obscura became a model of vision “for how observation leads to the truthful inferences about an external world” (Crary 31). The camera obscura provided a new capability of capturing a moment of time in what was assumed to be a specific instance. Crary suggests that the camera obscura “was an apparatus that guaranteed access to an objective truth about the world” (31), yet this new way of “seeing” enlightened observers to look beyond the rigid act of imitation and discover an even more modern way of observing. Observers began to realize that an external force like the camera obscura, although undoubtedly a technological advance, was extraneous in the process of seeing. As research progressed during the 19th century and more in depth operations of the senses were being discovered, the importance of observing shifted from what was being observed to who was conducting the observation. Each individual person’s eyes can observe differently without an outside object’s assistance. The act of observation relies heavily on who is doing the observing, and the space and time in which the observation is being assumed. In Emerson’s “Goethe; or, the Writer” when discussing his admiration for Goethe he explains that “He sees at every pore, and has a certain admiration for truth”(Emerson 754). Seeing out of every pore is how the entire of body of that particular observer becomes the instrument in which significant observing may be accomplished. Emerson also writes: “Eyes are better, on the whole, than telescopes or microscopes” (754), which is also indicative of the individual being fully equip to observe without an outside source. There is no argument here whether or not technological advancements in film and photography have changed the way we observe, but the point is that the observation is dependent on the observer. Emerson argues that poets have a more clear perception of nature, but who is to say what is real and what is truth? We all have our own instruments of “seeing”, and we can all look at the same image or read the same text and draw different observations.