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.

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One Response to “Importance of the Image Context”

  1. Dominique Zino on March 17, 2011 12:31 am

    Cassie, When reading your take on Trachtenberg’s analysis of Gardener’s album (“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”), I thought, “are even the who, where, and when totally clear?”
    Look back at the title page of Gardener’s Sketchbook (fig. 5, 303). What, according to Trachtenberg, is the main narrative of Gardener’s album?

    Thanks for this post!

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