Friday, 2 November 2012

Worth a Thousand Words: Text and Images

One concern that, as I assemble the book,  is becoming obviously very important to Vectis is the way text and images interact within the structure of a book, and withn a 2D medium (the individual page) generally. Thankfully, I can lay claim to knowing at least a little of what I’m talking about with both subjects: the first being one of the main focuses of my previous MA unit, and the second being the subject of my BA dissertation, I am already well grounded in both. I am also helped by the fact that each subject has a (to my mind) clearly written and definitive book on the subject. These are Keith Smith’s The Structure of the Visual Book and Simon Morley’s Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art, which have both been of immense help to me.

 To understand this issue, we first have to look at how words and images are normally related to each other, in the context of a book. In situations where the words and pictures remain separated, this is actually not very complicated. There are basically three sorts of relationship, all of which are hierarchical. That is to say, all of them make either the text or the image more important than the other.There is no real way of equally presenting them. These three sorts of relationship are:

1) Illustration
When there is more text than image, or equal amounts, the image is read as an illustration. An illustration can appear in-line with the text, on a separate page or even (as with colour plates printed on higher quality paper) as a separate section of a book. No matter how it appears or is organised, the image is supplementary to the text; it serves to enhance the text, not the other way round. This is how the images will appear in the first set of walks, though I plan to use a number of methods to try and blur the distinctions between this sort of thing and the next sort of thing by employing some typographic and book-structuring tricks.

2) Caption
When the images vastly outnumber and outweigh the text, then the immediate visual impression is of a caption. This can be broken if the text is a continuing part of a larger body, as the idea of a caption implies a reversal of the situation we have  with an illustration. The caption is subservient to the image; it serves to explain, decode or clarify it. A caption text cannot stand without the image it is referring to, whereas an illustrated text can generally go without its images and retain much of its sense. In a book, it is almost unheard of for the caption not to be on the same page or the same spread as the image it refers to. The image-caption relation is also more strict than the text-illustration relation, where there is no real necessity for direct correspondence; an illustration in a novel may simply create a correct mood. When we see image-caption and text-illustration written out, we can plainly see that the less important element takes on the specific term, almost as a diminutive. The implication is that neither caption nor illustration are complete things without their counterpart.

3) Decoration
Originally, when writing my dissertation, I thought of decoration as simply a particular form of illustration. Like the picture in the novel mentioned above, I considered it something that existed to add feeling, weight or beauty to the text. As my understanding of the book format grows I have come to see that, at least in the context of a printed page, decoration is actually subtly different. Decoration is, in fact, the odd one out because, although it generally fits with and compliments the text (thus making it a subservient element; you can remove it without affecting the reading severely), it is not actually about the text per se. Decoration is really about the layout and design of the page. When books are laid out, book designers use, as I have used in my illustration, dummy texts such as lorem ipsums, which mimic the kind of distributions of letters, word lengths and so on found within texts of various languages. In purely visual terms, text can be thought of as a sort of block shading. Decoration serves first to visually balance (or unbalance) the text, then to enhance it. 

When we consider things in purely visual terms, we start to see that there is the possibility of the hierarchy situation with decoration becoming reversed, in a particular way. Decoration can become more important than the text, but only within a particular book. (We realise of course, that 'text' refers both to an abstract collection of words-as-data and the physical reification thereof in book form; the boundaries between the two being rather unclear at times). A classic example of this is William Morris's editions of Chaucer. The text of the poem has become tiny, lost amid the inventive decorations.We can take the Canterbury Tales as words and print them out somewhere else plain and lose nothing, but we cannot remove the decoration from Morris's Canterbury Tales and understand that particularly book. You see?

This is getting a bit abstract and waffly. It's a problem in this field; you'll spend a lot of your time playing semantic games, trying to pin down concepts that are quite fuzzy. My previous unit was spent asking (rather than answering) the question "What is a Book?", which is a much, much harder thing than it first appears, for a whole slew of reasons.

Of course, the astute reader will have noticed that we have set ourselves up with an artificial condition that erases a lot of complexity from this problem. What happens when the word and the image are not separate? When the text appears in the image, or vice-verse? Well, I've spent a happy 8000 words hacking at that one before now, and could happily spend 16,000  but I'll see if I can't summarize a little. Basically, you have two sorts of text in an image. I nab a term from film theory and call these two sorts of text 'diegetic' and 'non-diegetic'. Diegetic text happens 'within' the image; words on a sign, or a piece of packaging. Non-diegetic text appears seperated from the image in some way, a graphic element. The normal way of seeing non-diegetic text (conditioned into us by advertising, computers and film, amongst others) is to imagine that it is a distinct visual layer, floating over the top of the picture. This is something that I will be deliberately trying to avoid in the images in the second section of Vectis, where we shall be encountering much of this. There are a number of different ways that this perceptual quirk can be subverted, disrupted, or indeed enhanced, but this post is getting a bit long, so I'll leave the precise ways I might be able to handle that, and a discussion thereof, for another time.

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