Reading pictures??

Robert Long (boblong@TACONIC.NET)
Fri, 4 Oct 1996 15:38:07 GMT

A few years ago I read a first-hand or possibly anecdotal account of a
photographer who went into a culture totally innocent of photographs
or, evidently, other western-style graphics. I believe the culture
was in Africa. The photographer proceded to make friends among the
inhabitants and to photograph them. When he showed them the prints,
it was obvious that they had no idea what to do with them.

Through a process of demonstrating to the inhabitants that shapes
occurring in the real world were repeated in the photographs, the
photographer was able to teach the inhabitants to read the
photographs, to recognize each other, and ultimately to see--for the
first time--images of themselves.

This account turns out to be quite important for a book I'm working on
in the field of imaging, but I'm darned if I can find the reference.
I've scoured the likely works of C.G. Jung, Edwin Land, and Beaumont
Newhall that I might have been reading at the appropriate time without
finding the passage. I'm told that it is taught in a course at NYU,
but I don't even know what department it might have been included in
(Art? Sociology? Ethnology? Anthropology? Philosophy? even
Comparative Religion is not impossible).

Sound familiar to anyone? If so, I'd really appreciate any clues that
can be offered--here, or by e-mail to

Bob Long

PS: The book has to do with the enormous complexity of the human
imaging and pattern-recognition system and the fact that so-called
Renaissance perspective is not the only convention by which the
space-time continuum in which we live can be imaged in two-dimensional
pictures. The further I go with this, the more deeply convinced I
become that we have no inherent picture-reading mechanism--that we
must learn to read pictures just as we must learn to read text. Text
is a much more highly "encoded" information transmission form, of
course, but the difference is largely one of degree. Thus, when Mama
takes the kid on her lap and points to the pictures in the book of
John and Mary and Rover and the ball--and thinks she's teaching the
kid the words and, hopefully, instilling a love of books and
reading--what she's primarily accomplishing is teaching the kid to
read the pictures. "See that round shape? It has the same name as
that spherical shape over there on the floor! We call both 'ball'
because the round shape is a representation of the spherical one. Get
it?" That's the real message the child receives.

If anyone would like to discuss this proposition, I'm game. On the
other hand, if the subject strikes anyone as off-topic, I'd like to
know about that, too.