The Heart of the Matter: Image and Text Lou Spaventa

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The Heart of the Matter: Image and Text
Lou Spaventa

"....the three R’s are no longer enough. Our world is changing fast – faster than we can keep up with our historical modes of thinking and communicating. Visual literacy – the ability to both read and write visual information; the ability to learn visually; to think and solve problems in the visual domain – will, as the information revolution evolves, become a requirement for success in business and in life." (May 22, 2008, Source )

In late September, I attended the annual curriculum conference for teachers in public schools and colleges held at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, California. I attend the conference each year in hopes of understanding what is going on in the elementary and secondary school systems of California, so that I can have a clearer picture of the students I will inherit at the community college level. This past September I chose to attend a seminar on Visual Imagery and Genre Theory, conducted by Greta Vollmer of Sonoma State University. My reasoning was that I felt my students had more experience with visual images than with written texts, and I needed to know how to work with visual images to get students to write.

The seminar started out with discussion of genre theory, surely a multi-headed theoretical beast if ever one existed. I related to the head associated with linguistics and speech act theory because that is part of my academic training and background. From that entry point for me, I was able to understand more via a discussion of cross-cultural rhetoric. So, there were at least two fields of study which allowed me to feel comfortable in approaching genre theory. Other fields which seem to spill into theory building in genre theory are critical theory, film studies, dependency theory and feminist studies. For my pedagogical goal, I found that using examples from speech act theory worked best for understanding genre theory. So, an apology would be a genre, and there would be certain traits that would make an apology recognizable to speakers of a language, and there would be ways of making an apology. These are then referred to as constraints and choices. What does this have to do with visual imagery?
We participants were given colored photocopies of CD cover art and asked to discuss the constraints and choices implied by the covers. The discussion was lively and moved around from issues of visual syntax – color, composition, image - to intertextuality, the way in which a text may refer to others. This when applied to written texts immediately brings to mind those who are insiders to a culture and thus a writing form and those who are cultural outsiders and must learn its ways of writing and the moves within its forms. We came up with a list of aspects of genre: topic of the text, author of the text, audience for the text, relationship among participants involved with the text, purpose of the text, setting for the text, structure of the text, tone of the text, grammatical patterns of the text, typical vocabulary for the text, community shared understanding for the text, and assumed background knowledge about the text. All of these directly apply to both visual images and to written texts. To give an example important in visual analysis, the cover art for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” implies understanding of some of the figures from literary and popular culture depicted. On the other hand, shared background knowledge of the history of the Beatles would be important to someone writing an essay about “Sgt. Pepper.”
A second activity we did with the CD covers was to engage in objective and subjective description. Objectively, I might say that there is a collage of figures on the Sgt. Pepper CD cover. Subjectively, I could say that the collage affects me in a positive, yet puzzling way. I enjoy seeing all these historical and popular culture figures juxtaposed, but am not sure what they have to do with each or with anything. The jump here to descriptive writing for student essays is an easy one to make.
One of the most lasting impressions I took away from the seminar was the question of the truth value of photographs. We read a short piece by John Berger on using the tenets of photographic analysis first suggested by Susan Sontag in her essay “On Photography.”

One of Berger’s points is that photographs are not truth, though perhaps when photography came into its own in the mid-nineteenth century, it may have been regarded as the explainer of reality. Berger says that we do not really know the context of public photographs although we may know the context and narrative of personal photographs we ourselves take and keep of our friends, our families, ourselves.

As a group, we seminar participants were given a copy of Thomas Hoepker’s now famous 9/11 photograph of a group of young people looking from the Brooklyn side of the East River at the flames of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. The young people seem relaxed and, if in discussion, seem untroubled by the horror across the river. We were asked to entitle the photograph, and then took turns explaining our titles. Soon after the photograph was made public – five years after the event itself and not in New York, but in Hoepker’s Berlin exhibit – Frank Rich wrote an article in the New York Times about the photograph, essentially saying that it represented the American ability to move on even in the face of great tragedy. David Plotz, in the online magazine Slate, then reacted to Rich’s article by criticizing Rich for misunderstanding the photograph. Plotz wrote that Rich didn’t understand that the group of young people were taking a break from the obvious horror for a moment, and that the photograph did not imply they were indifferent to the tragedy of the towers. We also were given articles by one of the young people in the photograph, his girlfriend at the time, and then the photographer, Thomas Hoepker. Each wrote about the photograph and what it meant.
The lesson of the photograph was that the visual image is slippery without a context and a shared understanding just as a rhetorical form is impenetrable to a writing student without understanding of the context and of the form. Part of the pedagogical lesson I took away was the need for deliberateness and explicitness in working with rhetorical forms and written text. The instructor facilitates the novice writer. That perhaps is the best one can do. This makes judgment of the product of writing a much more contingent process and begs for a nuanced approach to assessment, an approach which might conceivably only work in face to face meeting or in compiling a developmental portfolio. Yes, visual images now dominate popular culture. Commercials have fewer words and more and more loaded, powerful images, often iconic ones. Yes, information on television is now hopelessly conflated with entertainment for the most part. Yes, televised reporting has become a series of short quick sound bites over images. Yes, the novel has been replaced by the film for many people. All this is true. But the book, the text, the written word, has its own domain. It is the measure of thought for the majority of those concerned with expressing and realizing ideas. It is the most explicit repository at our attempts to find truth in our lives. It is our legacy to those who follow us so that they may understand who we were and do not fall into the trap of interpreting our history through visual images which may have little of the truth of our lived existence in them. If my assertions are valid, then as a writing teacher, I have the responsibility to pass on the tools of analyzing the visual image to those engaged in writing texts. I need to get better at doing this.
The Methodology and Language for Secondary Teachers course can be viewed here.

The Creative Methodology for the Classroom course can be viewed here.

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