Thing 9 and 10 of 23: beyond Flickr? Connecting images to text

As an aesthetic experience Flickr, which we’ve been asked to play with for Things 9 and 10 of 23 Things, is wonderful. There’s a staggering variety of images, and I even managed to find one that connects together the librarian, the Magistra, and the Mater, a picture from the Staffordshire Hoard:

Staffordshire hoard sword hilt
(Credit – Portable Antiquities Scheme)

For those into tags this was tagged as “gold, early medieval, Staffordshire hoard, saxon, sword, garnet, hilt, inlay”, a set of keywords which makes it relatively easy to find a specific photo among the 600+ of the Staffordshire Hoard they’ve put on Flickr. The Mater bit, meanwhile, comes from the fact that this image (currently being used as my home computer’s wallpaper) has received the ultimate aesthetic accolade from my daughter: ‘It’s so beautiful!’ (Her vocabulary of art appreciation may still need a little more refinement, but the sentiment is clear).

As a resource for personal pleasure, Flickr is wonderful. If I have slight doubts about its professional use, it’s more because I’ve been contemplating a wider issue: are the pictures we use really adding to our words or are they simply decoration? I was thinking about this particularly earlier this week, because I spent a day among images of manuscripts at the London Palaeography Summer School. That reminded me how tightly connected image and text were in such works. At one point when discussing ruling patterns for manuscripts (a seemingly rather tedious aspect of laying out text), the lecturer showed a slide demonstrating how some manuscripts aligned the line of a building within an illumination with the edge of a column of text below, so that the reader’s eye would be drawn to the strong vertical edge.

Later that day I was leafing through a facsimile of the Stuttgart Psalter, looking for an image I might use on the cover of my book, if, of course, I can get the rights to it. (If you want to see some images, clink on “zur Werkansicht”). Again, the images and text are closely linked: each image responds to a specific verse or two of the psalm, sometimes picturing it more or less literally, sometimes interpreting it and bringing in new ideas (such as supposed New Testament parallels).

Even though I’m trying to choose an image that somehow ‘matches’ my book, by removing a single image form its context and reusing it, I’m already losing some of its original resonances. I wonder if Flickr and other photo sites only encourage this decorative, detached use of images, by making them so free-floating and easily reworkable. Do we need to think harder about finding (or creating) specific images that add extra meaning to our publicity? Are discussions of a particular library enhanced by generic scenes or pictures of books etc? Perhaps, in this era of widely-available digital cameras, we should take the opportunity to think about how we can use images not just as ‘wallpaper’ to brighten up a blog or leaflet, but in ways that add levels of meaning to our text. That doesn’t mean abandoning Flickr, but maybe it does mean thinking harder about what we actually want the images we use to achieve.

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2 thoughts on “Thing 9 and 10 of 23: beyond Flickr? Connecting images to text

  1. The irony of the process you describe here is that whereas a picture speaks a thousand words (adjusted for inflation etc.), to respect the context as you seem to hanker for here means putting probably two hundred and fifty of those words back or else directing your clever choice of image only at the few people who know where it’s from in the first place…

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  2. I’m an art historian and can confirm your suspicion that most pictures, as used by historians and language and lit folks are indeed illustrations rather than evidence or text. Its disheartening to see the lights dim for PowerPoint at most conferences.

    There’s nothing WRONG with a good illustration, but it is valuable to remember that the images and objects might well be able to do more for an argument than just look topical or pretty.

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