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Bringing image back to text

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Making a case for visual narrative

There is a rich history of making up stories by showing and telling, as evidenced in the Stele of Naramsin, Trajan’s Column, the Bayeux Tapestry, or the Codex Nuttal. But, when showing and telling translate onto paper today, they come in forms that readers avoid consuming in public. Has this always been the case? How unique or valuable can it be to receive stories with words and pictures? There are many books that depended on the co-existence of images and texts, that also happened to be “respectable” books. I will use the term “imagetext” for these books, a phrase W.J.T. Mitchell introduced in his book Picture Theory.

Beginnings of graphic storytelling in print: Incunabula

In the early days of printing, printers combined type with images on woodblock in many ways. They did not follow the conventions of setting type apart from the text since those conventions were not yet invented. This experimental period in printing was called the incunabula. Early printers had a vast repertoire of combining images and text before them in the form of manuscripts.

In the eighteenth century a time came when books were thought authoritative only if pictures and words were kept separate. Pictures were relegated to specific duties like giving instructions, as in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie.

Twentieth century media brought images and words together in a bold way, to the dismay of critics like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Magazines, film, and television confirmed the immediacy and appeal of pictures. In response to new media, serious fiction or scholarship expected the printed word to be transparent and the book to simply mediate an author’s words. Critic Beatrice Warde wrote that book typography should be as plain as a crystal goblet, not as attentive as a jeweled cup.

Still, there were authors who chose to combine pictures and words, and to give concrete appearance to words. Edward Gordon Craig, the author of Cranach Press’s The Tragedie of Hamlet of 1929, was a visual artist who staged dramas; he communicated by showing and telling. The Tragedie is a limited edition book based on Craig’s contemporary stage production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The dialogue of the play is staged on the center of the page, circumscribed by woodcut illustrations and exceprts from source texts regarding the classic Anglo-Saxon history of Denmark, originally based on a Norse tale penned by Saxo Grammaticus in the thirteenth century.

This historical text is presented—in Latin—inside a text block that starts from a narrow column on the left and continues as a wide column on the bottom. On the opposite page, the English text starts inside a narrow column and continues as a wider column on the bottom. Illustrations form either dramatic scenes within the tableau; create sequences throughout several pages; or they serve as emblematic images that punctuate a theme and set the mood for the tableau. A variety of picture-storytelling strategies are streamlined by linear illustrations. Color is introduced in a few instances to mark story climaxes.

Books and work from the course

SAIC’s summer course Graphic Book: Narrative Strategies addresses the issue of the imagetext. In the past, students from diverse backgrounds (literature, visual storytelling, design and typography) produced books that addressed an intimate dialogue between image and text—informed by works that are mentioned above.

Brad Nagle’s The Swimmer is based on a short story by John Cheever. The story is about a man who leaves his house one day to create a trail by swimming through the backyard pools of his friends. The reader follows the protagonist’s intimately personal point of view. Nagle, as designer, points to the distinction between the state of mind and external reality. He introduces a main visual motif: a bird’s eye view of the swimming pools that also serve as cosmological diagrams. Each section of The Swimmer folds out to reveal a continuous band of swimming pools. This motif, as it evolves throughout the book, also serves as an ethnographic commentary on mid-century material culture.

Of course, Nagle isn’t making up, with his design, for what Cheevers’ text failed to do. Instead, he is exploring a new readerly experience of the protagonists’ existential situation. Nagle is exploing layers that are embedded in the text in the form of diagrams. In Nagle’s The Swimmer, the romance of being immersed in the anonymity of words and creating one’s own mental picture, is traded with a new readerly experience.

In M. Ross Luebe’s graphic book, Scene Seven of the Trial, two narratives intersect. The main text is a dialogue that finds Socrates awaiting death in his prison cell in the company of his friends. The secondary text is an excerpt from The Republic, a strong commentary that Socrates made on appearance and reality, and most importantly on the fate of the enlightened man.

In Luebe’s Scene Seven of the Trial, as the moment of Socrates’s death approaches, the secondary text invades the scene. As Socrates introduces the cave as a commentary on appearances, the prison scene recedes to the background. Instead, his words on reason and reality become dominant.
Luebe creates a unique drama by animating Socrates’s voice. In Scene Seven, text becomes sound, and further on sound becomes image.

Page sizes and margins mutate with the drama. Luebe creates an exclusive experience with images and words on paper, where meaning emerges in the common space of imagetext. Knut Hamsun’s The Growth of the Soil is the story of a man who slowly builds material life in the woods. Designer Sáez-Conde gives concrete typographic expression to words that correspond to material culture and records them on the pages to address their accumulation. Sáez-Conde, as designer, uses the page-turning experience to envision the growth and passage of time.

The materiality of the book serves as a concrete expression of the cultural production and material agglomeration that are present in the text. The books mentioned here address a common place where image and text meet, where the author, unapologetically, marries the two. These books incorporate images beyond confections and also address the spatial/visual nature of certain writing. This way of writing (imagetext) offers an exclusive experience where one chooses to read pictures, and picture words.

Gökhan Ersan is an instructor in the Visual Communications Department and will be teaching Graphic Book: Narrative Strategies this summer.

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