Pictures are overrated.
Don’t get me wrong. I like stuff as much as the next person, but pictures can only do so much. They capture the surface of things; or more to the point they make a surface of things. Pictures reduce the complexity of the world to a flat rendering, an arrangement of data that fools the brain into thinking it is seeing the world. Pictures offer us the style of things, a glimpse, but rarely the depth.
There have been many great photographs over the years that encapsulate a much larger world, a profound complexity, within the narrow lens of the camera, but those pictures are rare. More often than not they simply objectify things, transport them into the commodity market of imagery that populates the internet. We are awash in pictures, so much so that we rarely have time for any of them; even the tweet is become too long to sustain much value anymore.
At the same time, images do have great ability to inspire, to lead us to further inquiry. In their ideal state images serve as the gateway to an exploration of context, learning about the who, what, where, when, and why. Sometimes the purpose of a photograph is essentially to point back to itself, it simply is what it is, but more often than not a photograph is a marker of a wider array of content.
In the sewing world a photos of a quilt (for example) might display the finished object, or a moment in the process, or a preparatory sketch. It is a glimpse into the much larger set of processes, thoughts, and decisions that lead to that moment and might follow from it. We use our images to bring our peers into our process; we share because we have something we feel compelled to share, whether that be a conceptual matter or simple pride. No matter why we share that image there is always more there than just the image. The thing about images, though, is they do depend on at least some degree of context: the where and when and how of sharing, of putting out there, matters and conveys a lot of information.
So what? Why should we care?
This morning my friend Sara asked a question regarding an image I posted on my Facebook page.
Her question really gets to the problem of images on the internet:
I’m just curious, does anyone see these without reading the explanation on your blog, etc. and take these literally? You know what I mean, like, not get it?
On FB, how many people really read the captions, the explanations of the images before they like or dislike them, process or dismiss them? In the case of the above image, how many people will take it at face value and then make a judgment with regard to my politics. Furthermore, what happens if this image is pinned, or just lifted and used elsewhere, stripped of any real link to the original context, tied to the path that will lead to the larger project and the essential context?
We like the instant gratification of the image, that surface pleasure we so readily refer to as eye candy. The phrase itself – eye candy – is enormously telling; it is something we know is not necessarily good for us, but we crave it regardless. It is an indulgence within the set of more serious, critical, and meaningful information. The image itself is not problematic, but the decontextualized image is perpetually in jeopardy, in danger of becoming something else.
This morning I awoke to a link to an article about Dame Judy Dench’s embroidery habits. The image used in the article looked familiar and lo and behold I was right to recognize it; it was a bit of embroidery by Completely Cauchy.
It has since been removed and replaced, but for a period of time that embroidery was indeed Dame Judy Dench’s, or at least it might as well have been. I could turn this into a complaint about proper attribution, but I am concerned with something I feel is even deeper. In the proliferation of images, the reduction of the role of text and context, we have become complacent about how we look at images at all. Nearly all images are treated as eye candy, as the equivalent of stock photography.
At a certain level every image out there is now a form of commodity: images are added gratuitiously just to enable pinning, but those original connecting ligatures linking image and context become quickly strained and easily snap. On Pinterest the context so frequently gets lost in the morass of repins and reuses. And with the context stripped away those images serve simply as pinboard fodder, a means of building up a digital credibility, a certain authenticity in terms of style. The context is irrelevant if the goal is to construct a desirable pinboard.
This isn’t about words vs. images, or old vs. new technologies. I think of it as more of an advocacy of meaning, a matter of embracing the rich texture of what lies behind the surface of an image. I don’t really have an answer or anything; this is more just a ramble through the concerns that are rattling around my head since posting that embroidery design yesterday. I do indeed hate Pinterest. While I think there are a lot of well-intentioned users, I find it to be a pernicious environment, a large-scale decontextualizer.
And that, perhaps is the issue for me, at least within this community. I see so much of quilting and sewing and knitting and stitching as being fundamentally about context, a process of searching for a greater connectedness to things. Thus Pinterest, or at least the underlying processes involved there, seems to channel an inverse process. Our quilts (and everything else) are transformed into eye candy; our investments reduced to their value within a particular set.
And the thing is these sets then reinforce themselves, attract like things. Pinboards tend to produce an overarching narrative in pictorial form, even if the motivations for any particular element (its context) may not fit that larger story; the context is irrelevant. At the same time pinning tends to reward the bold, those images and object that make a quick impression, but not necessarily a lasting one; we pin what catches our eye.
Of course these are generalizations, but I do think they reflect a certain tendency. It isn’t that Pinterest is universally bad, or that images (or even eye candy) are universally evil. But these are processes that concern me. I am a big booster of online activities, but I also think they need to be understood for what they are. Images are slippery things, and our ease of access and use only makes them all the trickier. In many ways that has always been the case; just go back to Plato’s concerns with representational art. My concern, and this may indeed mark me as old-fashioned, is that this valorization of surface runs essentially counter to the fundamental connectedness of the tradition in which we all are working, the profound value of context when it comes to the quilts we make, the things we sew and stitch and knit. Making is always about so much more than the surface, and I worry about how the growing marketplace of images is affecting that understanding.
But then I am a worrier…
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