A Level Photography Essay – Unit 3
Explore the ways in which words affect an image
Word Count: 2,016
The phrase ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ means that a picture, or in this case a photograph, can tell a story as well as a large amount of descriptive text. However when artists such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger combine these two ‘story-telling’ techniques, it can emphasise a completely different depth of meaning rather than the two elements singularly. I am examining how words can affect how we read a photograph and whether different phrases can change the meaning of the same photograph.
Jenny Holzer is an American conceptual artist originating in New York. She is famous for her large-scale public displays such as billboard advertisements and her light projections on buildings and architectural structures. Holzer’s main focus for her work is the use of words and ideas in public space. Originally using street posters, stickers and T-shirts in the 1970’s, Holzer then evolved to using light projections and photographs. Holzer has also presented her ideas, arguments and sorrows in international exhibitions including the Guggenheim Museums. One example of her work is her collection of light projections in Washington 2007. Looking at these three photographs from this collection:
we can recognise that the photographs have some similarities. Each black and white photograph consists of a landscape of Washington in America where we can see the top of skyscrapers and buildings in the top third of the photographs. In the middle third, we can make out a woodland area full of trees; and a lake in the bottom third. We can recognise that these photographs were taken at night or perhaps twilight because although the sky is clear, we can see the lights in the buildings. Furthermore, the projected words – appearing over the trees (and in two images also on the lake) are bright which allows the lettering to stand out. We can recognise that Holzer used natural lighting from the moonlight or twilight as we can visibly see the light projections. Based on the size of the photograph, we can assume that the landscape was shot on a medium format, most probably 64s. We can also assume that a small aperture was used to create a large depth of field. Furthermore, judging by the compressed perspective, we can also estimate that it was likely shot at roughly 80-100 mm.
Each photograph has its own individual phrase over the same landscape: ‘This is no fantasy. It will be achieved by concrete steps to solve’ projected in the first; ‘National interest?’ in the second and ‘”Secrecy” In a free and open society;’ in the third. After further research, I discovered that each of the three phrases have been taken from speeches given by former US President John F Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. Kennedy faced many hardships during his short time in office such as the fight against the Soviet Union and the Cuban Missile crisis. However, when Holzer took these photographs of the capital in 2007, this was around the beginning of the Financial Crisis in America which was ‘considered by many economists the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.’1 Many US citizens began to doubt the government and George W. Bush at this point.
Holzer could be perhaps questioning the government and their honesty towards its citizens. This could explain her choice of location, the capital of America, where the government is held. The lack of honesty could possibly be shown through the lack of building visible in the photograph suggesting perhaps an idea of ‘secrecy’ which is further emphasized by the word projected in one of the photographs. Furthermore, the darkness of the trees and lake could suggest how Holzer feels, as an American citizen, that she has been left in the darkness about the true financial state of the US. Holzer’s distance from the busy capital could also symbolise a distance not only from her country’s government, but also her distance from the truth shared to her as a citizen. The first photograph contains the phrase: ‘This is no fantasy: it will be achieved by concrete steps to solve’ could suggest Holzer’s disappointment towards the government and suggest that maybe she believes they are not doing their job properly. The question asked in the second photograph ‘National interest?’ could be Holzer referencing the money crisis and the national debt. However, it could also be a question aimed towards the government considering whether the choices they have chosen really were for the interest of the nation and its citizens. Whereas the third phrase ‘Secrecy, in a free and open society’ creates a hint of sarcasm further hinting at the feel of deceit towards the citizens of America from its own government. Furthermore, by projecting onto the trees, Holzer highlights them perhaps to show us the glaringly obvious fact of the government’s secrecy and yet we fail to see this.
Without these phrases, one could have read these images in a completely different aspect. For example, the perspective of the buildings towering over the woodlands could have suggested the idea of destruction of natural environment by the pollution of city life. However, with the addition of the phrases we can recognise that this towering over of the buildings signifies the power that the government have and the lack that the citizens hold. This proves that although the meaning in each photograph is only slightly different, the addition of them helps to make Holzer’s message more obvious to the audience by literally spelling it out for the viewer and making them address the important issues and examine what is really happening in the world.
ImageBarbara Kruger is also an American conceptual artist who was born 26th January 1945 and currently lives and works in Los Angeles and New York. Kruger has also worked as a magazine editorial designer during her early career. The majority of her work consists of black and white photographs overlaid with declarative captions – in white on red Futura Bold Oblique or Helvetica Ultra Condensed. The phrases used in her work usually include pronouns, perhaps in a way to engage and address her audience with the message she is trying to express. Kruger’s work usually tries to involve the viewer in some idea of struggle for power and control, whether in the theme of feminism, consumerism or individual autonomy. Kruger collects her images from mainstream magazines and juxtaposes the image with her text which criticises the sexism and the circulation of power within cultures. This juxtaposition is very powerful as the magazines she takes her images from sell the ideas that Kruger is in fact criticising. Kruger said that ‘I work with pictures and words because they have the ability to determine who we are and who we aren’t’.2 Kruger’s pre-digital works, usually referred to as ‘paste-ups’ are evident of her influence from her work as a magazine editorial designer. For her later work, Kruger uses a computer before transferring her work to billboard-sized images. We can see many of Kruger’s personal qualities in her work ‘Stopwatches’:
The black and white photograph consists of a hand reaching from the top, left hand corner. We can assume that the hand belongs to a woman due to the long acrylic nails. The hand is holding a non-digital stopwatch with the fingers hiding just a small section of the face of the clock so that the stopwatch is still visible. The thumb is placed over the button of the stopwatch, which creates the idea of time running out. This image is repeated nine times but with a different word underneath: Happy, Sad, Awake, Asleep, Hopeful, Doubtful, Relaxed, Tense, and Alive. Each word is written in white font with a black background. From looking at Kruger’s work, we can assume that the original photograph of the hand was possibly taken with one high powered studio light, positioned slightly above the hand and angled downwards. We can also recognise that the photograph was shot on a white background. Judging by the square format of the image, we can suspect that the photograph was possibly shot on a medium format, perhaps 4” x 4” or 5” x 5”. The perspective of the photograph is true to the human eye with everything in proportion and there is no perceivable distortion. This tells us that it was shot on a telephoto lens rather than a wide angle lens, possibly a 50mm or 80mm lens.
The difference in words seems to be Kruger expressing how one thing can mean different things to different people. It almost seems as if Kruger creates something extraordinary out of the ordinary. It seems as if the words work in pairs of opposites: happy and sad, awake and asleep, hopeful and doubtful, relaxed and tense. This seems to allude to the ‘times’ that can occur to us during our lifetime: for example a happy time in our lives or a sad time in our lives. Furthermore, the pair of awake and asleep seems to allude to the idea of day and night. These ideas are further emphasised by the singular ‘Alive’ which could further suggest that all these different emotions and moments occur throughout our lives. However, the final ‘Alive’ being singular creates a sort of cliff-hanger; however the viewer can recognise the pair would probably be ‘Dead’. This creates a slightly morbid tone to Kruger’s work. However, it seems as if Kruger is trying to emphasise to the viewer that they must live their life before time runs out. This idea of time running out seems to be emphasised by the thumb resting over the button, as if suggesting it has control over when your life begins and ends. This seems to create a religious allusion to the hand, which is further emphasised through the hand appearing downwards from the top, left hand corner as if alluding to the hand of God. This could also link to Kruger’s criticism towards the women portrayed in magazines – shown through the acrylic nails – and how women idolize to be like them. The use of words could be Kruger emphasising her highly important message: to live your life to the fullest.
From studying and analysing Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger’s work, we can recognise some comparisons. It seems that both conceptual artists seem to use words in order to create a clearer and more precise understanding of the message or opinion that they are trying to portray through their work. Both Holzer and Kruger seem to create large-scale versions of their work, whether on billboards or projected over public monuments, in order to express their opinions and views to a wider audience. We can also see that both artists use of words can create a completely different effect on the same image. Although the main message behind the photographs is similar, the use of different words can change how we read the image. I find that the idea of words effects on the same image is particularly interesting and would like to experiment this in my own work. I would perhaps like to try this with subjects holding a straight face and writing a happy moment and a sad moment on the same image in order to investigate whether the viewer will read the expressions differently.
Overall, I have found that the inclusion of words to an image can make more than a great impact in expressing the message behind the photograph. It is with Kruger’s use of words that she includes her audience and clearly shows her juxtaposition of feminist views through her text with the images taken from magazines she is criticising. Whereas for Holzer, it clearly states her opinions and views and her projection of these words on to public monuments and buildings allows her to express her opinions to a large viewing audience. As I further my own investigation of the effect of words on an image, I would like to continue to see if not only words, but perhaps music can affect how we read a photograph.
Holzer, Jenny. Washington 2007. 2007. Photograph. Jenny Holzer Website, Washington. Washington 2007 – Jenny Holzer. Jenny Holzer. Web. 26 Oct. 2013. http://projects.jennyholzer.com/projections/washington-2007.
Kruger, Barbara. Stopwatches. N.d. Photograph. Barbara Kruger Website. Art – Barbara Kruger. Barbara Kruger. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.
Kruger, Barbara, and Richard Prince. “BOMB Magazine: All Tomorrow’s Parties by Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince.” Atom. BOMB Magazine, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2013. http://bombsite.com/issues/3/articles/63
Reuters. “Financial Crisis of 2007–08.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
Stadelmann, Marcus. “Examining the Presidency of John F. Kennedy.” – For Dummies. For Dummies, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013