Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Limits of Visual Storytelling

Lewis Bush has published the first of two pieces on visual storytelling, over here, which got me to thinking. My remarks here are in no meaningful way a response (although I may write one of those later, after the second part is published).

No, it just got me to thinking.

Consider for a moment motion pictures, film. The logic of film is that of time, of events unfolding one after the other. Yes, you can use framing devices and flashbacks and all those things, but the logic of a specific scene unfolding is, in general, that of time. The man steps forward, and then the dog shies away, as the girl lifts her hand to her cheek. Causal relationships, and stories are, at least at a micro level, simply revealed as the passage of events embedded in the inexorable stream of time.

Now consider the novel, and more generally the written word. Again, we have an inexorable forward drive, but it is not the forward thrust of time. Here it is almost cultural. Each sentence implies, demands, the previous sentence and the succeeding sentence. Here, the logic is not that of time but of thought. Just as thought, imagination, may recapitulate time in the same way a movie does, it may also proceed forward through an argument, or a set of related images. It may flit from one thing to another. Language being what we use to think with, the written word can be construed as a record of someone's thoughts.

Some progressions work, and others do not, according to rules I do not particularly understand.

Pictures, though, have no such logic. There is not, as near as I can tell, any compelling reason to always advance from one picture to the next. One photograph (or drawing, etching, whatever) does not imply its predecessor, or its successor.

Take a book of photographs, with no structure of text laid out from beginning to end, no particular external support for a particular approach to turning the pages. I submit that people will in general start at the beginning, because it's a book, turn a few pages in sequence to get the flavor of the thing, and after some period of time start flipping randomly. Only a specific urge to see the pictures will carry forward a sequential leafing. If I desperately want to see all the pictures, I will leaf forward 1 page at a time until the feeling wears off, or until I reach the end.

If do not have a fairly potent hunger to see them all, I will flip randomly, starting fairly soon. A mild desire to see all of them is not enough, I know I'll get there by flipping back and forth. I flip ahead to middle, and leaf through 4-5 pages. Then I flip back and leaf through 8 pages. And so on.

Essentially, within a book, or a section of a book, you have in a sense a budget of pictures to spend on order. You might get 4-5 pictures, or you might get 20 pictures, before the random flipping starts. But start it will.

It might not be absurd to hope that while your reader might start at a random spot, they will generally give you a small number of sequential page-flips before striking out at random again.

In part, this is because we have been trained that books of pictures have no meaningful sequence. If you simply jumbled all the pictures up at random in your average picture book, almost nothing would be lost. Some pleasing graphical coincidences might die, making the book less attractive, less pretty, but there was never any meaning in the sequence of pictures anyways.

Why do I care about sequential reading?

Most of the mechanics we associate with storytelling rely on ordering. Flashback, foreshadowing, framing devices, shifting viewpoints, rhythm, and I dare say 100s of other things don't make much sense if we're simply dipping into the thing at random.

Other mechanisms like allegory and relationships between things may survive a random walk through the material.

So what to do?

Well, for one thing you can build you book to not much care what order people flip through thing. Books (or sections of books) which are essentially just a box of pictures work this way. You can play games with spreads, but from one spread to the next you cannot rely on any particular ordering. Andy's book, reviewed in the previous, takes this approach. Each of his five sections has, on average, 25 pictures. It's pretty natural to leaf to the start of a section, and then leaf forward, 1, 2, 3, 4... 10, 7, 22. It doesn't matter, though, because each spread within a section or chapter works fine on its own.

It occurs to me that using the two-page spread to hold more than the traditional one or two pictures might be a good idea, although I just had this thought. If there truly is a sequence of three or five pictures which must be seen in order, then put them on a single spread. It's the only way to be sure.

You can add in a textual structure, to carry the reader from one page to the next in order. At this point people will mostly be reading, not looking, so there is a tradeoff.

If your pictures are wildly compelling in-sequence, perhaps you have essentially shot a movie rendered as a series of stills, well, that might work I dare say.

Fundamentally, though, I think that Lewis is going to have a lot of trouble convincing me that ideas from film and novels are likely to translate to picture books in any useful way. The forward, sequential, drive is simply not present. Further, pictures are semiotically large objects that cannot be sliced up and re-arranged in the way that, for instance, words, or frames of a movie can be. You're kind of stuck with 20 or 30 or 500 intractable lumps of meaning, rather than the 10s of 1000s, or millions, you have with novels and films.

Picture books comprised mainly of pictures, as far as I can tell, are best suited to allegorical and emotional communications. They work when designed to be accessed with a fair degree of randomness.

Keith A. Smith talks about the idea of a composite picture, a "total" picture built up out of the individual pictures in a visual book, and I think he's got it right, there.

Me? I do that. I also do things with lots of words, which are really books of words with a secondary counterpoint of pictures.


  1. Interesting, as usual. It got me to thinking about graphic novels, how I've never gotten through one. I realize that's because I treat them like books of pictures, exactly as you describe: look at a few pages in sequence, then leaf around, read the title page, back cover. . . put it back on the shelf. Maybe it would help if there were just one or two pictures per page.
    For a photo book, the best you can hope for, I'd say, is the viewer to realize the story gradually, after repeated browsing, like I suspect most people do with The Americans, say.

  2. The career/occupation "visual storyteller" has recently become a substitute for the word "photographer" on many social media sites. Countless persons who listed themselves a being a photographer are now self-identifying as a 'visual storyteller". Garbage man = sanitary engineer, anyone?

  3. The great minds of photobabble have painted themselves into a storytelling corner.

  4. Order and sequence don’t have to matter, but sometimes they do. I think you’re ignoring the long tradition of the photo essay, with it’s explicit “opener”, “closer”, “key shot”, etc. Of course you can “read” the photo essay any way you want, but done well it makes more sense in the correct order.

  5. It is strange, but I always look at a picture book sequentially. I never do the random jumps - perhaps because I treat the picture book as a movie, I subsume that the author has a story to tell...