Pictures vs. words


Recently I discovered an intriguing blog, The Brown Advisor, in this case referring to “the great landscape gardener, or place-maker, Lancelot ‘Capability Brown’.” I quote this from the blog, quoting Joseph Addison:

“‘Words, when well chosen, have so great a Force in them, that a Description often gives us more lively Ideas than the Sight of Things themselves. The Reader finds a Scene drawn in stronger Colours, and painted more to the Life in his Imagination, by the help of Words, than by an actual Survey of the Scene which they describe. In this Case the Poet seems to get the better of Nature; he takes, indeed, the Landskip after her, but gives it more vigorous Touches, heightens its Beauty, and so enlivens the whole Piece, that the Images which flow from the Objects themselves appear weak and faint, in Comparison of those that come from the Expressions.'”

Think about it. It sounds odd to us, enmeshed as we are in a highly visual age.

The photo is of the lake at Blenheim, made by Capability Brown.

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16 thoughts on “Pictures vs. words

  1. When I teach writing I not only discuss the five senses, and then do many exercises using them, I make a point to have my students avoid sight; too often, the writing becomes lazy, namely because I think we writers can so clearly see what’s happening in our mind we don’t take the time or have the patience to get into a moment via our full body — but a moment is all a reader has, in the end all any of us have. The power of sensory words and detail over an image is that words create an image unique to all of us, yet also somehow universal — I can’t say a photo or a film or a vista can quite measure up in the same way.

    1. Years ago when I was working on my master’s thesis, I read some in phenomenology. I can’t remember where I read this–maybe in Geoffrey Hartman–but he made the case that the sense of sight overpowers all the other senses, and we give much greater weight to sight than to the other senses. I agree with you, that our culture, particularly, is overwhelmed by visual stimulus, and that we have a need to “know” the world through all the bodily senses. When I see Shakespeare, I’ve often thought the visual scene before me is so much less powerful than the words themselves. They create a world in the mind’s eye, and the one seen by the physical eye is by far the lesser one.

      1. Of course, we’re both having this conversation having the ability to see. It’s a privileged perspective I suppose. We’re also white males with grad degrees who are into garden. Check and mate. 🙂

        1. True, we’re sighted white males with grad degrees and the inclination to think about such things, but this is where the “Great Spirit,” or karma, put us this time around, no? 🙂

  2. O, James, that’s my very own ancestor, that Joseph Addison!

    And he has a point. People are often surprised by aspects of Veddw which simply can’t be rendered in pictures or on film (slopes!).

    And then there’s the words of the proud owner (which I tried hard to spare you when you visited) – see here:

    Daren’t ask you for ANOTHER thinkingardens piece, but it’s an obvious for us, isn’t it?


    1. Now I recall that, Anne (the relationship with Addison). Your garden in particular seems designed to defeat photography. I’ll never forget that initial view, entering from on high, from the parking area, across the garden, which drops off sharply then rises on the far side. Very dramatic, and I found it impossible to show in a photograph. Of all the gardens I saw in the UK this summer, I think yours was the most different from my expectations. I have an idea of an image to try to desdribe it. And it makes me think your garden is a female, not a male, garden, except for Charles’ tall cardoon garden!

      So I’d be interested in exploring the idea–of the physical experience vs. photographic representation vs. the inner experience of being in the garden. But I’m already behind on my promises. I’ll tell you why privately.

  3. Given a choice between LookitThePrettyPicture I found on the internet

    and the picture in a context of words – I’ll take that.
    Or just the words. I often scroll back to an image, because there is something I only see, after the words show me.

  4. James, a great quotation that leads to much speculation on my part about the connections and differences between looking at a place, seeing an image of it, reading a description of it and actually being present. Also a reminder that I had promised Anne, descendant of Addison (that’s a connection worth mentioning), a piece about the use of cameras. Also a link to what looks like a wonderfully quirky and informative website about the place-maker himself. So, thank you.

    1. Pat, isn’t that blog wonderful? I discovered it in a tweet from Andrea Jones, the Scottish garden photographer. Having spent a great deal of time reading about English landscape gardens in preparation for my long visit to the UK last summer, it suits me very well. As to photographs of gardens vs. experience of gardens, I find each offers pleasures, but very different pleasures. And words are another thing entirely.

  5. Unlike the person of Mr. Addison’s era, we’re overwhelmed with digital images, advertising, recorded music, books, youtube, and movies, along with easy access to local as well as world travel. It’s affecting us in profound ways, both good and bad.

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