October 15: Phiction

15October 15: What equivalence do words have with images?

The old adage “One picture is worth a thousand words” might be a cliché, but so exact a ratio begs to be questioned since it assumes that some quantifiable exchange can be made of words with pictures. It also declares an inter-change between pictures and words, which is something else again. The phrase was coined by a pioneer of images in advertising, Fred R. Barnard. It is significant that he subsequently inflated his original equation to “One picture is worth ten thousand words” in 1927.

The problem of the equivalence between word and image frames the experimental pretext for the exhibition Phiction: Lies, Illusion and the Phantasm in Photography that toured 13 venues across Victoria, Australia, for which I assembled  works from the Horsham Regional Art Gallery collection of diverse examples of Australian photography (larger than holdings of many metropolitan institutions). Some are documentary or photojournalistic, others with an artistic intent.

Phiction (the title amalgamated photography and fiction) emphasised the way we read photographs, and the right and capacity we have to read them for ourselves. It asked what possible correspondence there is between the meaning contained in a photograph and that transmitted, for instance, by ‘a thousand words’, which is roughly the amount contained in a long newspaper feature or a very short story.

We are used to seeing photographs accompanied by text or captions, but where is there any point of comparison between text and image? Phiction tests the connection in three ways.

First, in this exhibition, texts accompanied the images which are not the usual gallery fact sheet, list of provenance nor curatorial gloss, but small extracts from Australian fiction, most not even two hundred words long. The use of these novels and stories were intended to encourage and challenge the viewer to question the image.

Secondly, Phiction presented images that are not easily explained and challenge the viewer for interpretations. Many were illusionistic, some deliberately lie, pretending to be something they are not, some even are apparitions.

Lastly, no text and image pair was an exact ‘fit’ since none of the writers intended their writing as a caption, and none of the photographers were illustrating the text.

In this way the exhibition forced a confrontation between the ‘dumb’ image and the ‘blind’ text. Such lack of exact correlation prompts the viewer to substitute it for their own reading to decide for themselves if photographs are lies, illusions or phantasms. Surveys of visitors to the exhibitions of phiction were made at all thirteen venues across urban and regional Victoria. Invariably, whether they be students, or members of the public, there is universally a readiness to take issue with the connection between each image and its ‘caption’. From audiences making such considerations come many questions about intentionality and aesthetic merit in both photograph and printed word.

Here is one example of this pairing, selected because its photographer was born on this date in 1885.

Frank Hurley, who was born on this date in 1885 (†1962) is among Australian photo history’s most significant, and surely one of its bravest, practitioners. His image below was taken on Ernest Shackelton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17 aboard Endurance which departed from South Georgia for the Weddell Sea on 5 December, heading for Vahsel Bay.

Early ice slowed progress and conditions grew worse until, on 19 January 1915, Endurance became frozen fast in an ice floe. On 24 February, realising that she would be trapped until the following spring, Shackleton ordered the ship’s conversion to a winter station while she drifted with the ice. With Spring in September, the breaking of the ice put extreme pressures on the ship’s hull and  on 24 October when water began pouring in Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship, saying, “She’s going down!”; and men, provisions and equipment were transferred to camps on the ice. On 21 November 1915, she sank.

Out on the ice, Hurley had time to compose a number of photographs of the sinking vessel. In this rare example he has toned his carbon print blue to convey the temperatures and conditions in which he was working, but ironically presents the ship as if on the high seas amongst billowing waves, actually moguls of blizzard-driven snow.

Frank Hurley (1885-1962) Imprisoned in Ice, January 1915, blue-toned carbon print 38.9 x 49.1 cm. Purchased for Horsham Regional Art Gallery with assistance from Neil Douglas and Bruce Chamberlain MLC, 1997.

The story of a quite different stranding is told in this text which accompanied Hurley’s image in Phiction:

“I wish I had a camera?” said Donna, her voice muffled by her scarf.

Lark stopped crying and sat beside her. The tears were still wet on her cheeks, her eyes were fixed on the ship. “They’re going to leave us behind.”

“I’d reckon we have about two hours until the reef is covered and we can’t stand any more?” said Donna. As she spoke, the water was lapping again at their toes and soon was covering their feet. “Like those galloping tides in England?” said Donna chattily. “The shore is so flat that the sea just rushes in at high tide, like a train. People are always drowning, trying to run away from it. You have to somehow not fight it, but go with it, go with whatever is pushing at you, in order to master it.”

They stood up and picked their way to what appeared to be the highest part of the reef. Donna had now let her glass bowl go and was leading Lark. Even at the highest point the water was at their ankles, rising steadily.

From Dancing On Coral by Glenda Adams Angus and Robertson 1987 ISBN 0207161



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