Since when is a picture worth a thousand words?

The wide dissemination of this sentence of apparent coherence has turned it into a kind of aphorism that is proposed as a guideline in science or art.

A catchphrase from the automobile industry, “one look is worth a thousand words”, led Fred Barnard to publish an article in 1921 praising the effectiveness of illustration in advertising, with the title One picture is worth a thousand wordsin which he attributes the phrase to Confucius, perhaps to give it more credibility.

Advertising origin of FR Barnard’s aphorism and advertisement in 1927.

This idea of ​​a confrontation of value between text and illustration already appeared in a novel by Turgenev (1862), whose main character, when looking at images of some mountains, is asked that, as a geologist, he would do better to consult books than drawings. He replies that “a drawing represents to me, at a glance, what in the book occupies ten whole pages.” It’s the same idea that underlies modern advertising.

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Compilation of quotes (O’Toole, 2022)

Similar comparisons (such as those in the figure), not always referring to the image, indicate that, rather than praising the value of the image, an unfavorable impression is reflected towards the discourse, perhaps in response to the historical preference for the text.

It hasn’t always been like this…

The English proverbpictures are the books of the unlearned” defines images crudely as the books of the ignorant. An idea reflected in the first illustrated books and disseminated, among others, by the reformer Calvino, which continues today:

“Unfortunately, nothing has changed today, except that the images have multiplied exponentially along with the unlearned”

Paul Derengowski, 2018.

Text and image have always been facing each other as a model or paradigm of human representation. In the classical comparison ut pictura poetrywho refers to poetry as “painting that speaks” compared to painting as “silent poetry”, literature always came out reinforced, by attributing to the poet a kind of creative gift of a spiritual type, compared to the manual nature of the artist’s artisanal imitation visual.

Da Vinci’s treatise turns this consideration around:

What poet could present to you in words the true image of your whim with such great fidelity as the painter? We do not see anything of which he speaks, things that we will see if someone speaks through paintings, which we will understand as if they spoke.

A precedent for later comparisons that will favor the social value of the image, especially when it begins to be easily reproduced and accessible. This technical accessibility begins with the painters’ camera obscura and will lead us, through photography and film, to current screens.

Narratives and reading levels

The conciliatory comparison allows sharing space between literary and visual creation, understanding their different narratives. If to build the digital image of modern screens it is necessary to write a large number of words or alphanumeric signs, these make little sense by themselves. In the same way, words are signs that, in order to be associated with a concept, will require a large number of mental images, which by themselves lose their entity. Therefore, while an image is worth a thousand words, a text could be worth a thousand images.

In defense of reading, the category of “false reader” is often spoken of: a person who values ​​reading positively but who does not have a reading habit and seeks to produce the impression of appearing to be a reader, close to social desirability.

If we were to apply this description to the visual narrative, we could also speak of false readers who, although they do not have the habit of reading images, would highly consider their value in this age of visual literacy.

Reading and comprehension levels

Reading comprehension is characterized by the active interpretation of what is read, creating meanings and making us more aware of reading in general. At the other extreme is the most superficial level of reading, characterized by efficient reading of texts and images, with specific and brief content.

This superficial reading can occur equally in both narratives and we read images superficially and efficiently. It is enough to observe the habits acquired in certain applications.

Active reading, image or text, allows us to deepen the meaning through formal and grammatical aspects. Both readings offer interpretable aspects from structural elements, subject to verbal or visual grammar rules.

Neither the image is ignorant, nor does the text have a special spirituality. Although with different results, both representations reflect the same capacity for abstraction of human thought. Human creation is visual and textual and literacy, in both languages, acquires special value today given the potential of artificial intelligence to create complex texts and images.

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