Wednesday, July 10, 2013

One picture is worth a thousand words. A proverb made in China, no less?

Reading about Sergey Brin’s “epiphany” concerning a new language of digital communication took me to my early days in advertising. There used to be an ongoing argument between writers and art directors about the relative prominence for copy vis-à-vis the pictorial elements in print ads. “One picture is worth a thousand” used to be the favourite last word on the subject uttered by the commercial artists some of whom fancied themselves to be Gauguins, van Goghs, Cézannes and Warhols of the ad world. I must confess, at the cost of sounding like a condescending snob, that not even two or three out of a score of them had even heard the names. The writers, on the other hand, were comparatively better informed. They would at least have taken the trouble to browse through the horrendously expensive, large-format, hard-bound tomes on occidental art direction strewn about in the studio space while waiting patiently for the nose-in-the-air art directors to give them a few moments of their precious time. This apparently was also the often uttered battle cry of marketers against competitors wielding catalogues as their marketing weapon and in similar skirmishes in the US marketplace in the early 20th century.  This reminds me of what Ivan Turgenev wrote in Fathers and Sons (1862): “The drawing shows me at a glance what would be spread over ten pages in a book.” Turgenev, in case you missed it, was the “father” of the term “nihilism”. And, the just cited remark by Bazarov, the chief protagonist of Fathers and Sons who was a nihilist and a medical student, was made in connection with the geological formation of Saxon mountains – a conversation ploy he employed with his friends while feigning no interest in art. This is the right moment, folks, to hark back to Brin’s epiphany. It suddenly dawned on him that, in a digital milieu where Twitter posts are “hyper-abbreviated”, a single photograph clicked on one’s mobile phone was eloquent enough to answer a textual query – without a textual or verbal addendum.  Pictures have become text-substitutes, in short. Talk of word pictures? It’s happening here and now. So, photography is no more only for keeping a record of the past. Instead it is used to record this moment. A mobile photo messaging app for Android called Snapchat lets a cellphone user shoot a picture or a video, send it to a friend and control how long it will be visible (up to 10 seconds) after which it vanishes forever as if it never existed in the first place.  Twitter’s Vine is happy with a 6-second lifespan for the visual while Facebook’s Instagram stretches it to 15 seconds. Finally, to place the matter in the larger perspective, think about what Guy-Ernest Debord wrote in The Society of the Spectacle, supposedly the blueprint for the Parisian student revolt of 1968: "The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images." This was one whole year before the uprising. In the same book, he also wrote: "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation." Technology has finally made sense of his vision. Or, so it seems.