Photographs and Words – immiscible?

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I do a lot of work combining photographs and words, as I discovered that a photograph can sometimes only contribute to the narrative, rather than completely communicate it. See Photographs with Text, and my work Unfinished Stories from Cambodia.

Tony Cearns is a long-time photography acquaintance, and he writes a cool blog as Sideways Eye. He recently wrote a post called Are Words and Images Immiscible? Tony offers comments on both sides of the conversation – from Elliot Erwitt’s insistence that a good photograph does not need words, to a more nuanced approach, going back to Plato.

‘The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words’. Elliot Erwitt


‘That pictures and words are closely connected has a long tradition of inquiry. Plato hinted at the idea that pictures and words are tied together. In the Philebus he compares the soul to a book, adding however that besides the ‘scribe’ who writes ‘within us’ there is also “another artist, ‘the painter’, who, after the scribe has done his work, draws images in the soul of the things which he has described.” For the mature Aristotle the body and the soul are not thought of as separate substances but as the form and matter of one substance. Thought requires images so that “whenever one contemplates, one necessarily at the same time contemplates in images”. Plato.

It is a very helpful and well researched post from Tony

It seems to me that when we look at photographs, we always form some kind of view about them – either in our mind’s eye or expressed verbally. I think that is what Plato is getting at. But there is a difference between describing what one sees, including offering a caption / title, and using words to add contextual or narrative meaning. I offered this as my comment on Tony’s post:

‘There is a difference between using words to describe a photograph (and that may well be redundant, as Erwitt suggests) and using words to anchor the meaning of a narrative in which the photograph is merely a part. 

In that sense, photograph and text is not immiscible but complementary and often indeed necessary’.

Tony’s response:

‘I think there are several (many?) levels in which language either constitutes an image or participates in it.

At a basic level, some would say that we see in a propositional way – that is, we see ‘that p’, where p is a proposition. Seeing happens in virtue of language. I’m not sure I agree with this but I am researching it.

At a different level there is a possibility that words and images somehow intertwine to produce an experience of a picture or seeing in general. So, language is not constitutive in a causal sense but participatory in a logical sense. A bit speculative, I know, but I think there is something to this.

Then we can physically add words to images. I like to know where a picture has been taken, the general context and date. This kind of title information is useful to help work out the photographer’s intentions. I mostly dislike further words being added either by way of explanation or by pointing out somthing that is obvious in the picture. So, ‘Spring Farm, Appalachian Hills, 1937’ is very helpful. ‘Poor farmer working his fields, Spring Farm etc’ I find detracts from the image. I don’t like to be told how to experience a photograph. I am often in galleries, being a trustee of one, but I almost never read the blurb unkless its biographical or historical. Psychological descriptions of photographs tend to switch me off.

Then there is a level where words can add to an image in a kind of synthesis. So we can get a poem and an image workimng together, for example. This can work but it can be very difficult to do well. I think Fay Godwin was quite good at this. I have seen some disasters though.

What do you think?’

I need to ponder, though I am thinking we agree. My response:

Tony, I am in broad agreement with your ‘split’ – which I would define as words as explanation, words as information, words as synthesis.

The first two seem rather Wittgensteinian as examples of ‘words in use’ providing some kind of definition of an image. The third seems less Wittgenstein and more Ryle.

I didn’t know if you have read Ryle’s Concept of Mind. He negates Descartes’ duality of body and mind by saying that the question of ‘mind versus body’ is a category mistake. There is no mind without body, though there could be a body without mind (my take on his work). Mind and body are in different categories of thought. When words and photographs are fully complementary and ‘essential’ to the combined image, I see a parallel. The words without a photograph are meaningless (eat your heart out, Monsieur Barthes), but words with a photograph are something else.

As to your other point on ‘language being participatory’ in some sense, I think that is related to ‘being essential’?

Make any sense?


Tony Cearns. 2021. Are Words and Images Immiscible? Available at: (accessed 05/03/2021).

RYLE, Gilbert. 1949. The Concept of Mind. 1980 reprint. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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