It’s odd that we don’t have a word for the visual equivalent of the figure of speech. You can’t get through high school English without learning about alliteration, metaphor, personification, and a few other verbal techniques for styling up your prose. In art class you might learn a few basic design principles, and there or in music or a lit class someone might identify a motif or two, but that’s not quite the same. There are a number of words to aid pattern recognition–form, schema, template, outline, ring construction, and others–but they apply across media and often are used to give a visual inflection (or, to apply one’s visual intelligence) to verbal interpretation. Of course, the design arts have highly developed technical vocabularies and many shared terms or concepts, but few if any of those are in general circulation. “Entabulature” and “foreshorten” can be found in a Saturday crossword puzzle but not in the rest of the paper. There just isn’t anything quite like “alliteration” for common visual techniques–say, like this:
The photograph of a double image is a stock technique that regularly produces arresting photos. The most common example probably is capturing a natural figure and its reflection, as with this photo of a spoonbill. There isn’t a common term for it, however:”double image” refers more broadly, including both natural mirages and material doubles such as two photos side by side. Nonetheless, the visual figure is both instantly recognizable and yet compelling. As it should be, for the photograph of a near-perfect reflection captures both the surface appeal and philosophical depth of photography. You might say it is one of photography’s most reflective moments: the photograph of a reflection asks us to consider how photography itself is a copy of nature: a point-to-point reproduction, an inverted duplication, an optical illusion, something as flimsy as the surface of a pool of water.
Photography has from the start been plagued by doubts about its authenticity. How can a copy share in the nature of the original, when it is but a thin sheen of molecules and something that would never exist but for the object it mimes? I won’t rehearse the arguments here, but by looking again at the double image one can consider how the question can be reframed more helpfully. Rather than asking what something is–say, is it a copy or the thing copied–we might ask what we can learn from each. There are some things that you can learn only by looking at the real spoonbill: how it moves, for example, or upon dissection, the exact size of its organs. But other information can be more available in the copy.
More to the point, you can learn from the copy precisely because it is not exact. Look closely at the two birds above, and you’ll see that the differences can be illuminating. The reflection allows us to see more of the undercarriage, and with that its vulnerabilities, while the angle of the face and its softening by the water allows more emotional identification with the animal. As one’s imagination awakes, one can begin to see the lower bird as the bird’s mortality enacted: about to vanish, it is closer to death, while the inverted suspension and subtle mottling of the feathers places it closer to a specimen than a living organism. Without the copy, our understanding of and relationship to the bird would be diminished. That is all the more true when you realize that the only way most of us are likely to see a spoonbill any time soon is through a photograph.
And so of course we get to politics.
Presidential candidates are not quite so rare, but they, too, are largely seen as images. So it is that the double image of the politician is another example of how the visual figure is both familiar yet compelling. The technique has been available at least since Garry Winogrand’s brilliant photo of JFK and his televised image speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 1960. Rick Perry is no JFK, but this photograph from his “Response” prayer meeting at Reliant Stadium in Houston does some of the same work as Winogrand’s photo. For example, each photograph shows both the speaker and some of the media apparatus to suggest how the candidate operates as both person and image. It is interesting that in the 1960 photo, the image in a portable TV was much smaller than the candidate, while in 2011 it has come to loom over him. By staying the same, stylistic conventions record social change. (Note the alliteration.)
The ascendency of a politics of the image almost goes without saying today. The question remains of what else this double image might teach us. Because the larger Perry looks almost like an illustration rather than a photograph, it seems to offer something a bit more traditional than the slickness of the real thing. Could the double actually reveal a good intention otherwise lost in the obviously strategic calculations of this latest play on the faith-family-flag motif? Or does it suggest that the persuasive techniques of that old time religion have been repackaged in the glitsy media spectacle of the modern electoral campaign? And shouldn’t it remind us that the “real” Perry in the lower front is actually a photograph, and that most voters have no exposure to the candidate himself?
In any case, if we have to put up with the original, there is good reason to examine its image.
Photographs by Jim Damaska/St. Petersburg Times and Richard Carlson/Reuters.