February 25, 2014

Words Are Very Unnecessary, They Can Only Do Harm

Ancient Stones No 23Ancient Stones No. 23 – Alabama Hills – 2014


In the beginning was the scene, and the scene was good.

But not everyone could see the scene, and so man invented photography so that all could enjoy the beauty.

And then other men invented the art expert.  The experts did not think it was enough to simply see the beauty of the scene, they needed to describe the scene and tell us what it meant.

And that was not good.

~     ~     ~

We like to say that a picture is worth 1000 words. So why do some feel the need to describe an image with a few paltry words?

People ask me “what are you saying with your image?” and I respond: “look at it, what is it saying to you?”

The words from Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” echo in my head:

All I ever wanted
All I ever needed
Is here in my arms
Words are very unnecessary
They can only do harm

Enjoy the image, enjoy the silence.  



30 thoughts on “Words Are Very Unnecessary, They Can Only Do Harm

  1. Benoit (or Ben Waa to your friends):

    I didn’t know that is where their name came from!

    I am a child of the 60’s and so most of my music comes from that decade, but when I heard them I felt a connection. I feel that their music is the musical equivalent of black and white.

  2. Oh dear Cole! Your images never needed no explanation or commentary!!!!!!!
    However, mine always did!!!!!!!!!
    We both Know why, NOW is the time for YOU to tell me what do I DO!!!!!

  3. Hi Cole, fully agree. Once a guy told me that arts are like languages. If two persons have a common language they can communicate to each other. From a photographic standpoint, if one speaks your (photographic) language he is to understand your work. If not, the communication is lost and even is someone is trying to explain it by means of words, the understanding will not be complete neither accurate.

    I long to see all your great photographic thinking bound in a book!

  4. While I agree that trying to discuss single images is often pointless, I wonder if you would put such a criticism on discussing projects? Your “The Ghosts of Auschwitz” and Fritz Liebke’s “Astra Velum” come to mind as needing at least a modicum of words to provide a foundation for understanding.

  5. Cole
    You finally made it to my favorite place in the west, in fact will be there next week. And you captured the essence of the Hills in this single image. Only those that have visited can truely appreciate your “Enjoy the Silence” reference.

  6. I have to agree with Chuck Kimmerle on this one. The image of the Angel Gaberial comes to mind for me. While a great image in an of itself, when you understand the story behind it, it takes on a whole new dimesion. Of course, I understand your point and agree words are not always necessary, however, depending on your intent, they can indeed CAN affect the viewing experience.

  7. Chuck and John, I agree with you. Setting the stage or telling a back story is sometimes helpful.

    I was really addressing those who must tell us what the image means, often using big words that I certainly don’t understand! Here’s an example:

    “The subaqueous qualities of the facture visually and conceptually activates the distinctive formal juxtapositions.”


    “As an advocate of the Big Mac Aesthetic, I feel that the metaphorical resonance of the sexy fish threatens to penetrate the exploration of montage elements.”

    By the way, if you would like to talk like this but don’t want to take the time to obtain your MFA, you can use this tool:

  8. If viewing the image makes you feel something, why would you need words? I completely agree, Cole.

    “The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”
    ? Elliott Erwitt

  9. I like Rich Flansburg’s comment, very apropos…

    Unfortunately, it would seem that most feel the need to quantify, rather than… to just simply enjoy the experience.

    NO questions… NO answers…

  10. Yea, baby. Great discussion.

    I love irony. So, my twisted brain asks: if words only do harm, why do we name our images?

    My own view is that sometimes words can supplement the viewer’s experience of an image, and sometimes they can get in the way, depending on the subject. I’d say naming the image is a way of giving the viewer a hint…something to look for.

    When I go to galleries, I play a little game of not reading the artist’s statement or anything about the images until after I’ve responded,(or not)to them. Then,afterwards, comparing how I responded to whatever the artist intended his or her images to say.

  11. Using big words? I’m glad it’s not just me that finds verbosity unappealing. I usually find it a accompanies bleh work. I think it would be better for the viewer to consider what the image means to them as opposed to what it means to me. This way of thinking is steadily pushing me to stop naming my work as it tends to lead the viewers opinion?
    Cole, if you think Depeche mode’s songs are the musical equivalent of B&W please listen to Johnny Cash singing his version of ‘Personal Jesus’ (if you haven’t already). Great posts as usual Sir, you really inspire…

  12. Sam, a great thing to discuss: naming images.

    First, I have to name my images to keep them straight and organized. But I believe in keeping the name as simple as possible and you’ll find that most of my images are named:

    Dunes of Nude No. 14
    Ancient Stones No. 3

    I think you’re right, the name sometimes is meant to “hint” to the viewer what to think.

    Some argue that if you have to do that, you’ve not done a good job of communicating with the image.

  13. Florian: insult my photography, impugn my motives, question my intelligence…but don’t disparage the words of Depeche Mode! (smile)

    Here are the full lyrics, perhaps in full context they are more acceptable to you!

    “Enjoy The Silence”

    Words like violence
    Break the silence
    Come crashing in
    Into my little world

    Painful to me
    Pierce right through me
    Can’t you understand
    Oh my little girl

    All I ever wanted
    All I ever needed
    Is here in my arms
    Words are very unnecessary
    They can only do harm

    Vows are spoken
    To be broken
    Feelings are intense
    Words are trivial

    Pleasures remain
    So does the pain
    Words are meaningless
    And forgettable

    All I ever wanted
    All I ever needed
    Is here in my arms
    Words are very unnecessary
    They can only do harm

  14. Hi Cole,
    I completely agree with you. At the first view for me it’s important to view with fresh eyes. Words can here disturb how I see the image, what I will feel, can lead how and what I have to see. For me it’s a better way to have an undisturbed first impression to have the possibility to connect with the image. At the third, forth or fifth view some information about the background is helpful to deepen the understanding.
    By the way I love your ‘ancient stone’, a solid rock (in the time frame of a few years) in a fast moving environment. Wonderful work!!

  15. You’ve reminded me of the children’s book “Old Turtle” by Douglas Wood. He begins his book very similarly. Have you read it? And I love the words of “Enjoy the Silence”. It’s funny, I just used a quote by Martin Gore from Depeche Mode in a recent blog post.
    Fabulous post! And indeed, no words necessary for the image above! Magnificent!
    Enjoy the day!

  16. Very good post Cole. With the comments, much is being said about words. Strange… . On another note, I visited the web pages of many of those that left comments and was very please with the images that I saw. They need no words to explain.

  17. Yes, I’m not a fan of titling or describing images myself. Why is it necessary to dream up some witty or cute title just for the sake of it?! I joined a particular group on Flickr with a view to posting some images, but I received a message from the group administrator saying that my image had to have a meaningful title – guess what? – I haven’t bothered to post anything there since. As you say Cole – look at the image and decide what it says to you.

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