When Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

We’ve all heard that well-worn expression, but think about it. When is a picture really worth a thousand words?

My take: When it provokes you to search for a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.

There’s Dorothea Lange’s poignant 1936 photo of 32-year-old Florence Thompson, a destitute migrant pea picker and mother of seven, in California during the Great Depression, whose worn face speaks volumes about her family’s desperate situation.

There’s Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic 1945 photo of a sailor kissing a white-uniformed nurse on V-J Day in Times Square, capturing every American’s ecstasy at the end of World War Two.

There’s AP photographer Eddie Adam’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning image of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner at point blank range, which became a symbol of the Vietnam War’s brutality and helped to mobilize the antiwar movement.

The Storytelling Power of Stills
I was thinking about the storytelling power of stills when I visited Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art recently, and was moved by the powerful images of documentary photographer Catherine Opie. The exhibit, Empty and Full, includes photos of huge crowds at President Obama’s inauguration, juxtaposed with protesters at Tea Party rallies, anti-war marches and pro-immigration demonstrations.

In each crowd shot, Opie anchors the image with one face in a sea of many, a face full of pride, anger, anguish—whatever emotion epitomizes the experience, or the irony of the experience, one that draws you into a personal relationship with the participants. The color images are large, crisp, rich with detail, so you feel a part of the event.

Stills in Sequence Build a Narrative
I was even more struck, however, by a series of large images that surround the perimeter of the exhibit—a set of ocean sunrises and sunsets taken each day from the deck of a container ship on a ten-day passage from Busan, Korea, to Long Beach, California. Opie spent hours on deck each day of the journey, capturing the sun’s movement across the horizon, regardless of weather or visibility (she worked with the ship’s navigator to ensure that her camera was properly oriented when the sun was obscured by clouds or fog—the latter photo, my favorite of the set).

The horizon line divides each image in exactly the same place. Taken in sequence, the stunning pictures build a narrative about nature’s power and subtlety, time and infinity, how we much we miss as we move through our days, goals foremost.

You can see a brief slide show of selections from Empty and Full here. But if you’re in Boston this summer, check it out for yourself (on view through September 5).

Of course, it’s up to you to supply your own thousand words.




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