Words inspire pictures inspire words

Idaho photographer and educator Mike Shipman guest blogs in this week’s regular Friday edition.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a writer; which was after I had passed up opportunities for lead guitarist in a rock band, pro football player, archaeologist, and architect. Words were escape, and still are; a transportation to another time and place, a transformation from one being to another, one lifestyle to another. And, words were (and are) therapy; sometimes, or often, expressing triumphs and failures through made-up situations and characters. When I write, and when I read, the words inspire pictures in my head (as I’m sure they do for you as well), whether Abbey or Leopold, Nabokov or Asimov, Feynman or Gould, poem or newspaper. The images are recalled part (or all) from past experience, knowledge and familiarity of the subject, or completely made up from my current knowledge, my emotional state at the time, or the flights of fancy driven by my imagination.

For example, this poem written by Bret Harte (1839-1902), published in 1880, evokes a variety of images:

The Two Ships

As I stand by the cross on the lone mountain’s crest,
Looking over the ultimate sea,
In the gloom of the mountain a ship lies at rest,
And one sails away from the lea:
One spreads its white wings on a far-reaching track,
With pennant and sheet flowing free;
One hides in the shadow with sails laid aback,
The ship that is waiting for me!

But lo! in the distance the clouds break away,
The Gate’s glowing portals I see;
And I hear from the outgoing ship in the bay
The song of the sailors in glee.
So I think of the luminous footprints that bore
The comfort o’er dark Galilee,
And wait for the signal to go to the shore,
To the ship that is waiting for me.

These words bring to mind a photograph I made on the Oregon coast:

In turn, pictures inspire words. When I look at pictures – paintings, drawings, photographs, moving images, or shadows – I can describe what I see, feel, how I react, in words. I become aware of various associations and “resonances” awakened by the image that can also inspire new and unrelated words and stories completely out of context to the picture’s original content, intent, subject, or subject matter. It’s important for visual artists, like photographers, to be able to describe their creations in words. It helps the viewer understand what the image is about, how it came about, what it means to the artist, and helps the artist understand for himself what the work is about. And when you write words inspired by pictures those words, coming full circle, need to inspire pictures in the mind of your reader.

It might be easier for some people to find or create pictures from words than to craft words from pictures, and vice versa. But, with practice, illustrating what you read and writing about what you see becomes easier and, being interconnected, help improve both.

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.” John Ruskin (1819 – 1900)

Mike Shipman is a freelance commercial, editorial and fine art photographer and educator in Nampa, Idaho, and owner/photographer of Blue Planet Photography (www.blueplanetphoto.com). He is an Idaho Commission on the Arts Teaching Artist and leads workshops and classes in the western U.S. and around the world. His work is found in private and corporate collections across the U.S. and exhibited in the Boise, Idaho area. He believes everyone is creative.

5 Replies to “Words inspire pictures inspire words”

    1. Thanks, Sheila. This is a concept I’m using in June during a week-long “teacher’s workshop” through the Idaho Commission on the Arts, to help teachers see the relationship between photography and words; primarily, that photography is more than just taking pictures.

  1. Your essay brings to mind something else John Ruskin wrote. Carved into the granite wall of a hotel in Denver are words from his piece “O Truth of Earth.” The first part of the inscription reads: “Mountains are the bones of the earth, their highest peaks are invariably those parts of its anatomy which in the plains lie buried under five and twenty thousand feet of solid thickness of superincumbent soil, and which spring up in the mountain ranges in vast pyramids or wedges flinging their garment of earth away from them on each side.” I slowly walked around the building reading this, and more, then looked up to the mountains. I could see the bones and it was as if time sped up and I could feel the air rush as those garments of earth were flung aside. It was a new way to see those mountains, to experience them in their geologic aging.

    1. Thank you. I wonder how many people do what you did when they read that passage, or even make the connection. In my experience, even though the connection between words and images is nearly inseparable (we see pictures when we read almost as automatically as we see things when we open our eyes), some people do separate them in their own mind (these are words and I imagine pictures when I read them, but they don’t relate to what I see). I see it in my classes when the connection is made and the person ‘gets it’. It’s interesting and pleasing to me to see that because I know they’ll be looking at life a bit different from then on. I’m glad you get it.

      Is that the Brown Palace? I lived in the Denver area for a while, but don’t remember seeing it.

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