Do you get the picture? Perhaps we should go to see a picture, so we can examine the big picture, form a mental picture, or understand why this picture is worth a thousand words. So what is the picture?
“Picture” is a vast term, almost as difficult to pin down as the idea of “media” itself. Like media, pictures are ubiquitous, depicting everything from the latest Hollywood gossip on a magazine cover to the most esteemed works of art.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a picture (noun) is a “visual representation; a painting, drawing, photograph, or other visual representation on a surface; esp. such a representation as a work of art.” Additionally, picture can refer to a portrait, a likeness or image (of someone or something), a beautiful or picturesque object, person or scene, or a cinematic production. Commonality exists, first and foremost, in the visual perception of all of these differing definitions. A picture, then, is a component of media that is visually distinguishable. We interact with a picture by absorbing its perceivable qualities: its color, shape and semblance.
The OED also provides the definition for the verb, to picture : “to draw, paint or photograph, to represent in pictorial form, to depict. To represent (an abstract quality or idea) through symbol or sign. To describe vividly in words. To image, form a mental picture.” These definitions point to a creation of content; by picturing we are producing a subject matter.
Working with these meanings, and remaining cognizant of its position as a medium in particular, it is useful to highlight the representational quality of a picture. It depicts likeness and reproduces features or, as W.J.T. Mitchell wrote of the image, it acts as “a sign or symbol of something by virtue of its sensuous resemblance to what it represents” [1].
There is, however, a distinction that must be drawn between the particular qualities of an image and those of a picture. In his work, What do Pictures Want?, Mitchell explicates these differences, citing the necessarily material quality of the picture and its contrast to the intangible “intellectual property” that may be extractable from an image. Images, that is to say, can exist in the realm of “mental things” such as “dreams, memory and fantasy” or “linguistic expressions.” They are the element of a picture that can be extricated, remediated or translated into language and yet retain the represented concept [2]. Pictures, on the other hand, are dependent upon their physicality. Thus, within the context of media studies, we will define a picture as a tangible visual representation of an object or event or, verbally, as the act of representation [3].
The power of these visual representations lie in the successful transmission of concepts to viewers. Yet opinions differ on the cause of this effectiveness. The first viewpoint states that “like linguistic expressions, pictorial reference is conventionally determined,” and thus ultimately the cultural influences on perception play a significant role in defining the picture [4]. As representations are synthesized differently in dissimilar cultures, it therefore follows that cultural constraints define the meaning, and thus significance, of pictorial representation. Walter Benjamin supported this claim in his text The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, claiming that “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition” [5]. Additionally, Jonathan Crary’s work on visual representation lends an interesting voice to this view. Crary argues that onus should be placed upon the “phenomenon of the observer” rather than the “shifts in representational practice,” as signification is, ultimately, derived from the perspective of the spectator [6].
The second opinion argues for the “resemblance criterion,” the conviction that a picture presents qualities to link itself to the object or event depicted in order to be designated as such [7]. It is the object or event itself that holds particular significance, which is thus conveyed through its representation. This viewpoint seems to have its roots in the work of C.S. Peirce, who described the icon as a pictorial representation in which signified and signifier are linked through resemblance [8].
The debate is of particular significance because it highlights the consequence of pictures in modernity. As media, pictures communicate with us. Ignace Gelb explained in The Art of Writing that pictures function as an integral part of human communication and, in many ways, can be identified as the origins of written language. “ Writing” he asserts, “began at the time when man learned how to communicate his thoughts and feelings by means of visible signs; understandable not only to himself but also to all other persons more of less initiated into the particular system” [9]. This early writing was completely pictorial in nature, and relied entirely on the representational quality of images as conveyers of ideas.
Gelb’s view of the picture’s importance as a thought-conveying mechanism is certainly exemplified by ancient systems of picture language, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, and can be seen in current usage of pictorial characters, such as in Chinese written language. In a similar discussion Marshall McLuhan reinforced this contention in his work, Understanding Media, asserting that the modern superiority placed upon word-language over pictorial representation is ethnocentric. It “is worth consideration,” he noted, “just why Westerners should be disturbed to find that natives have to learn to read pictures, as we learn to read letters” [10].
To proceed a step further, some, like Ferdinand de Saussure, would argue that words – or “sound-images” as he referred to them – are significant only insofar as they are connected to the picture they produce. The picture, acting as the signified, is a concrete concept in Saussure’s estimation, whereas the signifier, the word appropriated to it, is simply a “linguistic sign [that] is arbitrary.” The meaning, then, exists in the picture-concept and the thought it conveys [11].
In modernity, the most common association made with the picture is certainly with that of the photograph. The two words are virtually regarded to be synonyms, yet it is important to recall that a photograph is a type of picture and yet a picture need not be a photograph. The photograph has profoundly influenced perception of the objects with which we interact. There are photographs everywhere, mediating innumerable interactions daily and representing ideas about a myriad of people, places and things. Yet what makes this conveyance so effective, according to Roland Barthes, is “the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens” [12]. Contrasting this to the “optionally real” content of painting or discourse, Barthes postulates that it is the undeniable existence of the objects pictured that furnishes the photograph with its deep impact upon the viewer [13]. In fact, this affirmation is so profound for Barthes that he considers the advent of the photograph as the demarcating moment which “divides the history of the world” [14].
The photographed object’s materiality notwithstanding, photographs are often still carefully composed images. The effect of this, according to Walter Benjamin, is the “intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert,” a viewpoint that allows for intentional representation within the pictorial language [15]. This, significantly, would imply that our thoughts are not necessarily original in nature, being perhaps profoundly colored by representations presented by the expert. In this sense pictures function as carriers with the ability to convey messages and meanings infused within them, continuing the tradition of written communication. As technology progressed, the importance of this ability became increasingly explicit as its impact became clear. “Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art” Benjamin wrote [16]. Although his statement mentions art in particular, the sentiment is certainly applicable to pictorial media more generally.
With the invention of the printing press, and later that of the moving picture and the internet, the conception of the picture was altered, as the capacity for mass reproduction of an image was realized. To this end, Benjamin expounds on his above point in postulating that the replicated picture could effectively eliminate unique existence and replace it with a multitude of copies. Benjamin asserts that this “shattering of tradition” is the “obverse of contemporary crisis and [the] renewal of mankind,” making the process intimately connected with “contemporary mass movements” [17]. A single picture could now be effectively disseminated to a mass audience, circulating with it a single message and opening the possibility for what McLuhan termed a “new tribalism” in which people of different backgrounds and physical spaces are initiated into a bond through access to an identical pictorial vocabulary. As Kittler maintained, “media technologies, reaching beyond information storage, began to affect the very transmission of information,” altering the way we receive pictures, and consequently the way we perceive them as well [18].
In his essay on “Image,” Mitchell elucidates the prevalence of pictures and “image saturation” in todays global society, and the perceived influence. “[It] has led a number of scholars to postulate a “pictorial turn” in modern culture,” he wrote, “a qualitative shift in the importance of images driven by their quantitative proliferation” [19]. Given the staggering volume of pictorial mediation in the contemporary world, the impact of this representational medium should not be understated.
Moving pictures or cinematic pictures are another significant element of the mass consumption of images that has grown to unfathomable proportions. Countless people around the globe have access to similar images and ideas and, within film particularly, these images may be presented as fully developed, coherent thoughts. For Walter Benjamin, this makes film the “most powerful agent” of the category of images, as “its social significance, particularly in its most positive form” could effectively eradicate “the traditional value of the cultural heritage” and promote a “revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art” [20]. Kittler, went as far as to assert that it was the invention of cinema itself that “ushered in the present” moment in history, as moving pictures have created a language of stories and ideas that can be spread quickly, convincingly and globally[21].
McLuhan, however anticipated a negative aspect of this proliferation of images. In his conception of the photograph as a “brothel-without-walls,” McLuhan worried that the pictures set before the masses of “movie stars and matinee idols” would become “dreams that money can buy. They can be bought and hugged and thumbed more easily than public prostitutes” [22]. Interestingly pictures of the genre McLuhan was describing and, more prevalently today, television and movies, offer us several kinds of mediation, or “twofoldness” as termed by Richard Wollheim. There is, simply, the picture presented through the mediation of the camera [23]. Additionally, there is the mediated account of personhood and identity – the character assumed by the “movie stars and matinee idols” cited by McLuhan. These constructed images, perhaps, were McLuhan’s basis for concern, as accepted representations can quickly invite a degree of imitation.
The importance of pictures as social signifiers, then, certainly raises many questions today. As Mitchell points out, “the widespread perception that a ‘pictorial turn’ is taking place” is often accompanied by a “prediction of disastrous consequences for culture” [24]. If pictures, ultimately, function as a representational language conveying ideas about self and society, where does their influence in our lives end? After all, if we are living in a pictorial age, who is “the expert” creating the image?
Elana Brown


Mitchell, “image” 38-9
Mitchell, What do Pictures Want? 84-5
Wollheim, 5.
Sachs-Hombach, 167.
Benjamin, 223.
Crary, 5.
Sachs-Hombach, 168.
Peirce, 102.
Gelb, 11.
McLuhan, 191.
Saussure, 67.
Barthes, 76.
Ibid, 82.
Ibid, 88.
Benjamin, 234.
Ibid, 234.
Ibid, 221.
Kittler, 170.
Mitchell, “image” 37.
Benjamin, 221, 231.
Kittler, 13.
McLuhan, 189.
Wollheim, 5.
Mitchell, 37.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. trans. Richard Howard.
New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. ed. Hannah Ardent. trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: on vision and modernity in the nineteenth century. Boston: MIT Press, 1992.

Gelb, I. J. A Study of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Futz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Image.” Critical Terms for Media Studies. ed. W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Mitchell, W.J.T. What do Pictures Want?: the lives and loves of images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Peirce, C.S. Philosophical Writings of Peirce. ed Justus Buchler. New York: Dover Publications.

Sachs-Hombach, Klaus. “Resemblance Reconceived.” Looking Into Pictures: An interdisciplinary Approach to Pictorial Space. ed. Heiko Hecht, Robert Schwartz and Margaret Atherton. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Wollheim, Richard. “In Defense of Seeing-in.” Looking Into Pictures: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Pictorial Space. ed. Heiko Hecht, Robert Schwartz and Margaret Atherton. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.