The Importance of Words

rafferty_words3I confess, although I am a visual artist, I am a lover of words. Often I find inspiration, revelations, or even consolation in reading and writing. The spoken word can have great impact as well. So inevitably, every time I ask my students to write an artist statement or statement of intent, the response is one of disdain, distrust or disbelief. (Did I mention glimpses of fear, panic, worry?) Why do I have to use words when my image says it all? Well, that’s a big assumption that an image ‘says it all.’ Depends on what it is you are saying, I suppose. And yes, ideally the image does speak volumes about your technique, idea or style. Like a dish of food that needs no seasoning or accompaniment, it can be delicious or satisfying just as it is. But more often, an addition of seasoning, condiments or an added element on the plate can make the dish reach heights it could not have before. It can enhance the flavor, characteristics or texture of the featured food. And so it is with our images.

rafferty_words2True, sometimes an image can be so shocking, stunning or quiet that it needs no further explanation. But often, a few words can enhance the experience for the viewer, and most likely for the maker as well. These words can take the form of a brief caption or title, or can be expressed more fully in an artist statement, statement of intent or artist’s biography. Why is this necessary? We’re visual people after all, right? Right, but we are also people of language. We use words every day to express ourselves, communicate and elaborate. So words with our art are just another vehicle for expression, communication or elaboration. There are many different methods for this. They can be aloof and mysterious. They can intrigue or clarify, but they can also devalue, distract or dissuade. It is important to be sure in the end the words compliment the work, not ruin it.

rafferty_words1So how do we accomplish this? Unfortunately like so many other aspects of the Visual Arts, there is no right or wrong here. However, there are some elements to consider. The words should fit the style of the work. They should make the viewing experience easier, not more convoluted. Perhaps they give some insight into the technique, situation or circumstance surrounding the image. Maybe they focus on the motivations for choosing the particular subject matter or project. Some words may be as poetic and expressive as the image itself.

Please know, this is not all for the audience or viewer. Oh no! I do not claim to be so selfless. Because in the act of having to put words to what we do, whether on paper or formed from our lips, we are informing ourselves as well. We are clarifying or expanding the means through which we express ourselves. We are having to identify the subject matter clearly, or explain the process, or reveal the motivations. We are learning as we go, gaining experience, knowledge and know-how, in yet another aspect of art making. It comes back once again to this idea of muscle memory. Once we find the words, we are then in familiar territory, and the next time we are required or asked or urged to use the words, we know them. And the next time we set out to make more images, we might have a better understanding of our process, subject matter or motives. How can that not benefit us ultimately?

Think of the old saying, “Knowledge is power.” Knowing the words, the few or many that go hand in hand with our images, gives us the power of understanding.




Want to continue this discussion? Join me for RMSP’s 25th season of Summer Intensive in Missoula, MT beginning on June 3. I will also be leading a workshop  – Summer In The San Juans – from August 24 – 30, 2013. And then in the fall will be in Missoula, MT, Rochester, NY and Burlington, VT for our final three Photo Weekends of 2013.