How do we parse embedded combinations of word and image? Consider this image, taken from the collection of the FSA/OWI. The image contains linguistic content, or better, non-natural signs. They invite the interpreter to “STOP AND READ THESE DISGRACE SIGNS OF PLAQUEMINES PARISH 2966 THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS.”
It also contains imagistic, or, natural signs suggesting an overcast day and an unkempt landscape. The two sign systems interact. As language users, the signal provided by the non-natural message insists that there is a message to be decoded. Where that message originates is ambiguous: do we believe that the creator of this image has an intension to display the unkempt landscape as some sort of meaning-sign, or do we be believe that the creator is the human who placed these symbols there? The sign suggests that there are other signs, absent from our optical field, to be read and interpreted. Multiple levels of inscription complicate its syntax. John Vachon inscribed this image on film, after someone inscribed a message on the landscape. Which message is given priority? Is syntactic priority given to the words, or to the image?
Re-presenting this image in this fashion gives it yet another level of inscription. I have informed the viewer that it comes from the FSA/OWI file. I have identified the photographer, and given it a Library of Congress file number so that it might be located. A curious viewer might locate and associate it with other images, inscribed with the same subject description of “Placquemines Parish, Louisiana, Signs along the highway,” or find sequential numbers within the file:
Examining this evidence it seems that the “disgrace signs” referred to in figure one are indeed tangible acts of communication. John Vachon stopped, and apparently (though there is no evidence beyond its catalogue number to suggest it) took the photograph in figure two first. He returned to the road to make the photograph of the “stop sign” and took several other follow-up images from different perspectives to record these “disgrace signs,” including figure three, the next image in the filing sequence. These signs contain a recognizable semantic content. For example, figure two reads:
E. RICHE READ THE HISTORY OF MY LIFE I AM [65?] YEARS OLD BORN 1871 JUNE 30TH I DONT STEAL DONT MURDER DONT LIE AND NEVER WAS ARRESTED IN MY LIVE SHERRIF DAUTERIVE GAVE A HANDCUFF TO HANDCUFF ME FOR TELLING THE TRUTH DO YOU THINK IT WOULD BE AN HONOR TO HANDCUFF ME THE BOAT THE LIFESAVER, IS FOR PROOF THAT IT CROSSED JUDGE PEREZ, HIS TWO CHILDREN, HIS WIFE, AND HIS BROTHER BUT MR DAUTRIVL ASKED COULD I PROVE IT I SAID YES, AND HE ASRED WHO CROSSED HIM I SAID A. BOY HE ALSO ASKED IF HE PAID HIM I SAID YES, I GAVE HIM $1.00 AND LOOKED FOR CHANGE BACK IF I AM WRONG ARREST ME I AM READY FOR TRIAL I WANT HELP FROM THE PUBLIC EYES ON, HANDS OFF, KEEP OUT, AND BE HAPPY LIFE SAVER CROSS PERES FAMILY OVER MISS RIVER IF YOU ARREST ME FOR TELLING THE TRUTH YOU SHOULD BE PARALZED BLIND OR CRAZY GOD IS MY JUDGE
E. Riche (apparently, at least) has painted grievances, including illustrations, for travelers to note and take heed of which cover virtually every surface of this rather uncommon landscape. In a sense, Vachon’s photographs can be seen as only a reproduction of Riche’s message. Or, in a different context such as hanging on a museum wall, it would be Vachon’s message alone. Without the context provided by these surrounding photographs, and perhaps even with them, the message of figure 1 (the stop sign) is subject to polysemous levels of meaning.
The additional photographs and the Library of Congress subject labels are what Gerard Genette labeled as epitexts that assist in the meaning-object’s interpretation. Epitexts are not necessarily contiguous in time or space; John Tagg’s observations regarding documentary also represent an epitext for the interpretation of this image, which was taken for what Tagg might label as a government propaganda organization. Does authorship, or institutional context (as problematic as it is in this example), affect the syntactic processing of the image?
In another photograph from the same area in June 1943, Vachon seems more connected with the job he was hired to do. The OWI was established with the mandate to document America during wartime. Vachon’s personal circumstances during this time were also complex. Recently published letters show that he was at a crisis point in his marriage, due to being on the road for long periods of time while his wife was suffering from a psychological illness. This was the last trip that Vachon would make for Roy Stryker, head of the OWI, and he was determined to do good work.
On June 4, 1943, Vachon wrote his wife, quoting a letter from Stryker:
“We want some general scenic material in the Louisian[a] area. . . . As soon as you get into New Orleans I wish you would give time to locating ways and places to get pix” This is what it says. How does it sound about my getting home? Not as soon as I had figured. Can you and Barnum join me for a deal like that? I do want you to if it seems plausible to you. But I do resolve to do something photographic before I get home. And wouldn’t you 2 get in my way? This is my last trip for Roy, I’m sure. (242)
Vachon’s “resolve to do something photographic” inflects the way a viewer might process these images. Other letters reveal that Vachon was an intense reader, whose primary ambition was to be a writer, not a photographer; his letters are finely crafted and many are nearly literary in form. In this same letter, written nearly immediately prior to the making of these photographs, Vachon also asserts: “My method is bad. I’ve got to change it” (242). The overall impression from his letters and journals is of a man who was trying desperately to assert meaning through both words and pictures, who was chafing at the institutional structures that he was a part of. In a letter from September of 1943, two months later, Vachon confesses to an extra-marital affair that may have been ongoing at the time that he made these photographs, adding new psychological dimensions to these “signs of disgrace.” Interpretation of these images might travel down a wide variety of roads, stopping at innumerable dirt roads containing multiple meanings.
Nonetheless, using epitexts to stabilize meanings for word-image combinations seems fraught with all the usual criticisms leveled at metonymy. Epitexts are only contingent connections to the primary syntax of the overall meaning unit. These examples (figures 1-4) also highlight the problem of recursion. Elements of text or image embedded within the primary syntactic frame multiply the problems of interpretation. They are, in a sense, dependent clauses, while the epitexts are perhaps only independent clauses in the syntactic construction of these artifacts as meaning units. Understanding the institutional context assists in the interpretation of figure 4, while understanding the personal/psychological contexts adds new levels of meaning to figures 1-3. They are independent clauses, contingent though not necessarily accidental, positioned in a relationship to these images to form a purposeful meaning unit.
*This is the thesis fragment I mentioned a few days ago. I thought it was concise enough for a blog post, to make up for my sore lack of content lately.