Reading notes

The language of seeing

Manguel comments on the link between language and seeing:

And yet, we can hardly distinguish that which we cannot name. While all languages carry distinctions of light and dark, and most languages have words to denote the primary and secondary colours, not every language is colour-specific. The Tarahumara language of northern Mexico does not have separate words for green and blue; consequently, the Tarahumaras’ capacity to distinguish shades between these two colours is far less developed than that of an English or Spanish speaker.…What the example of the Tarahumara people seems to suggest is that up to a point, what we see will be determined neither by the reality on the canvas nor by our intelligence and emotion as viewers but by distinctions provided by the language itself.

Manguel, Reading Pictures, page 32

Put more simply: what you see is constrained by how you would speak it.

Future readings

Alberto Manguel, commenting on the ways in which each viewer creates a different reading of the image before her:

The Virgin and Child before a Firescreen is at least two paintings: one shows a comforting interior and an ordinary domestic scene; another tells the story of a god born to a mortal woman, assuming in His human guise both the sexuality of the flesh and the knowledge of a certain end. This story threatens to be infinite, since every new reading adds other layers to its plot. Reading it today, we bring to the painting a wealth of curious details (the halo that travelled eastward, the ancestral images of mothering, the effects of nineteenth-century prudery) of which the artist could not have been aware; we ourselves, of course, can’t know what new chapters will be added to the story in future readings.

Manguel, Reading Pictures, page 63

As long as there are others left to read, no reading can ever be final.


In a chapter on the image as witness, Alberto Manguel discusses the photographs of Tina Modotti:

The American critic Geoffrey Hartman, commenting recently on the surfeit of brutal images on television newscasts, warns of the dangers of being entertained by “useless violence” (a phrase coined by the Italian novelist Primo Levi to describe Nazi brutality). For Hartman, the hyperrealist imagery with which popular culture bombards us “not only makes critical thinking more difficult” but both fosters and demolishes an illusion: “that reality could be an object of desire rather than an aversion overcome.” …Unlike most television images, [Modotti’s] photographs both denounce the misery of her subjects and embrace their humanity as common to ours, achieving what Hartman calls “thinking with grief,” an attitude that does not allow for either absence of meaning or meaning too rapidly assigned. The image of the peasant’s hands and feet becomes, framed by Modotti’s camera, a kind of memento mori, an object for reflection in which we, far from the subject’s suffering, are nevertheless reflected.

Manguel, Reading Pictures, page 84

Modotti’s photographs require us to recognize our own frailty, our own mortality. Contrast that with another kind of photographic witness, this time at Abu Ghraib:

But above all, it was the posing soldiers, mugging for their buddies’ cameras while dominating the prisoners in trophy stances, that gave the photographs the sense of unruly and unmediated reality. The staging was part of the reality they documented. And the grins, the thumbs-up, the crossed over puffed-out chests—all this unseemly swagger and self-regard was the height of amateurism. These soldier-photographers stood, at once, inside and outside the events they recorded, watching themselves take part in the spectacle, and their decision not to conceal but to reveal what they were doing indicated they were not just amateur photographers, but amateur torturers.

So the amateurism was not merely a formal dimension of the Abu Ghraib pictures. It was part of their content, part of what we saw in them, and it corresponded to an aspect of the Iraq war that troubled and baffled nearly everyone: the reckless and slapdash ineptitude with which it had been prosecuted.…What had been billed as a war of ideas and ideals had been exposed as a war of poses and posturing. It was our image versus the enemy’s, a standard, in this case, by which it was easy to stoop appallingly low before being caught out. The Abu Ghraib photographs caught us out.

Gourevitch and Morris, Standard Operating Procedure, page 262

At Modotti’s photographs, we feel sympathy or sadness; at the Abu Ghraib photos, anger and indignation. It is much easier to acknowledge privilege than it is to own up to wrongdoing.