Marks on Paper

Is creating images an important activity?

By David Vestal Back to

Back when I was part painter, part photographer, and not yet writing, I had a disturbing thought: “Is making marks on paper anything for a grownup to do?” Marks on paper seemed so trivial, so futile, so egotistical. What vanity!

But then, what human activities aren’t trivial? What do we really need? It’s pretty simple: food, air, water, shelter, a tolerable climate, and each other. And we need to understand each other, and to like ourselves and others. Pain and pleasure show us what to do and not do, and they don’t always come straight to us. We’re a social species: we learn a lot from what others show and tell us.

Light and dark and colored shapes form words and pictures that we see. Talk and music, vibrations of the air, make words and other sounds that help us understand ourselves and other people, as well as other things and happenings. Besides all artificial sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations, our natural experience comes to us directly, all the time and everywhere, and life becomes too complicated to understand without some help. We need to find out what’s going on around us and decide what to do about it. When it’s all put together, what others show and tell about their lives, which won’t all be the same as ours, is called history.

History is a detailed, accumulated story, largely about mistakes people have made and their disasters, told later by some people who were there and by more who weren’t. Historians often interpret what happened, or what they think happened, according to their own wishes and opinions. What they write as history can’t all be entirely true. There’s a saying: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” I would add, “Those who do know history are doomed to make more of it.”

History comes to us mainly in words and pictures—marks on paper and other surfaces. The word “story” is the heart of the word “history.” Story-tellers and picture-makers are important to all cultures, past, present and future. Good storytellers deserve to be valued and rewarded, and some of them are.

The little that we know about our remote cave-dwelling ancestors comes to us more from their painted pictures and carved images than from their bone and stone tools, which also show us much. As far as we know, they didn’t write, but from what they threw away and left behind, we can see that they were much like us, and that their skills and intelligence were no less than ours. Why do we know these things? Because we want to know, so we search for evidence.

Curiosity, our drive to know things, useful or not, is a human passion. Why else did we invent gossip and myth and their descendants, science and history?

Visual proof?

This is a photo magazine, so where does photography come in? It gives us visual information, and it’s different from other sources of information. More than any other recording medium, photography convinces us that what it shows is true. This irrational effect persists in spite of a long history of photographic faking and deception that began in the camera’s first days.

The camera never lies? It’s more nearly true to say it always lies. It never records the whole truth, but always an incomplete version of what’s within its field. Much visual information is distorted or left out. Yet unless a photo has been altered before we see it, what it shows was really there when it was taken.

That’s why we believe photographs, even when we know they’re not all true. The photographer finds it harder to leave out what he wants to hide than the representational painter, and harder to emphasize what he most wants us to see. These things take some craft. The camera doesn’t know or care what it records, and deception is not built in. Convincing and truthful photos are taken by machines as well as by people. Think of military air reconnaissance from drones, and photographs from robots on Mars, and astronomical photos from orbiting telescopes, and the video cameras in banks and stores. We trust them all.

A possibly crazier fact, unique to photography, is that any- one at all, blind or sighted, trained or untrained, can accidentally take a wonderful photograph. Unlikely as that is, it’s less unlikely than a well-painted illustration made by a blind person. Our belief in the truthfulness of photography helps false photos fool us even now, when we all know that digital technology makes photographic deception smoother and easier and more common than before. But still we believe.

Here I must add that clever computer programs, though often used for silliness and fakery, as in TV commercials, movies, bad journalism, and advertising, can also be used honestly and intelligently. Integrity is in the person making the pictures or doing the writing, not in the medium.

I write this in a period of political campaigning, when important real issues go unmentioned because they may not
interest voters. Instead, candidates compete to accuse each other of large and small, real and unreal failings, in the dependable trust that slurs will stick and turn voters away from their rivals. It’s a long and tedious festival of truths, half-truths, lies, half-lies, and boasts. Those candidates who seem most calm under a hail of abuse will look good to many. Keeping cool is money in the bank. Acting ability beats candor.

Words and pictures matter

One weird thing that politicians say when attacking each other is (I paraphrase): “I have great respect for so- and-so. He’s really good with words. But what about action? He talks well, but I act!” That brave declaration, like most real political action, consists entirely of talk. Words and pictures matter. Without them, armies would not know where to go or what to do. Without the right marks on paper and on teleprompter screens, no candidate for office has a chance.

In today’s politics, photographs count almost as much as words. Both are influential marks on paper, and lately on computer screens as well.

If some liberal photojournalists in New York City hadn’t contributed their professional skill and energy, for good money, to a brilliant advertising campaign for the conservative presidential candidate—the man they personally did not want elected—would Richard Nixon have won that year? There’s really no way to be sure, but they certainly helped him. Again, integrity is in the person, not the medium.

And what have you just finished reading? Marks on paper.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.