The language of images is a very densely argued and annotated book about the meaning of images from a semiotician’s point of view. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, such as traffic signs, emojis, alphabets, and logos, treating the signs themselves as having intrinsic meanings other than how readers or viewers might interpret them--for example, a semiotician might look at a poem as an artifact rather than something she might read for enjoyment.
The author argues that images have a language--“uttered enunciation”--that has not been addressed in the same way that the semiotics of literary and printed materials have, and that the semiotics of digitized images, and art created from digitized images or data visualizations, have barely been addressed at all.
Part of the problem is that images are, well, images--you can talk about a painting but you can’t address it in its own language. In other words, you can say, “a lot of this painting is red,” but unless you have a paintbrush and some red paint, you can’t show “red.”
Images have many well-known characteristics--color, movement, transparency, technique, brightness, and materials, for example--and art historians can describe the social and political milieu of paintings and sculpture. However, Dondero describes a different set of characteristics--whether a face in a photo or painting looks directly at the viewer or away, whether the central figure is hidden in some way from the viewer or from figures within the painting (for example, paintings of Susannah and the elders usually show the elders peering through a trellis or around a wall), whether the items seem to be falling out of the frame toward the viewer (as in many still lives), how the meaning of a part of an image can be different from the entire image (for example, a cutout of a set of figures is different from a complete landscape containing the figures), and how a mirror multiplies an image or brings in information outside the frame.
Chapter 4, the longest chapter in the book, addresses digital images, including images generated from data and images created from other images as a way of answering a visual question. Examples of the latter are a montage of Time magazine covers that show how the cover design has changed over time, and a chart of Van Gogh paintings showing differences in brightness palettes between his Paris and Arles paintings. A third example is a montage of Instagram images collected during the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution. Some show the marches in the center of town and others show people going about their lives; the images can be filtered to create a montage of various activities.
This book is most useful for someone with a strong background in philosophy who is also interested in classifying digital images and projects. Digital art can be at least three different things:
- Decorative pictures made by graphic artists;
- Generated from data (false-color images of stars, for example); or
- A combination of the two, wherein the artist uses data to answer a question graphically.
The book should be helpful in artificial intelligence (AI) imaging projects. However, note that the language is very difficult and requires close reading. Although it’s only 147 pages, it still took me weeks to get through it.