Strategies in Visual Narrative

©Werner Hammerstingl 1998,1999

1. That part of a deed or document which narrates the essential or relevant facts
2. An anccount or narration; a tale, recital (of facts etc.) 1566.

We can distinguish between linear and non-linear narrative.

In this lecture we are going to explore the dynamics and strategies involved in creating a narrative structure for still and time-based visual material.
We will also explore the use visual narrative structures and strategies in reference to photography in books and exhibitions.

Take a single photograph - any photograph - and you have narrative. Why?

Because you have signification (the fact or property of being significant or expressive of something). Precisely what is being signified depends on two important elements:

Summary of Codes (1)

1 Perceptive codes: studied within the psychology of perception. They establish the conditions for effective perception.

2 Codes of recognition: these build blocs of the conditions of perception into semes - which are blocs of signifieds (for example, black stripes on a white coat) - according to which we recognise objects or recall perceived objects. These objects are often classified with reference to the blocs. The codes are studied within the psychology of intelligence, of memory, or of the learning apparatus, or again within cultural anthropology (see the methods of classification of primitive civilizations).

3 Codes of transmission: these construct the determining conditions for the perception of images - the dots of a newspaper photo, for instance, or the lines which make up a TV image. They can be analysed by the methods of information-theory physics. They establish how to transmit a sensation, not a prefabricated perception. In defining the texture of a certain image, they infringe on the aesthetic qualification of the message and hence give rise to tonal codes, codes of taste, stylistic codes, and codes of the unconscious.

4 Tonal codes: this is the name we are giving to

5 Iconic codes: usually based on perceptible elements actualised according to codes of transmission. They are articulated into figures, signs, and semes (something that does not correspond to a word in the verbal language but is still an utterance, a linguistic element that denotes an image or idea: Semanteme) (W.H.).

(a) Figures. These are conditions of perception (e.g. subject background relationship, light contrasts, geometrical values) transcribed into graphic signs according to the rules of the code. These figures are not infinite in number, nor are they always discrete. For this reason the second articulation of the iconic code appears as a continuum of possibilities from which many individual messages emerge, decipherable within the context, but not reducible to a precise code. In fact the code is not yet recognisable, but this is not to say it is absent. At least we know this: if we alter the connection between figures beyond a certain limit, the conditions of perception can no longer be denoted.

(b) Signs. These denote:

(c) Semes. These are more commonly known as 'images' or 'iconic signs' (a man, horse, etc.). In fact they formulate a complex iconic phrase (of the kind 'this is a horse standing in profile', or at least 'here is a horse'). They are the most simply catalogued, and an iconic code often works at their level only. Since it is within their context that iconic signs can be recognised, they stand as the key factors in communication of these signs, juxtaposing them one against the other. Semes should therefore be considered - with respect to the signs permitting identification - as an ideolect. Iconic codes shift easily within the same cultural model, or even the same work of art. Here visual signs denote the foreground subject, articulating the conditions of perception into figures; while the background images are reduced to all-encompassing semes of recognition, leaving the rest in shadow. (In this sense the background figures of an old painting, isolated and exaggerated, tend to look like some modern paintings- modern figurative art moving further and further away from the simple reproduction of conditions of perception, to reproduce only a few semes of recognition.)

6 Iconographic codes: these elevate to 'signifier' the 'signified' of iconic codes, in order to connote more complex and culturalised semes (not 'man', 'horse', but 'king', 'Pegasus', 'Bucephalus', or 'ass of Balaam'). Since they are based on all-encompassing semes of recognition, they are recognisable through iconic variations. They give rise to syntagmatic configurations which are very complex yet immediately recognisable and classifiable, such as 'nativity', 'universal justice', 'the four horsemen of the Apocalypse'.

7 Codes of taste and sensibility: these establish (with extreme variability) the connotations provoked by semes of the preceding codes. A Greek temple could connote 'harmonious beauty' as well as 'Grecian ideal' or 'antiquity'. A flag waving in the wind could connote 'patriotism' or 'war' - all connotations dependent on the situation. Thus one kind of actress in one historical period connotes 'grace and beauty', while in another period she looks ridiculous. The fact that immediate reactions of the sensibilities (such as erotic stimuli) are superimposed on this communicative process does not demonstrate that the reaction is natural instead of cultural: it is convention which makes one physical type more desirable than another. Other examples of codification of taste include: an icon of a man with a black patch over one eye, connoting pirate within the iconological code, comes to connote by superimposition 'a man of the world'; another icon connotes 'wicked', and so on.

8 Rhetorical codes: these are born of the conventionalization of as yet unuttered iconic solutions, then assimilated by society to become models or norms of communication. Like rhetorical codes in general, they can be divided into rhetorical figures, premises, and arguments

(a) Visual rhetorical figures These are reducible to verbal, visualised forms. We find examples in metaphor, metonymy, litotes, amplification, etc.

(b) Visual rhetorical premises. These are iconographic semes bearing particular emotive or taste connotations. For example, the image of a man walking into the distance along a never-ending tree-lined road connotes 'loneliness'; the image of a man and woman looking lovingly at a child, which connotes 'family' according to an iconographic code, becomes the premise for an argument along the lines: 'A nice happy family is something to appreciate.'

(c) Visual rhetorical arguments. These are true syntagmatic concatenations imbued with argumentative capacity. They are encountered in the course of film editing so that the succession/opposition between different frames communicates certain complex assertions. For example, 'the character X arrives at the scene of the crime and looks at the corpse suspiciously - he must either be the guilty party, or at least someone who is to gain by the murder'.

9 Stylistic codes: these are determinate original solutions, either codified by rhetoric, or actualised once only. They connote a type of stylistic success, the mark of an 'auteur' (e.g. for a film ending: 'the man walking away along a road until he is only a dot in the distanceChaplin'), or the typical actualisation of an emotive situation (e.g. a woman clinging to the soft drapes of an antechambre with a wanton air - Belle Epoque eroticism'), or again the typical actualisation of an aesthetic ideal, technical-stylistic ideal, etc.

10 Codes of the unconscious: these build up determinative configurations, either iconic or iconological, stylistic or rhetorical. By convention they are held to be capable of permitting certain identifications or projections, of stimulating given reactions, and of expressing psychological situations. They are used particularly in persuasive media.

These codes assist us in determining the "meaning" of a single image. However, once we enter the context of multiple images (ideas expressed visually) in the realm of cinema, publication or exhibition where we are guided towards a linear experience, or alternatively we experience hypertextual navigation via digital media delivery systems such as CD ROM's, the WWW or even electronic game environments, the issues become far more complex.

This will be the focus of the class presentation and discussion.

Visual narration project in class (not assessed)

Students will undertake an exercise involving the use of narrative (sequential) visual problem-solving.

The final class project is the creation of a drawn 12 stage visual storyboard which narrates a potential filmic or stills sequence on the following topic: