Communication is what makes humans. It has been said that language makes a human being, that without it, self-reflection is impossible and progress wouldn't exist. But before people recorded words, we recorded pictures. Cave paintings discovered in the Cave of Maltravieso in Cáceres, Spain, have been dated to over 64,000 years ago, revealing that they were created by Neanderthals. Since then there have been millennia of portraits and landscapes and abstracts. Sumerian archaic (pre-cuneiform) writing and Egyptian hieroglyphs were invented much later, between 3,400 and 3,100 BC. Novels and dramas and poetry and movies ensued. Human consciousness has been taking shape since before Homo sapiens even walked the earth. In the 1800s, when photography was invented, an extra set of hands took up the clay that makes us human. Soon after language's creation, it entered the picture's frame. Before then, words belonged on the page and pictures concerned themselves with images. With this melding of forms, modernity began to come into view. The twenty-first-century experience had begun.
Willie Baronet's wall of signs, US (2018),1 asks for help and change and food: sleeping bags, work, “a cheeseburger.” He bought them from homeless people he met around the world, then placed them beside each other like bricks. So they now paint a picture of the basic desires of people who have too little. These are the wants of those with nothing, the needs taken for granted by many. They've been scrawled in marker on cardboard, bold letters emphasized by exclamation points and drawings of smiles and peace signs. There are no people in Matt Milhouse's photographs of Baronet's wall (included in Milhouse's 2018 news article for River Grand Rapids2). The signs are anonymous, just pictures of pleas without beggars. But the hunger and cold and souls who wrote them are still present. They fill the photographs as the homeless who wrote them fill our streets—but here they have no faces or bodies. There are no gestures to communicate the wants of these signs. There are only pictures of language.
In a newspaper or magazine, words clarify the picture. They give it a time, place, and story, while the photos put faces to the world's atrocities and triumphs. In a photo-book, the captions place the pictures, reveal their intentions, add an extra dimension like a masterful brushstroke in a classical portrait. But Milhouse's photographs of Baronet's wall put the language in the shots. The words have been placed within an image's context. They have been turned from language into a picture of language, and have been given a new and unique place in the mediums' histories.
There are paintings of words, such as the works of Wayne White (e.g., Tripping from 2015 or Ape Shit from 2017), but they're a newer phenomenon. The old movements concerned themselves with images—pictures of mythologies and nudes and religion and landscapes. Prehistoric art tells us of those peoples' lives through pictures. Ancient people's values, ways, and beliefs were conveyed through images. Later the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, and other civilizations used both words and pictures. But people recorded lines before sentences and pictures before poetry and stories. When photography was invented in the 1800s, the world was changed from a fleeting blockbuster into a series of stills. Words found a new home within its frames. Once they lived on pages. Now they inhabit our pictures too.
The signs in Milhouse's photographs have been taken from their usual place—the street—and pieced together as an artwork. But many photographers have found their art on the streets and used the language found there as key components of their work. Walker Evans photographed isolated words he found in the city: Traffic Markings, Old Saybrook, Connecticut's “ONLY” written in paint on the highway in 1973, a neon sign proclaiming “DAMAGED” being loaded onto a truck in Truck and Sign (1928–30). Here the words stand removed from their sentences and purposes and meanings. They become abstract images. Evans's “ONLY” has no meaning as a word except its dictionary definitions. It tells no story, does not evoke a noun's image or a verb's motion, but lies on the road and says little. Instead it is an image of a word. The curves and corners of the letters are like brushstrokes on a tarmac canvas. This is not language as language. It is language as aesthetics.
In contrast, Milhouse and Baronet's wall of signs still functions as language. Its pleas are clear. The thanks and prayers are plain. Even Evans's broken “DAMAGED” sign is a monochrome pun, clear as any punchline. But other photographs of signs, even some by Evans, are less forward. Photographs of Times Square freeze the neon's flashes so their messages are severed. They shout their brands and products out of the frames, throw their nauseous light over the crowd. New York, the city that never stops, stands in these photographs as still as any cave painting. There is neither movement nor noise. Only the blasts of language speak from the pictures.
The logos are familiar: Coca-Cola, NY Clothes, McDonald's. They hang over the square and pack it with messages. But it is the shapes and fonts and colors of the words that convey their meanings, not the words themselves. These are pictures of words, too. But where the Wall of Homeless Signs' words have meanings as sentences, these words have meanings as logos. Like Evans's “ONLY,” it is their aesthetics that matter, not their definitions.
In these photographs the words are not reduced. They have not been stripped of their powers. Rather, like light or nuclear energy they have been changed from one form to another. Words have one set of abilities and images have another. Instead of being lessened, these words have taken on the strengths of pictures. A single word on a page is still defined by its set meaning. But when that same word is photographed, it is placed in the context of visual art. While photographs have their own language and can be read, they are not novels. They are still looked at before they are read.
Looking and reading are two distinct skills. To look is to be confronted with all the information at once, to allow the messages to hit at an emotional, gut level. Reading reveals its information one letter, one punctuation mark at a time. A text teases the sadness, anger, or joy out of the reader. A picture lays it all out. Its message exists as a whole. Images can be dissected into their parts and then read, one component at a time. Much of their power, however, comes from the punch of seeing everything at once. The smack of information that is the difference between looking and reading. A text's meaning takes shape over the course of sentences and pages, and when a sentence is photographed it marries the two skills. The sentence reveals itself as any text does—word by word. But the context of that sentence isn't dependent on surrounding sentences. Then it is revealed through the image's features, the place and people and time being photographed.
The sign in the photo reads “BOMBING FOR PEACE IS LIKE FUCKING FOR VIRGINITY.” It is written in blood-red ink that leaps from the white placard. A young hippie, swathed in patchwork clothes with black hair flowing over her shoulders, holds it in her upraised arms. Her mouth is open; she is protesting with her voice as well as her writing. The language in the picture, taken at an anti–Vietnam War protest c. 1969 by an unknown photographer, is written in the vernacular of the era. It's a language made of words and slang, but also of politics, records, conflicts, and emotions. Alongside the fashions in the shot, the words are representative of the time's values. On a page, it could come from any modern era—1970s punk rock humor, '80s cynicism, the current “War on Terror.” In the photo, the language has become a picture of a time. But if it were represented as writing it would be unidentifiable—a floating, angry expression.
Where a photograph is placed changes how it is seen. That protest sign carries a different meaning on a computer screen than it would in a newspaper. Hang it on a gallery wall and its meaning changes again. In one context it is a document. In the other it is art. Weave sentences around that photo and it would then be placed in both a picture's context and a story's. In a newspaper, it would have a place and cause. The march would have a goal and it would have occurred at a set location. But in a gallery, it would be suspended between places and political causes. The blankness of a museum's wall removes all interference from the photo. So it stands as itself. The language would be part of the picture. The picture would be part of the exhibition.
Photographing language places the words in a new setting. Wrapping that photo in words places both mediums in a different context. Evans's “DAMAGED” photo has been placed in photo books and galleries. Aperture's Masters of Photography book (2015) gives the details of the shot. Who the sign belonged to and when and where the photograph was made are revealed on the page. In June 2016, an Evans exhibition was displayed at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. The brochures and pamphlets printed for the occasion would have given some information. But the photograph itself would have hung on the wall. Undisturbed, unrestrained. It would have thrown all of its power and effect at the viewer like a wrestler. There are subtle photographs, but this isn't one of them. Its joke is clear and its subject is plain. In the book, the information reveals itself letter by letter. On a gallery wall, it would hit with the sharpness of an open-hand smack. The book treats the photo as a document: it is a sentence in Evans's story. On the gallery wall, it is both a word and picture: it is two mediums combining together to put all their weight behind the punch.
Walking down a city street can feel like an assault. Logos and languages and pictures and slogans jump from every wall and bus and lamppost. They throw themselves at our senses and pack our vision with desires and ideas. Our screens at home have been packed with information—both pictures and words. Even those aforementioned photographs of Times Square, which can be found in all brochures and tourist snapshots, are filled with messages. All these photographs are still, but within their frames are the rush and bustle of the twenty-first-century experience. Language was the first step toward this multimedia culture. New York City's skyscrapers were built on language's foundations and history is made of stories. But photography was a leap into the stratosphere. A cosmos of information opened up when those first photographs were made. Many photographers have mapped that cosmos in our cities' streets, where Baronet bought those signs from anonymous, yet familiar, people.
Novels and poems and manifestoes are almost always attributed to someone. When they're released onto the market they become part of public consciousness, but they are still the writer's words. They came out of the writer's experiences and imagination, they are of the writer's self and their world. Photographs of words, however, celebrate the words' universality. A word has no owner. While the photo is the product of the photographer's crafting, the word therein lives in the public domain. Evans photographed “ONLY” throughout his career—shots of it lying prone on the road and hanging from signs. In The Ongoing Moment (2007), Geoff Dyer writes that viewing these photographs one after the other is like repeating a word until its meaning disappears. Without a meaning, the word is suspended between languages. It loses its definition, but gains the comprehensiveness of an image. All that's left is the shape of the writing, the lines and curves that speak across Earth's tongues.
Even a full sentence takes on some of imagery's powers. That hippie's protest is evident in her stance and her silent shout and the violent red of her writing. Her anger is communicated not just by the language, but by the imagery that contains it. The creases in those cardboard signs, their ripped and tattered edges, convey those homeless people's wants as a voice would. There is a sadness to Baronet's wall that is often glanced over on the street. Homeless people are the closest reality gets to Kurt Vonnegut's “neuters”—the almost invisible people of his 1982 novel Deadeye Dick. They are not ignored. They are just not noticed. When all that humanity hits in one strike as it does in Milhouse's photographs, it is impossible to ignore it. Reading the signs' statements one after another on a page, their words would soon grow tiresome, uninteresting. In the photographs they are alive, inhabited by our fears and pity. At first glance a story seems to have more life to it. A novel moves through its plots. Its characters grow older and maybe wiser. They may love and die, thrive or rot. And the beauty of novels is the way that their stories and characters build, the writer's gradual painting of layers. But a photograph's power comes from its immediacy. Fashion photography plays on cravings for sex and glamour and perfection. It hits us with all those lusts in one blow. Couple that with people's presumption that photography is reality and then photographs gain the strength of a bull elephant. Pictures such as those of Evans and Milhouse are both blunt and eloquent. They make their points with the finesse of a poet but swing like a butcher's arm. The movements in them have been stilled. But there are movements from them—the constant push of meaning out of the frames.
A picture's defining characteristic is its stillness. It does not blink when the gallery's lights switch off. It doesn't wince at the sound of its book shutting. No wind shimmers over the grasslands of photography's landscapes and its models stand frozen. Even a bullet was stilled in Eddie Adams's infamous shot of Nguyễn Văn Lém's execution on the side of a Saigon street in 1968. Where photography differs from painting is in that immediacy. The shutter clicks. The masterpiece is made. Photographing a whole novel in one frame would be difficult and the impact of both would be lessened. But photograph one sentence, one word, and the punch of eloquence meets the speed of photography. What is produced is a picture of the twenty-first-century experience, the rush of airplanes and advertisements and freeways and texts.
Language and photography shaped our moment. The news is made of words and photographs, and so are the ads that punctuate our streets and screens. There are pictures of language. But these are also photographs of either the present taking shape or photographs of its poses. Shots made at street protests across the globe—in Washington and London and Hong Kong—show this time trying to claim itself. The people march through the streets with their mouths open and fists clenched and handwritten signs held up. In these photographs we see both the twenty-first-century experience, and the emerging shape of the twenty-second century. Movement has been stilled in them. But there will be movement from them.
“Willie Baronet,” Artprize entry profile, September 16, 2018, www.artprize.org/67890.
Matt Milhouse, “ArtPrize Wall of Homeless Signs Brings Smiles, Sadness, Awareness,” September 20, 2018, https://rivergrandrapids.com/artprize-wall-of-homeless-signs-brings-smiles-sadness-awareness.