What's In a Picture?

10 September 2019

Look around; I’ll bet you can see several pictures from where you sit, or stand, right now. You may see photographs of family, or drawings in advertisements. There are little pictorial icons for apps on your computer desktop and your phone’s home screen. Simplified pictures of pedestrians, cars, trucks, and deer festoon our street signs. 


Pictures are so ubiquitous that they often fade into the background of our conscious experience. We take them for granted. But there’s a special magic to pictures. When you see one, you don’t only see some colors on a surface, some marks jumbled together here and there; you see some things—maybe bottles, people, or books that are represented—in the picture. All at once, you see both the marks on the surface and the things represented by the picture.


The influential philosopher Richard Wollheim did a lot to bring this special feature of seeing pictures into view. He called it “twofoldness.” There’s a recognitional fold of seeing something in a picture that involves seeing the objects depicted in it. But there’s also a configurational fold of seeing something in a picture that involves seeing the configurations of marks on its two-dimensional surface. These ‘folds’ are inseparable aspects of seeing-in. It’s not like you have two simultaneous experiences, one of bottles, people, and books and the other of a flat surface marked by various colored shapes. These are experienced together in a special way. Whatever that combination involves, it makes a big difference to the way it feels, from the viewer’s perspective, to look at a picture and see things in it.


This brings us to a related puzzling aspect of seeing pictures: the relationship between “pictorial space” and real space. We can bring this out by considering our talk of seeing things “in” pictures.


If we take our talk of seeing things “in a picture” literally, the phenomenon starts to sound paradoxical. The things we say we see in pictures are ordinary three-dimensional objects. But there isn’t really, actually, literally room for these three-dimensional objects to fit in a picture. Pictures aren’t like little dollhouses in which you can actually place miniature bottles, people, and books. Seeing things “in” a picture actually requires knowing that you are looking at a two-dimensional surface.


It is true that pictures have their own space—“pictorial space,” as we call it; that’s the virtual space that holds and relates all the things a picture represents. When you see the Mona Lisa, for example, the subject of this portrait (Lisa) is sitting in front of a landscape in her world; her hands are folded in front of her; her smile is below her eyes.


But this pictorial space has a complicated relationship with the real space in which the actual painting sits. Though the painting is only 30 inches tall, you don’t feel as though you are looking through a small window at an even smaller person when you see it. You couldn’t quantify the distance between you, the viewer, and Lisa (e.g. three meters); and even with the best technology we could produce, you could never reach through the plane of the picture and into Lisa’s space. Real space and pictorial space simply don’t combine like that. Lisa is no more in real space than you are in pictorial space. 


This has an important further consequence. The picture itself—that physical canvas, framed in gold, layered with glass, placed behind crowd-control barriers in the Louvre—is in real space. But that means Lisa is not literally in the picture. If she were, she would just simply be in real space as well; if anything is in something which is itself in real space, then that original thing must be in real space too. But we know already that Lisa isn’t in real space. She is in pictorial space. So Lisa isn’t literally in the picture at all.


We have good reason, then, not to take “seeing things in a picture” literally. When you see something “in a picture,” you don’t see the two-dimensional surface as holding or containing three-dimensional objects; that would be absurd. Nor could real space simply contain the virtual space of the picture in any straightforward way. We should instead treat “seeing things in a picture” as a rough manner of speaking. Things depicted aren’t really in a picture like a doll is in a dollhouse. 


The “in” here sounds more like the idiomatic in of representation, used (for instance) when we say that Pip is a character in the book Great Expectations. It’s not as though there’s a little boy literally stuck in a book, and it’s not as though Lisa is really in a picture that is a two-dimensional surface.


There are complications here that I haven’t already mentioned. Lisa is certainly represented as being in real space, perhaps in a place in Italy you could go and visit yourself one day. What’s more, you are given a point of view on Lisa when you look at the picture, and that point of view is located in pictorial space. It is difficult to make out exactly what these two spatial facts come to. But we should be able to accept and explain these facts while recognizing that seeing things in pictures is just a manner of speaking; the things we see “in” pictures aren’t physically in the two-dimensional surface that constitutes the picture, and the things “in” the picture—which is itself in real space—aren’t thereby in real space.   


We are just skimming the surface of the complications involved in twofoldness. When we recognize that “seeing in” is not to be taken literally, we can start to make progress on the philosophy of pictures.


Photo by Eric TERRADE on Unsplash

Comments (2)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, September 12, 2019 -- 11:43 AM

Every picture tells a story.

Every picture tells a story. This is true, even when, to the casual observer, the picture, due to complexity or utter and abject simplicity, leaves no more than an unanswerable question: what in the world was this guy (or gal) thinking? Even a masterpiece such as the Mona Lisa leaves questions about itself: what was that indecipherable smile all about anyway? Twofoldness? Yes, certainly at least that. Maybe more, though. Every picture may even be worth a thousand words. But, if one leaves us dumbfounded, like that casual observer previously mentioned, we may be woefully incapable of putting those words into a coherent thought. Does such an outcome enrich our experience or make us better persons? A philosophy of pictures? Could be a tall order---we get a lot of those...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, March 31, 2021 -- 12:44 PM

I recently responded to a

I recently responded to a message from a former contributor to PT.( It appeared to derogate a twentieth century phlosopher, mocking a book cover from one of his texts. I thought it poor form. And told him so). For reference, the book was one by John Searle, showing the hatted head of a figure. The picture shown by the now-successful contriibutor, showed the figure's head in a cloud.

Was this some sort of coincedence? It seemed more than that to me. I understand self-promotion. We all do that, in one way or another. Insult is also common among philosophers. We are thick skinned, because we have to be. Success is hard won. But, how far should we go? I don't know...do you?...Maybe it was all in fun---an iin-joke, as it were.
But--- there is the matter of direction of fit. As Searle has posited, there is world-to-mind, and, mind-to-world. There is also professional jealousy...never a good fit in any direction. Just sayin'.