Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Coded Picture

In the recent book, Codes, editor Paul Lynde describes Victorian artists practice of embedding "problem" narratives into their complex paintings. Clues to this seemingly innocent (at first glance) little scene are found in the glove lying on the floor, the hat on the table (he is a visitor!) and the paradisical exterior, to name a few. All such clues rely on a deep but shared cultural vocabulary of images and symbols, which taken together, describe the situation and comment on it. The fun is in the decoding of course, and sharing a moral point of view.

In film, the "problem" picture is a fully developed trope; i.e. the whodunit. How many thrillers and mysteries have opened with a clue-laden, but unhinted scenario, only later to be fully explicated at the climax of the movie? A shorter, and now widely-seen version of the same idea is the basketball passing clip, which viewed naievely, is a snooze, but on second view surprises (prepared) viewers (spoiler alert) with a perfectly clear walk-through of a man in a gorilla mask. What's impressive is that almost nobody catches the anomalous walker-by on first look, and the lesson is that we see, not necessarily what is there, but what we expect to see there.

This is structurally similar to "Where's Waldo" and those embedded word drawings that used ot be a standby of the old color comics page in the Sunday paper. Looking for hidden clues in a still, as above, or a motion sequence,

From a constructivist perspective, "problem pictures" could be a valuable tool, perhaps in unexplored ways. How much more could be done with short clips, set up with an invitation to "decode" them? What about applying a previously-learned scheme to a real-world scene, then discussing it in small group for a while? Reversing it could also work: where a scene is viewed prior to the presentation of the scheme or theory.

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