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    About Letters and Images

    Posted: 01/27/2012 Author kb

    The Belgian surrealist, Rene Magritte—the artist who gave men in bowler hats apples for heads—created a painting in 1929 called “The Treason of Images” (or “The Treachery of Images” depending upon the translator). It is a realistic rendering of a smoker’s pipe in oil paint. It is iconic. This pipe might be seen on any tobacco shop sign anywhere in Europe—even today. However, at the bottom of the painting Magritte wrote “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”

    This is not a pipe.

    Of course it’s not a pipe. It is a picture of a pipe. This is the treason of the image. It is a lie. There is no pipe. The painting betrays our eyes and minds into believing that we are seeing a pipe but it is really just paint on a substrate.

    Consequently, when you hold up a family photo to ask an elderly relative, “Who is this?” you are participating in more treason. When they answer, “Why that is your great Aunt Edna,” the process continues. This is not your Aunt Edna. Once again, it is a picture of Aunt Edna.

    I realize that most people understand that a picture is only a representation and not the real thing. We do this shorthand. When we say, “That’s a pipe,” on some level we know it is a painting but we often take this knowledge for granted. We forget what is real and what is an illusion. Our own brain is in collusion with the image maker and we see what is not there.

    In graphic design we know that the image is an even greater illusion. In print the image is no longer in continuous tones but is made of a series of halftone dots that fool us into seeing colors that aren’t there, as well as tints of those colors from light to dark. The ink is still printing at 100% of its value so the tints are made by making the ink dots larger or smaller; covering larger or smaller areas of the background paper.

    In web design the dots are rendered electronically as pixels in a grid and are expressed in various intensities of red, green and blue light. So the digital version of Aunt Edna is still only an image no matter how real she may appear.

    But it is when we add type to the page next to the treasonous image that what is real and what is not becomes a little confusing.

    Eric Gill, the artist, designer, typographer and stone cutter said this about the written word and type: “Letters are things; they are not pictures of things.” When you write or type the letter “a” for example, it is not a picture of the letter “a” but an actual “a”. It does not represent anything else (other than a phonetic sound). It is not pretending to be anything other than what it is. No matter its shape (within limitations) or size it is still the letter “a”. Written or typed each individual letter on a page is its own truth. Even if you were to “draw” a letter “a”—adding all kinds of decoration—it can be described in terms of a letter. The letter “a” does not exist in nature while a long time ago Great Aunt Edna did.

    The words the letters form on a page may tell horrible lies but the letters themselves are nothing but honest. On the other hand, the picture next to the words may express some great fundamental truth, but it is still a lie.

    What does this mean in the universal scheme of things? What should it mean to you?

    In truth, absolutely nothing.

    But this is the kind of weird stuff that rattles around in my head and, once in a while, escapes…