Literacy is not all that is needed in a visual culture.
The doctor was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, sporting a pricey Canon digital SLR. His college-aged daughter seemed more interested in my good-looking, single friend than in the fine points of wildlife photography, but she had a point-and-shoot camera of her own. We were in southern Kenya’s Masai Mara doing what Westerners usually do there, much to the perplexity (and profit) of the local residents: tearing up the virgin veldt in four-wheel-drive Land Rovers, cameras at the ready, in search of photogenic animals.
One of the most reliable instincts of modern people, at times of surpassing transcendence—witnessing the first kiss at a wedding, watching our children’s first steps, encountering a family of cheetahs gnawing on a freshly killed gazelle—is to grab a camera. At other places and times people might have written a poem, sung a song, or carved a totem pole. But we, captive to the notion that the only lasting reality is virtual, illuminate our transcendent moments with flashbulbs.
The more powerful the image, the more we need words to make sense of it.
The digital age, where film is effectively free, is an era of even more promiscuous photography. By next year, the Gartner Group predicts, 80 percent of cell phones sold in the United States will include a camera. Users of camera phones don’t need to wait for carefully chosen moments. Instead they collect what the rapidly growing photo website Flickr calls a photostream—a river of images both momentous and mundane.
Many centuries after the shift from oral to written culture, we are now well along in the transition to visual culture—where the predominant mode of communication is images rather than words. Just as the shift to writing required the skills we call literacy, so visual culture requires its own skills—for lack of a better word, visualcy.
Which brings me back to my safari companions. After a full day of seeing—or at least photographing—a dizzying variety of African fauna, we sat together at the lodge looking at one another’s pictures. The doctor’s lions, zebras, and wildebeest sat reliably in the middle of the frame, in sharp focus, neither too dark nor too light. But his daughter’s pictures juxtaposed animals with acacia trees, and distant blue hills with expanses of red oat grass. His photographs were competent; hers were beautiful. He had the equipment, she had the eye. She was not a trained artist—she had just come of age in a visual culture.
Those of us with a professional interest in words tend to bemoan the rise of the image. Yet I’m more hopeful about visual culture than I am about, say, current musical culture, which the iPod is increasingly turning into a solitary experience of customized consumption. For the most part, visual technologies are restoring human beings to our God-given role as communal culture creators.
On Flickr, for example, hundreds of thousands of people share their photostreams with friends and strangers. Often they join in group efforts, from pictures of the “latte art” found in coffee shop mugs to a burgeoning set of photos, simply called “squared circle,” that explores the surprisingly common pattern of circles within squares. And while many photos on Flickr are banal, the longer people stick around, the more interested they become in making their images beautiful.
The attention to beauty is the most hopeful aspect of the emerging visual culture. The art world of the 20th century was often suspicious of beauty, preferring provocation and disruption. Worse, Christians in the 20th century often just ignored beauty—and many still do, considering that the only institution that produces uglier printed material than most church bulletins is the federal government.
But if Plato was right when he described the three transcendent realities as truth, goodness, and beauty, then people who care about truth and goodness must eventually care about beauty as well. And people who value beauty might eventually look for truth.
To be sure, in a fallen world, not all that appears beautiful is good, and some of what appears ugly is true. The second commandment warns us that images easily become idols. Like idols, images are simultaneously compelling—ever tried to ignore a television?—and impotent. In fact, as scholar Camille Paglia has pointed out, the more powerful the image, whether tragic or triumphant, the more we need words to make sense of it. The best photos on Flickr prompt dozens of written responses; when we see a great movie, we want to talk about it.
So the church need not fear the rise of the image—words, and the Word, still speak even in a visual age. But we would do well to pay close attention. Our neighbors are taking some great pictures.