The lamp that launched a thousand cowboy stories
My first memories of visual storytelling are from when I was very, very young – probably as early as five or six. The lamp beside my bed had belonged to my father when he was young. It was shaped like a wagon, carved from dried cactus. The shade was four cowboy scenes printed on a velum-like material stitched together. I’m sure this sparked my lifelong love of vintage cowboy decor and art, but it also sparked my love of storytelling. At night I would lay in bed and stare at the lamp, turning the shade slowly and telling myself stories about each of the four frames.
I fit visual storytelling into my life whenever I am able – often creating little graphics to go along with work presentations, or spending hours combing through photography archives to find just the right image to convey the message for a solicitation. While I apparently spend a lot of my time dealing in visual storytelling, I haven’t actually spent much time thinking about it.
It turns out, that visual storytelling is an art form in itself, from the packaging on the things we buy, to book jackets and magazine covers, to tv, movie, and artistic composition. In the post below, I’ll take a look at seven images and explain why I believe they best exhibit visual storytelling.
The Spirit of Abandoned Spaces by Christian Richter
Christian Richter is a German photographer who specializes in abandoned architecture across continental Europe and the UK. What I find most fascinating about this image is the feeling of high society juxtaposed to decay. The baby-Grand piano, the pocket doors, the frilly pink curtains all smack of wealth and yet, the building is flaking and crumbling in upon itself. What is most striking about this photos was likely set up by the photographer, but leaving the open pages of sheet music on the piano makes the scene very surreal – as if the occupants simply disappeared in the middle of their day. I suppose this image doesn’t tell as much of a story as raises so many questions.
- Who lived here?
- What happened to them?
- Did they have to flee in the night? Or were they abducted by aliens? Or maybe they were raptured?
- Who thought those curtains were a good idea?
The Rescue by Unknown
This painting is a very personal favorite of mine. I don’t know where it came from or who painted it – though I think it could have been a family member (the signature is not legible.) It hung in my house growing up and it was one of the very few “fancy” things that we had. I was always fascinated by it’s carved wooden gold leaf frame.
A very special feature of this painting is that it was done on copper so the orange of the horizon flashes as the light changes, creating a distinct feeling of lightning. The title, as well, adds to the story. It is “The Rescue,” not “The Shipwreck.” As you can see the sails of the ship in the distance are blowing it toward the wrecked ship, and there is a tiny lifeboat in the bottom left corner which is also a hopeful message that the crew of the wrecked ship will be saved.
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix
This image, painted to commemorate the July Revolution of 1830 which ousted King Charles X of France, show Marianne (Lady Liberty as she is known in the U.S.) leading the people to victory. Marianne has been the icon of the Republic since the French Revolution and here she steps over the bodies of enemy soldiers (bottom right wearing a uniform of the French Monarchy) while holding the Tricolore – the flag of the French Republic. Barefoot and bare-breasted, Marianne resembles a goddess more than a living woman, who would not have had the same level of respect during this time. Fires burn behind the horde of revolutionaries as they trample, swords raised and guns blazing, over the bodies of their foe.
Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory by Jes Wilhelm Schlaikljer
This poster was created as recruitment propaganda during WWII for the Women’s Army Corps. The W.A.C. was the first enlisted arm of the U.S. Military for women and upon its creation, more than 35,000 women applied for an anticipated 1,000 positions.
This image shows the woman in uniform, head tilted toward the sky in a very divine and demure fashion with a column of light shining down upon her. She is a beauty backed by the bleak, smoky, masculine outlines of war. The role of the W.A.C. was to put women in non-combat roles in order to “free up men to fight.” The spotlighting on the woman creates a feeling of divine selection in her role. As wartime propaganda this definitely falls into the category of an emotional image as it was created for the purpose of convincing women to sign up to go to war.
Ride of the Valkyries by William T. Maud
Here’s a not that big secret about me: I don’t really like reading. I’m a slow reader and my reading comprehension isn’t great. I’ve always struggled with it and therefore, books with a lot of photos were my favorite growing up. As a life-long lover of storytelling, I have always been very drawn to mythology and owned an illustrated encyclopedia of Norse, Celtic and Greek Mythology which I truly enjoyed thumbing through. It was full of amazing classic paintings such as this one.
The Valkyrie, in Norse mythology, are fierce female warriors of Odin who decide which Viking warriors are brave enough to die in battle and in turn be transported to Valhalla. This image portrays several Valkyrie, watched by Odin’s ravens Hugin & Munin, carrying the lifeless bodies of warriors from the battlefield up through the clouds to Asgard where they will fight and feast until the end-times.
The feeling of this painting is strong and celebratory – the blowing of the trumpet and the galloping of horses through the sky. Dying in battle and going to Valhalla was the highest honor for a viking warrior, so while these woman are transporting dead men, they are bringing them to their greatest victory. Looking closely I can almost hear the thundering hooves, the snorting breath of the horses and the trumpet signaling their arrival to Asgard.
Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange
This photograph shows Florence Owens Thompson hastily photographed by Dorothea Lange on the side of the road outside a pea-picker’s camp in Nipomo, CA. This close-up, intimate portrait of a weary, weather-worn mother holding her baby and clung to by two others has become iconic of the struggles experienced during the Great Depression.
Florence holds her chin pensively and stares, furrowed brow, beyond the camera toward (inferred) struggle and nothingness. Her baby has a dirty face, emblematic of hard living in unsanitary conditions. The two older children cling to Florence, their faces turned away from the camera. Are they shy? Sad? Dirty? Crying? It can only be inferred by their tattered clothes and unkept hair.
I am struck by the fact that in this photo, Florence, a mother of ten, is five years younger than I am now.
Boll is Life by Jenny Dupré
After a lot of disaster, war and weariness, I thought I’d end this exercise on a pleasant note – with a photo that I snapped myself of my little dog Huckleberry. I’ve hastily titled it “Boll is Life” because anyone with a ball obsessed dog will relate to this image.
The slimey, filthy ball is the focus of the image, with Huck staring at it in the background, tongue panting, never breaking his focus. What story does this tell you? Of course… I was there, but looking at this photo I can see Huck prancing up to me, holding the ball in his front teeth by the fuzz, shaking it as he runs. He drops the ball on the table and backs up, eyes darting from the ball to me. I congratulate him for a job well done delivering the ball to me, though I’d prefer if he would leave it on the ground instead of on the table. Perhaps I hesitate a moment too long (I’m taking a photos, as you see) and he begins his shrill demand barking to remind me what I should ACTUALLY be doing… THROWING THE DANG BALL!
I feel as if this exercise tells me something about myself… the image choices being mostly strong women filling very specific power roles. I did also find that I was not ready to analyze any of the truly difficult images that came to my mind – those that portrayed death, violence, starvation, dehumanization, or terror. Of course, those tell a story too, but I didn’t want to spent so much time thinking about those stories. Maybe I’m feeling burned out. Maybe I’m almost 40 and commercials make me cry. Those images and the stories they tell are certainly worth discussing, but maybe not here and not by me. For now, I’ll stick to cowboy stories and rescues at sea and strong female leaders.
References & More Info
Read the full story on Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange.
Learn more about the short life of William T. Maud.
Learn more about Liberty Leading the People.
Read about the Women’s Army Corps.
Learn about Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory at Hennepin County Library.
See other images by Christian Richter.