When we think of story we think first (at least I do) of short stories or novels. Of course, movies and theater and opera tell stories, and music and dance can also. Melanie’s Moby Dick series of fabric panels is closely tied to that story, though, as she says, not as conventional illustration. I’m beginning to think that story is a notion not at all confined to the literary arts. In fact, I suspect that stories don’t even require language–though it’s pretty hard to communicate about them without it.


I’ve been wondering lately about the role of story in viewing pictures, especially pictures that do not “illustrate” or document a known or guessable story. And as a landscape photographer, I’m especially interested in pictures that are about place. I don’t have any grand theory, but I’d like to present some intriguing elements that a larger understanding should encompass.

The filmmaker Wim Wenders, who has studied medicine, languages, psychology, and philosophy, as well as painted and played music, gave a talk at Princeton that he titled “A Sense of Place.” His thesis is that story has come to completely dominate over place and character, particularly in American movies, but also in other media and in the culture generally.

People and places have become the scenery of stories,
they are no longer its origins.
In most American movies today,
the stories manipulate the characters.
People are the victims of the events.
And events, most of the time,
are nothing but a chain of spectacular action effects.

In contrast, Wenders’ movies “all start like this: as a place wanting to be told.” This is beginning to sound closer to what a painter’s or a photographer’s motivation might be in making a picture. A key aspect is that the story to be told is not specified. In fact, it will not be told by the artist, but by the viewer. It will be based on what the picture suggests to the viewer, which depends on some things the artist can control, and many s/he cannot. It may be that the stories the viewer ends up telling himself or herself are what determine how compelling the picture is.

Another element stems from the Australian Aboriginal art I’ve been learning about, which traditionally is based on stories about place that are of fundamental cultural importance. Wenders also makes the connection and puts it nicely:

Their belief, their religion is “The Land”,
and its storytelling capacities….
They are obliged, each one of them,
to keep a stretch of their land alive,
by keeping its story alive.
When they let that story die,
when they let that land die along with its story,
they themselves die with it.
They are “singing their country”,
and remember:
Homer was singing the Odyssey, not reading it.

It seems that, in front of a picture, I tend to start telling myself stories. I don’t mean developed narratives, but I imagine myself seeing or being in that scene, and what might be happening, or what I might be feeling or thinking. This is true even for quite abstract work, though it becomes more more of an interior story, I feel more a mental breeze than the wind.

Does story play a role for you in viewing pictures? Do stories start happening if you see a deer in the woods?