Is a thousand words enough for your photo?

30 Nov

The ubiquitous saying “a picture paints a thousand words” has been around at least since New York Evening Journal editor Arthur Brisbane was quoted in 1911 as saying, “use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.” [1] The truth that underlies this cliché has been around since one of the first humans picked up a twig and drew a line map in the dirt for a friend. But no one ever said those thousand words were all the words you needed. Quite often a photograph without a legend or story is only partially comprehensible, bereft of the collateral feelings and meanings within which context the photo came into being. It is an often missed opportunity of the photographer to not just show an illustration of a story, but to tell it as well.

This photo has only been resized to 35% of original. No manipulations, splicing or other changes.

Untitled [2]

The photograph to the right is a case in point. You can see that a ship’s masts project into the foreground of the circular view, and the background is clearly a body of water beneath a sky either lightening with dawn or darkening with sunset. The stripe of land in the distance indicates that the water is either a lake or harbour, and there appear to be small objects on the water, perhaps pelicans and/or small boats. A closer inspection reveals some faint lines superimposed upon the scene. Hmm, it looks like a view through a telescope or periscope.

But so what? Is it a still from a movie? A manufactured image? What is this photo about?  In other words, what’s its story? The visual meanings only communicate so far before we need the enrichment of text.

For me, the story of this photo is as evocative as its visuals. It is a story of friendship, serendipity, naval history, and the glamour of a favourite star of television and movies.

In November of 2013 my husband Brian and I traveled from Australia to California to have Thanksgiving with my parents. While there, we struck up a friendship with friends of theirs, Gail and Lee. Lee kindly invited Brian and I to dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in San Diego. It was also a great opportunity to visit some old haunts in Carlsbad and Oceanside on the way, so we set off early. Even with our meanderings, however, we arrived almost two hours before the appointed time, and we parked near the water and reclined our seats to relax before dinner.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

But in front of us was the Maritime Museum of San Diego, with ships and submarines bobbing gently in the water.  I would have been able to resist the lure of this flotilla, but Brian was drawn and persuaded me to join him for a thorough investigation of the floating museum.

Brian at the ship's wheel Star of India

Brian at the ship’s wheel of the Star of India

It was time well spent. Walking along the wide weathered boards of the 1863 Star of India sailing ship [2] and the 18th century replica HMS Surprise frigate [3] as they rolled in with the gentle waves of San Diego Bay was an immersive experience that brought history to life.

To think of the risks the men lived on these ships gives one pause. Their lives were in each other’s hands: they depended on their mates to tie the right knots for climbing nets and fastening down equipment, to unfurl and furl sails without breaking limbs or skulls, to adhere to food and water rations and to help the ship weather storms and lightning. It was romantic to think of life on the high seas in a boat of wood, fabric and rigging, but the perils they routinely faced could see them buried at sea. Still, the ships were elegant and Bristol-fashion and a delight to experience.

Russian submarine B-39

Russian submarine B-39

I was less enthusiastic about descending the steep metal stairs down the submarine hatches of the Russian B-39 and the USS Dolphin, but once within the narrow confines of the submarines, discovered to my surprise that the B-39 had recently been the setting for a movie starring one of my favourite actors, David Duchovny (X-Files, Twin Peaks, Return to Me [4]). [5]

As I looked through the torpedo bay of the B-39 and the periscope of the Dolphin, I realised that I was walking on the same metal platforms, touching the same wheels, and looking through the same periscopes that Duchovny had done only months earlier when filming the Cold War submarine suspense movie, Phantom. It felt like one degree of separation between me and the actor of whom I am such a fan. The submarine’s distinctive exterior (photograph at left) is seen powering through the deep ocean in the movie, and the B-39’s air manifold is clearly visible in several points of Phantom (for example at time stamp 1:22:43.)

Soviet submarine B-39

High pressure air manifold, Soviet submarine B-39

We left the museum with new insights into US naval history and with me nursing a filip of excitement about following in a few of David Duchovny’s footsteps.

We met up with Lee at the peculiarly named steakhouse and had one of those restaurant experiences that you never forget – great company, lots of laughter, awesome food, beautiful view, great table, interesting people around, and thoughtful service. I will always remember it as a very enjoyable evening with convivial conversation, wine and superb food with Brian and Lee.

The untitled photograph of the circular view through the USS Dolphin’s periscope above encapsulates the day for me. There is a many-layered symmetry between it and the day we enjoyed: the ambiance of the naval military, the novelty of ‘scoping out a frigate from inside a submarine, the dimming light that presaged a stunning sunset, the sense of journeying the ships and boats epitomised, the joy of finding something special unexpectedly, the whimsy of the day, learning that periscope’s line markers are called reticles, and the sheer fun of adventure.

All of this back story is not present in the photograph, in fact it is well-nigh impossible to even tell where and how it was taken. At the least, an informative legend would help the viewer, say “HMS Surprise and San Diego Bay through the periscope of the USS Dolphin, Maritime Museum of San Diego.” But even that wouldn’t tell the story of a maritime museum serendipitously found as an indirect result of an overture of friendship, nor would it tell the tale of the tantalising connection between fan and actor. It takes a bit of story-telling too. A picture may paint a thousand words, but it wields these words in broad brushstrokes, rife with gaps.  Actual words fill gaps, adding details and context. So while a picture may paint a thousand words, they might not be enough.


A few more photographs from the day for you to enjoy

Californian, the official tall ship of the State of California, launched in 1984 for the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. Maritime Museum of San Diego

Californian, the official tall ship of the State of California, launched in 1984 for the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. Maritime Museum of San Diego

Sunset with Cranes San Diego Bay 6 December 2013

Sunset with Cranes San Diego Bay 6 December 2013

Radio antenna of B-39 with crescent moon and Venus

Radio tower of B-39 with crescent moon and Venus (click to enlarge to see Venus at left of tower)


Untitled, Brian at ship’s wheel, B-39 Submarine, High Pressure Air Manifold, Sunset with cranes, Californian, Radio tower of B-39 with crescent moon and Venus all 6 December 2013 by Sabrina Caldwell; other than resizing for web use, no alterations have been done to the photographs.


[1] Newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane discussing journalism and publicity in a talk to the Syracuse Advertising Men’s Club, 1911.
[2] Maritime Museum of San Diego. Star of India. Accessed 28 November 2014.
[3] Maritime Museum of San Diego. HMS Surprise. . Accessed 28 November 2014.
[4] On a personal note: Return to Me is on my all-time top 10 movies list. If you have seen it, you know what a tender and novel movie it is with a stellar cast of actors and wonderful music.  If you haven’t seen it, seriously, treat yourself. Like me, you may find yourself watching it again and again.
[5] The HMS Surprise also has film credits to her name: it was the setting for Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) set in 1805, and Gore Verbinski’s 2007 Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End (Wikipedia article).

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