My Big, Fat Visual Storytelling Synthesis

Periodically, I like to gather together interesting examples of visual storytelling I’ve come across and try to find connections among them — or just examine some of the fascinating ways artists are telling visual stories.

Philip Bishop, art critic for the Orlando Sentinel, notes that narrative painting is out of fashion in today’s world. He observed that a return to narrative painting has often been heralded but has not come to fruition. A rare exception is the work of Michael Ananian that Bishop reviewed for a show (“Narrative Tactics”) that has since closed but that can be seen on the artist’s Web site. The main narrative series featured in the exhibition was “Two Voices,” which I decided not to show here because its nudity might offend some readers. Instead, image No. 1 in the montage below is from the series “Counterpart,” the story of which you can read here.

  • I was intrigued by the existence of the Museum of Biblical Art because it’s hard to imagine any biblical art that is not narrative. A recent example (from a show also closed) was the work of Marc Chagall, in which the artist “sought to integrate various traditions of Jewish Hassidism, eastern Orthodoxy and western Catholicism into dramatically rich and personally significant expressions of biblical narratives,” according the New York Council for the Humanities. Chagall’s Samson Destroys the Temple is image No. 2 in the montage.
  • The work of artist IceKubi came to my attention when a blogger blogged about it last fall. For me, this work, an example of which is image No. 3, falls into the category of good fodder for story prompts. The artist says she is inspired by fairytales and stories told by her Polish grandmother. But viewers may prefer to see what stories IceKubi’s images evoke for them — rather than trying to guess at which stories inspired each work.
  • The blogger behind The Photophiles (I can’t detect the blogger’s name) admires a couple of photo essays in which “the juxtaposition of detail shots and broad shots of scenes will shock the viewer’s eye and draw them into the story.” They are American Trucker (image No. 9) by Tim Gruber and Havana (image No. 4) by Orlando Barria.
  • Most of the visual-storytelling examples here tell their stories without words. Caravan (image No. 5) is a photo essay accompanied by words. The photos are wonderful. I can’t discern the name of the artist, but this work and others appear on the site Mechanised. “Caravan” is a British-commonwealth term (I’ve seen it in Australia and New Zealand) for what we Americans would call an RV or travel trailer. I think the words are needed in this case. The story is quite magical, and I’m not sure it could be told with the photos alone. It’s fascinating to imagine the backstory of how the caravan came to be abandoned in the woods.
  • Photographer Jodi Getz proclaims that “storytelling, in both words and images is a wonderful way to combine the gifts I was given.” She illustrates that theme with a series about the concept “Your love, as seen through your child’s eyes.” The image I chose to represent the theme, No. 6, is not the best photo in the series (in my opinion) but is the one that best executes the theme.
  • Mark Neilsen exhibited three three-dimensional and autobiographical works at a gallery called In a Flash. The show was called “Flash Art Mob Don’t Blink” and apparently based on the concept of the “flash mob,” which Wikipedia defines as “a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief time, then quickly disperse.” I’m not sure the “flash mob” idea comes across (perhaps you had to be there), but the autobiography does in Suspension of Disbelief (image No. 7) and the other two pieces from the show.
  • Neil Crowley of does some of the most amazing slideshow work I’ve ever seen. The slideshow love story of Sara and Jeremy (image No. 8) seems almost like stop-motion animation and is accompanied by music and voiceover narration by the happy couple.
  • The Web site Visual Telling of Stories is an inelegant yet fascinating site from Dr. Chris Mullen that describes itself as “a lyrical encyclopedia of visual propositions” that is “dedicated to the study of the visial narrative.” Click on a letter, and you’re taken to a list of topics/terms about which storytelling images are available (click on the box to the left of each term). A good Web designer could make this info-rich site really powerful.
  • Mike Doyle, in a blog entry both in his own blog and the Huffington Post, laments the “lack of appropriate storytelling to give the average museumgoer a true impression of the wonderfulness of the objects on view.” He’s particularly referring to a late-2008 visit to the Art Institute of Chicago and its “ongoing lack of useful, plain-English explanations on text walls and wall cards [that] unnecessarily leaves average visitors scratching their heads — or hurrying through gallery after gallery with the puzzling feeling that they should be getting more out of their Art Institute visit than they unfortunately are.” Though he feels the Art Institute’s lack of context for its exhibits is especially egregious, he finds the problem all over Chicago. The exception is a non-art museum, the Chicago History Museum. I know from my brief time as a gallery assistant and my many art-history courses that this lack of context is pervasive throughout art exhibitions, but it doesn’t bother me the way it does Doyle. The average art patron is often dying to ask the artist — what does this piece mean? what was in your head when you created it? what inspired it? what are you trying to say? what’s the story behind this piece? But I’ve found that artist’s statements are notoriously stingy with that information. (The kind of meaty artist’s statement that Michael Ananian, for example, puts forth is unusual in my experience.) I think the underlying philosophy is that art is in the eye of the beholder, and every viewer should interpret each piece as he or she deems fit. As far as I can tell (and this may be a vast oversimplification), all art-history scholarship is based on trying to interpret the artist’s intent. Each beholder creates his or her own context. Still, I wouldn’t object to what Doyle cries out for: “…wall texts giving visitors a capsule history of the works on view, the relationships between the artists, and the role the works and the schools that contain them played in the history of art? Or at least a brochure or handout?”
  • “Neil” of Heartwood Studios delineates in the company’s Visuual blog purposes or uses of visual storytelling: (1) capturing “events [that] take place at a pace [that] is too fast (or too slow) for the human eye, (2) depicting images in which the location or perspective is inaccessible to the typical viewer (such as inside a working jet engine or underground), (3) showing events that are too small (or too large) for us to perceive, (4) presenting views that would risk the safety of viewers trying to experience them, (5) illustrating experiences that can’t yet be seen because they’re in the future (Neil explains that when the Dallas Cowboys built their new stadium, they wanted to win the rights to a SuperBowl before the stadium existed. Heartwood created digital animation of their new stadium), (6) making an abstract concept concrete, (7) explaining concepts, especially when a language barrier exists, and (8) guiding a viewer’s focus. That’s what Neoscape did for for William and Mary’s Mason School of Business. They, in Neil’s words, “created a 3D animation … that allows users to see related elements — classrooms, offices, etc . . . because the animation guides the viewer through color-highlighting.” The animation appears below.

NOTE: Embedding code for the animation that originally appeared here was outdated; I THINK this is the correct animation. 6-25-2020.