To Imagine or To Know

November 22, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

I’ve recently returned from what has become an annual pilgrimage to London during November.  The main purpose is to visit some galleries, take some pictures and visit some nice restaurants – not sure why, but I seem to enjoy these activities more in Autumn than at other times of the year.  One of the visits we made this year was to the Natural History Museum, which has always been a favourite.  This year, alongside the usual permanent exhibitions, there was a special one about dinosaurs.  Unsurprisingly, I was instantly transported back to my childhood, a time when I was completely obsessed with dinosaurs (looking around the exhibition I could see that I wasn’t the only middle-aged man going into a trance).  As a kid, dinosaurs held a fascination with me for the obvious reasons that they were often huge, majestic and completely different from any animal I had ever seen.  The firm favourite with my friends and I was the Tyrannosaurus Rex (again, I suspect this isn’t unique). T-Rex combined the key features of a dinosaur but was a predator who, we were led to believe, ate everything in its path.  Standing in the NHM exhibit I was looking at the fossilised skull of a T-Rex and an animatronic version of the fearsome predator behind it.  The robot T-Rex swayed around and roared at the viewers, most of them children.  Lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ followed, which got me thinking.  I turned to my wife and pointed out that we have no real idea what a T-Rex sounded like or indeed how it moved.  Science had learned a huge amount about these creatures, about their size by their skeletons and was also able to extrapolate aspects like diet and migration from where the fossils had been found.  When it comes to sound and indeed colour, we have to ‘fill in the blanks’.  Our knowledge is supplemented by imagination.  A good example of the differences between ideas about T-Rex comes from Steven Spielberg’s huge hit movie ‘Jurassic Park’, released in 1993.  Spielberg’s T-Rex was depicted as massive and dark green.  She rampaged through the ailing safari park eating people whole, tipping over cars and generally being as terrifying as I hoped she’d be when I was a small boy.  Here, in the NHM, the ‘realistic’ T-Rex was considerably smaller and a lighter green colour.  It could of course be argued that a smaller T-Rex wouldn’t have had the impact in the movie so artistic licence was adopted for the sake of the narrative.  However, what is interesting is that nobody cared.  We all had our imaginary dinosaur in mind and as long as those key narrative points about its behaviour were included, we were happy. 

What’s the point of all this, then?  Well, I’ve just finished a section of my degree course that deals with reading images and how narratives are influenced by iconic messages.  In his paper The Rhetoric of the Image, French philosopher Roland Barthes used linguistics to ‘read’ an example photograph, something that linguistics experts of the time didn’t really believe was relevant.  Barthes’ example was an advert for Italian food products made by a French manufacturer.  The image contained signs that suggested what Barthes referred to as Italianicity, that is what points to Italian culture.  However, he went on to demonstrate that the reading of an image’s iconic and symbolic messages is dependent on what the viewer brings to it.   A European person associates pasta, tomatoes and parmesan cheese with Italian culture, but an Italian wouldn’t recognise the same stereotype themselves. To an Italian, they are just ingredients for their traditional dishes. Barthes’ paper is a difficult and involving read, but part of his message was that the viewer brings their own experiences, cultural history and historical learning to the reading of an image.  In the case of the advertiser in his essay, they wanted to sell to the French people so the messages in the image were tailored specifically for them.  Outside of the obvious nature of advertising, there really is no real ‘truth’, only interpretation.  What made me want to write this post wasn’t Barthes, however.  It was this quote from Albert Einstein, perhaps the most famous scientist of the past 150 years.  

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

When I think about this quotation in the context of standing in the museum, I realise that Einstein is talking about knowledge as being the gap-filler rather than imagination.  We all started out imagining what dinosaurs were like, but for a select group it was the driving force to learn more about them; to ‘fill the gaps’.  Imagination then is the catalyst for learning, which is definitely my experience over the past few years.  Since studying on my degree course and in my tuition work with beginners, I’ve used learning to not only broaden my understanding of the craft of photography, but also to let my imagination run a little wilder than before.  When I see a student realise how one small shift in how they use their camera can make all of their pictures better than before, that strikes a chord with me.  What I’ve learned from thinking about this is to incorporate the freeing their imagination as well as the basic camera skills into our tuition sessions.  That way, they can start to imagine what they want their picture to look like and use their new-found skills to help make it happen.   Who’d have thought this realisation would come from looking into the ‘eyes’ of perhaps the coolest, most imagined dinosaur of them all.

Thinking of getting creative?  If photography is high on your list, why not get some tuition?  Our programme covers the basics of photography, using a camera without Auto mode, composition and so much more.  Drop me a line at [email protected] for more details. 




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