What is a picture?

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Four image concepts – and a showdown with illusionism and the semiotic image theory

A picture is a picture of some subject, they say. It could be, for example, a bird in a bird book, or it could be a girl standing in a kitchen, as in the well-known painting by Anna Ancher. But what is a picture really a picture of? If we look at the picture of the girl in the kitchen, most people will probably say that it is about the girl depicted in the picture; that in other words there are two things, namely the woman herself, of whom the picture is a picture, and the picture of her. The explanation seems straightforward. Nevertheless, it is the explanation that the book What is a picture? would like to question.

Within the last century's most influential image theories, it has been common to interpret images either as illusions (cf. Ernst Gombrich) or as a special kind of language (cf. Nelson Goodman). It is such interpretations that this book will do away with: An image is neither an illusion nor a linguistic sign. It is something much simpler. If we look at Anna Ancher's picture of the girl in the kitchen, we see only one thing, namely a (more or less defective) specimen of the amount of girls in the world that the picture in question is part of. That is the assumption.

What is a picture? does not only deal with the pure image concept. The book also explains various derived image concepts: image displays, "shadow" pointers, collages, pictograms, diagrams, line drawings, etc. They are all included in their own way as messages in different forms of human communication, all of which require interpretation to make sense .

What is a picture? is intended as the first volume in a trilogy. Here, the other books will deal with art and aesthetics respectively. Corresponding to their respective subjects, the last two books in the trilogy will be published under the titles What is Art? (by Ulf Dalvad Berthelsen and Peter Widell) and What is aesthetics? (by Peter Widell).