Sunday 14 July 2002

Say goodbye to LONGDESC

Mark Pilgrim has granted us a dispensation from adding the LONGDESC attribute to our images on the grounds that, while it is important, it’s “outside the scope of this series; it’s just too much work.”

As usual, Mark leads by example, in this case providing long descriptions for a number of photographs in his albums. For example, the description of Dora, futzing with sprinklers reads:

This is Dora, futzing with the sprinkler in the front lawn. She is squatting down, attempting to drive the sprinkler head into the ground and get it at the right angle so it will water as much of the front lawn as possible from one location. Over the course of the next two hours, she will futz with this and other such sprinklers, on this and other such lawns, to no avail. Sprinklers suck. We need an irrigation system, but we can’t afford one.

It strikes me that this is not so much a description as a story and, as Mark admits, writing engaging stories about pictures is not a trivial undertaking:

Creating separate long descriptions really adds a lot to the photo album (even for people who can see just fine), but it’s a *lot* of work, and I just can’t recommend it as a “fire and forget” kind of tip.

Jeff Ward photograph: Brak'n'Tune, Bakersfield, California 1990ishI thought immediately about the long description one might write for Jeff Ward’s photograph, Brak’n’Tune, Bakersfield, California 1990ish. It’s impossible—for anyone who knows the work of Walker Evans and of Jeff’s admiration for Evans’ work—not to see an immediate connection between Jeff’s picture and the Corrugated Tin Façade photographed by Evans in Moundville, Alabama in the summer of 1936.

Walker Evans photograph: Corrugated Tin Façade, 1936My LONGDESC for the Ward image might draw attention to: the structural and compositional similarities between the pictures, the tonal reversal (pale building and mid-gray foreground vs. mid-gray building and pale foreground), the electricity wires, the way that the drooping shadow in the Ward photograph references a similar shadow on the right of the Evans image… and, best of all, the fact that the ribbed surface of the main door of the Brak’n’Tune center subtly echoes the corrugated surface of the Richard Perkins structure.

But that’s just a formalistic game. Fun to play, and ultimately pointless.

Even so, it’s still true that there’s a story associated with each image, as their was with Mark’s picture of Dora futzing with the sprinkler. It’s just that I’m not well qualified to tell those stories.

Commenting on another post about this issue, Kris wrote:

…you don’t need to describe the image literally. Try to describe a piece of art made by Mondriaan, do it literally and you will soon find out that it makes little sense. Same would go for a lot of other artists. What you can describe however, through use of the LONGDESC attribute for instance or linking to other resources of information, is the artists notes on the piece, critiques, analysis, historical context. Things that would make sense to someone who is not able to see green or red lines, yet can understand the concept of pattern and rhythm when layed out to them. I think these sources even benefit people who do have eyesight.

But, as Jeff Ward might say, there are images that submit readily to description, and others that resist it. Jeff’s clear preference (and mine) is for photographs that replace, rather than augment, the written word. As Jeff did actually say, “Captions and such partially destroy the reason for using an image to begin with.” More pragmatically, I’d argue that the time spent in describing such photographs would better spent in making new ones, or in writing words that images can only inadequately illustrate.

So thanks Mark, for letting us off the hook. And I promise not to forget the ALT text.

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Would not a caption fit the role of LONGDESC?

Mark truly deserves a medal for this series, and so do you for your interpretations. Thanks.

BTW Jonathan, your comments are still not 'remembering info'.

Posted by Allan Moult on 13 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

15 hours later. The comments now working fine. Cheers.

Posted by Allan Moult on 14 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour