Über Meta-Image

How it works
About Meta-Image

The Idea

The development of new search and annotation technologies invoked some fundamental issues regarding the nature of images identified in post-modern philosophical discourse.

In 1994 Gottfried Boehm (Boehm 1994) introduced the term iconic turn into the debate about the nature of the image, alluding to the linguistic turn of Richard Rorty (Rorty 1967). However, he missed the analytical approach to the image that linguistics had already proposed for text. The ‘lack of meaning of an isolated linguistic element of articulation that de Saussure postulated’ could also be applied to the image. A single colour spot in paintings by Césanne, Monet, Seurat and others does not ‘mean’ anything. It generates meaning by ‘cooperation with other spots in a lateral way.’ (Boehm, 1994, p. 22, transl. MW).

Thus images and pictures are not homogeneous units; they constitute an ‘iconic difference’ that emerges from the juxtaposition of the whole image and its details. ‘What appears to us as image stems from a single basic contrast, the one between an overseeable total area and whatever is comprised within it as internal events’ (Boehm, 1994, pp.29f.). So we are dealing with a sharp-eyed gaze, the identification and localisation of details within an image as a whole.

This contrasts with printed text, where there are long established reference schemas: chapters, pages, lines and characters. Scholarly debate is founded on the ability to identify, annotate and comment on a specific text by using footnotes and concordances, cross references and indexes. On the computer, hypertext mark-up offers a similarly precise addressing schema.

But images are by their nature analogue. Nelson Goodman writes of the image: ‘no mark may be isolated as a unique, distinctive character (like a letter in an alphabet)’ (Mitchell, 1986, p. 67). As deeply as we may delve into an image, we do not find specific elements that can be addressed as a word or a letter could be. One may think of Robert Campin‘s Portrait of a lady, that even made it to the front cover of a big German paper, together with its Man in the red stone, as an art historic sensation (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 3rd 2008) Zooming in on theat painting, the detail of the red stone revealed the probable identity of the painter.

Like a letter or a word, an image detail, which in isolation is without meaning, can become a link to a line of arguments or a node in a network of references. Aby Warburg realised this in a physical form. The constantly re-arranged Mnemosyne Atlas was his medium. Cross-references were made by using woollen threads attached to pins on photographs. In the end, the network is constituted of references and cross-references that can make up its meaning. To quote Nelson Goodman, the meaning of an image  ‘depends rather on its relation with all the other marks in a dense, continuous field’ (Nelson quoted in Mitchell, 1986, p. 67).

This is the exact purpose of our project Meta-Image. Based on the image corpus of prometheus, the distributed image archive for research and education, users can identify and link motifs by using a well-established technology (HyperImage). Analogous to hypertext links, Meta-Image allows structures and links to be identified and defined for images.



This text is extracted and slightly changed from:

Dieckmann, Lisa; Kliemann, Anita; Warnke, Martin: Meta-Image – a collaborative environment for the image discourse. In: EVA London 2010. Electronic Visualisation and the Arts. Conference Proceedings, hrsg. von Alan Seal, Jonathan Bowen, Kia Ng. Plymouth 2010, S. 190-198.



Boehm, G. (1994) Die Wiederkehr der Bilder. In Boehm, G. (ed.) Was ist ein Bild? Wilhelm Fink Verlag, München.

Mitchell, W J. T. (1986) Iconology – Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago.

Rorty, R. (1967) The Linguistic Turn. Chicago.