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Lydia Sánchez
 Incorporated contributions
Silvia Burset (3/2009)
 Usage domain
Audiovisual, aesthetics, communication theory, cognition, message
 German Bild
[Understandable but with some grammatical missteps]

Image is always shaped by deep structures attached to the exercise of a language, as well as to the membership in a symbolic organization (a culture, a society); but image is also a means of communication and representation of the world that has its place in all human societies.



Hans Belting says that an image is more than a product of perception. It manifests itself as a result of personal or collective symbolization[2]. We know many of the events of the past, present and future through images that provide us, altogether, with a view, that is, with an idea, a concept, a sense of the period or situation.


Thus, there are images that we see, but also mental or conceptual images that can act as benchmarks, models or diagrams helping us to interpret the world and our relationship with it. Currently, more than ever, we receive the information we process, analyze and synthesize at different levels, through visual images that act on the receptor differently depending on the context and circumstances where they manifest themselves.


Logically, in turn, our mental images nourish themselves from the visual content circulating through the Technologies of Information and Communication; this provides a new paradigm for the decoding of messages, the interpretation of content and the development of communication mediated relations, in which images are the absolute protagonist, displaying their variegated meanings and presented through different media and in diverse formats.


But, what is a visual image?


Visual image are the ones we perceive through sight, displayed in a support, material or medium. A visual image is a photograph, a sculpture, painting, illustration, engraving or the interface of the computer screen. Images never present themselves, but always re-present, because they are displayed in a new material or medial dimension. This means that the referent acquires a concrete, new, synthetic or emphatic meaning when it is displayed through an image, which completes its full sense when it is interpreted by a receiver.


As Vilches explains, images are empty forms, and require, if they have to transmit information[3], an observer’s interpretative competence to complete them with contents. An image is a proposition of which the receiver extracts the contents and meaning producing the phenomenon of communication in time and space. The material and the immaterial are unified in the image, which always needs a context and a specific time to be interpreted accurately.


Moreover, rather than the presence of an absence, the image is defined as a synthesis, as an emphasis on an intention to mean something. We say "a" synthesis and not "the" synthesis, because the same image, depending on the context, the intention of the issuer, or the perception of the receiver, can offer many senses. Therefore, the sense an image can have is not hermetic, but it depends on the interaction of several factors. Régis Debray, in Vie et mort de l’image, says that we internalize the images-things and externalize mental images, so that imagery and imagination induce each other.[4]


The classification of images has been, and is, a path chosen by different authors to come near a definition of the concept of image. We can dwell on the arguments of some of them.


Abraham Moles establishes four features of images: the degree of figuration (the representation of objects or known beings), the degree of iconicity (the abstraction concerning the item represented), the degree of complexity (the various plastic elements) and the degree of normalcy (which is related to diffusion or copying). For Moles, visual messages allow us to represente a fragment of the world, whether real or imaginary; the visual communication process is established with an exchange of signals between the sender and receiver, either in a purely conventional framework or exploring an imaginary world in which different levels of abstraction are established or schematized. These different levels are what he calls the scale of iconicity.


Martine Joly points out that there are three factors that play a role in the transmission of information through images: plastic signs (colors, shapes, textures and space), iconic signs (pictures and motives) and linguistic signs. Joly starts out from the idea of analogy, and explains that an image is something that resembles something else. Thus, in the study of the photographic image, she establishes two distinct levels: "observation" and "interpretation", and believes that in reading an image an interaction between it and the reader is established which causes a series of expectations such as memorization and anticipation.


For Donis A. Dondis there are three levels of visual expression: representation, which means particularity, abstraction, which means universality, and symbolism, which is conventional. It must be said that these three levels of information are interconnected. Besides proposing this general classification, she states that the content and form of an image are inseparable; in visual communication this dichotomy does not occur. Any message is composed with a purpose (i.e., to express, explain, direct, incite, accept) which, to be significant, requires the optimization of the formal expressions.


On the other hand, Rudolf Arnheim distinguishes three functions, not classes, coining the terms of representation, symbol and sign. However, the most interesting part of his theoretical contribution is his formulation of "visual thinking". Arnheim says that visual perception is visual thinking, taking the first to be not a passive record of observed material, but an active interest of the mind. Also, images stored in memory are used to identify, interpret and contribute to the perception of new images. Arnheim’s point can be used to connect the two sorts of images we mentioned earlier in this article: visual images and mental images.


Jacques Aumont also distinguishes three modes, namely: the symbolic mode, as when the divine presence materialized through idols venerated as sensitive manifestations (although it must be said that images, in its symbolic form, have also been used in the secularization of Western societies to transmit new values); the epistemic mode, as when images provide information and knowledge about the world; and the aesthetic mode, in which images please the viewer and provide him specific sensations.


Visual studies, which have visual culture as object of interest, analyze the information contained in images, focusing on how technology, media and social practices of representation and reception are deeply interwoven with human societies, ethics and politics, aesthetics and epistemologies of seeing and being seen.[5]


WJT Mitchell thinks that images have "lives" generated by those who created them; he focuses not only on the field of art, but also argues that visual culture is nourished by the most varied expressions from all areas. Moving beyond a semiotic view, he maintains that images are presented to us, and that we can not describe or interpret them linguistically. Although they are related, words and images belong in knowledge categories that can not be compared with each other.


The multiple visual environments of our time lead us to process information in a non-linear, immediate and fleeting way. In images we see, reflected, the environments where we operate, but also through images what exists, which can be intangible or, paradoxically, not visual, manifests itself. The fact of “putting in images” emotions, desires, arguments or different intentions helps us discover new ways of imagining reality.

[1] AUMONT, Jacques (1992) La imagen. Barcelona: Paidós. Pág.39.

[2] BELTING, Hans (2007) Antropología de la imagen. Madrid: Karz Editores. Pág. 14.

[3] VILCHES, Lorenzo (1983) La lectura de la imagen. Barcelona: Paidós. Pág. 26.

[4] DEBRAY, Régis (1994) Vida y muerte de la imagen. Barcelona: Paidós. Pág. 98.

[5] MITCHELL, W. (2003) Mostrando el ver, en “Estudios visuales”. Murcia: CendeaC. Pág. 19.

ARNHEIM, R. (1986) El pensamiento visual. Barcelona: Paidós.
AUMONT, J. (1992) La imagen. Barcelona: Paidós.
BELTING, H. (2007) Antropología de la imagen. Madrid: Karz Editores.
CATALÀ, J. (2005) La imagen compleja. La fenomenología de las imágenes en la era de la cultura visual. Barcelona: UAB.
DEBRAY, R. (1994) Vida y muerte de la imagen. Barcelona: Paidós.
DONDIS, D.A. (2006) La sintaxis de la imagen. Introducción al alfabeto visual. Barcelona: G.G.
JOLY, M. (1999) Introducción al análisis de la imagen. Buenos Aires: La Marca.
MITCHELL, W. (2003) “Mostrando el ver”, en revista Estudios visuales. Murcia: CendeaC.
VILCHES, L. (1983) La lectura de la imagen. Barcelona: Paidós.
ZUNZUNEGUI, S. (1998) Pensar la imagen. Madrid: Cátedra: Universidad del País Vasco.
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