Storytelling art is an old story dating back to prehistory when we lived in caves and pictured the days of our lives on stone walls. That history lives on. LensCulture magazine, a journal of contemporary photography, has announced winners of its annual Visual Storytelling Awards now on view at the Aperture Gallery in New York.

The big picture

LensCulture's made its criteria clear: “Take our breath away with narrative images that challenge our thinking, expand our understanding or hit a chord with our emotions.” One of the winning entries, Julia Fullerton Batten's Old Father Thames fits the criteria.

The photo doesn't so much take your breath away as hold you fast fixated on the view. What you see is a long-gowned female floating on her back in the British waterway with her eyes closed and a hand raised as if in supposition. Ophelia comes to mind. To hear Batten tell it in the exhibit notes posted by the magazine, the Thames brims with tales of birth, baptism, flooding, and death. Clearly, it's up to the viewer to take it from there - as with all art appreciation.

Illustration versus art

Another winner, San Rigo of Mexico, shows an image titled What You Get Used to that challenges viewer thinking. The photo depicts an expressionless woman staring out over her tidy kitchen with sparkling floors. All the picture parts are shaded in a misty rose color, like an old, fading snapshot. The question Rigo asks impels you to wonder if the meticulous care the woman gives her home is all there is for her.

To answer the question, says the artist, will lead to what he calls “the true meaning of life.”

It's personal

Rigo should have left his question unanswered. When an image comes with directions on how to see it, you end up with an illustration. Narrative art, if it is to be called art, holds multiple meanings - as many as individual reaction allows. A favorite example of mine, Poet on the Mountain by 15th-century Chinese painter and poet Shen Chou, who describes his experience on cliffs so high that all you see of the valley below are clouds. He wrote a poem about his experience directly on the painting. I wish he didn't. What he saw and what I see are not the same.

Sound of silence

In Chou's poem, he wrote, “Alone, leaning on my rustic staff I gaze idly into the distance./My longing for the note of a flute is answered in the murmurings of the gorge.” By explaining what he was thinking leaves little room for viewers' personal response. By limiting it, he turns his picture into an illustration of his poem. My view doesn't include allusions to a flute. Instead, I thought of Caspar David French's painting The Monk by the Sea of a solitary figure facing the immensity of nature, which conjures up the sounds of silence, not a flute.

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