The Things We See

In 1946 Alan Jarvis created a work of great worth called 'The Things We See' this book strove to educate the reader on the visual stimulation of images. He states in the first line of the introduction (entitled 'Seeing is Believing' that 'perhaps the chief source of delight for mankind is the sense of sight.' (Jarvis 1946, P3). What a wonderful way to begin, he also adds on the previous page 'To the Reader: This is not a book of words illustrated by pictures -- it is a book of pictures with verbal commentary. If the reader spends three quarters of his time studying the pictures and one quarter reading the accompanying text, he will fulfil the authors intentions.' (Jarvis 1946, P2). This is exactly as it should be, photographs should be given the time and attention they deserve to really appreciate them.

Maybe you are wondering why this book should be so important to discuss it is essentially a book of images that reflect life, art, design. Jarvis completed a degree in Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Toronto in 1938 and then went onto study Aesthetics on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. Jarvis' purpose here was to educate and inform, to share the joy of these images with the reader. The book works on the basis of Aristotle's idea that 'we prefer seeing to everything else and this., most of all senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.'

Life through the Lens

The book itself contains pictures under headings such as; Public Buildings, Public Faces , Architecture and the Environment, The Incongruous and The Business of Taste showing juxtaposed images that exemplifies these aspects of life.

These images are from the chapter: The Business of Taste (Jarvis 1946, P31)

Essentially doing what Instagram can do now however where Instagram fails is the sheer volume of images that are thrust upon your eyes, it is a bombardment, a litany that never ends. This book deliberately and carefully asks you to consider each image and to contemplate its meaning and importance.

We may have gained many things through social media and the digital image but this speed of life has significantly affected how people learn, process and experience life. When I see these simple images I want to spend time with them and the nature of the book means that the physical print is so much more precious.

Time and Photography

One of my favourite chapters in this book is called Vulgarity where there is an image of a woman looking in a mirror juxtaposed with a piece of pottery.

These images are from the chapter: Vulgarity (Jarvis 1946, P47)

As can be seen from the text the author considers that the woman represents; 'a coarseness of body, cheapness of ornament, and insensitive application of make-up' which seems a little harsh! However this does show that questions of taste are very personal. I am really not a fan of pottery particularly this floral design which I find particularly ugly and if I had to choose the vulgar between the woman and the pottery I would choose the pottery.

These thoughts here do also exemplify how photography captures time and in this time perhaps the majority of people would disagree with me on my taste. In this world today there is much vulgarity and because of the prolific nature of images I am confronted with this daily in all areas of life but as this book is keen to consider where there is vulgarity in life there is also beauty and this gives me a little hope..


Jarvis A. (1946) The Things We See: Indoors and Out, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex