If I could say it in words, I'd write a book.

-Joan Mitchell (American abstract expressionist painter, 1925-1992)

The discussion of the image is part of contemporary analysis in many discourses, from literary criticism to cultural studies, from media critique to communications theory. The word "image" suggests a bigger family of mental constructs produced by language, sound, and movement, and to explore its meaning is to explore the nature of reality itself. W. J. T. Mitchell (American writer and theorist, born 1942) divides images into classes: graphic, optical, perceptual, mental, and verbal. We will discuss what he refers to as the graphic representations, those that can be displayed as a rendering, drawing, or photograph of the real or virtual world. As a specific form of metafora, we use image in contrast to those things signified by gestures, sounds, objects, or words. It is the content of what is often referred to as the "visual arts." The visual may be so powerful that language, in the words of Roland Barthes (French literary critic and philosopher, 1915-80), can only attempt to mirror it, and yet representational images are dependent on the word for description. Further, the distinctions between Mitchell's categories are not cut and dried, and no image can exist purely in one category. All images provoke thought, stimulating the imagination of both the maker and the viewer. They record, if nothing else, our attempts to hold memory in a graphic form. Jacques-Henri Lartigue (French photographer, 1894-1986) quipped that the camera was his memory's eye.

The history of the visual image began somewhere in the caves of our ancestors. It is impossible to know what the intentions of their makers were, though it is clear that the images serve as a chronicle of some sort: underneath these gestural marks lies a spirituality, the artifact of a creative endeavor. Archaeologists saw two types of images in these caves. The first were figures of animals and human beings. The second were inverted handprints, thought to have been produced by placing a hand on the wall, then spraying charcoal—perhaps from the mouth—to reveal its outline. The first type of image is what Charles Sanders Peirce (American mathematician and philosopher, 1839-1914) would call an icon, a sign that resembles its referent. The second type of image, the handprints, are indexical: they have a direct trace of the referent, or indicate its presence as smoke indicates fire. Paintings are iconic, since they do not necessarily indicate the presence of their subjects: a painting of a unicorn does not demonstrate the existence of the mythical beast.

Pictures portray things. They grasp and render qualities of perception, shape, color, and movement. All pictures have a certain degree of abstraction about them in that they are representations and not reality.

A picture is a statement about visual qualities, and such a statement can be complete at any level of abstraction. Only when the picture is incomplete, imprecise, or ambiguous with regard to these abstract qualities is the observer called upon to make his own decisions about what he sees.
-Rudolf Arnheim (German-born author, theorist and psychologist, 1904-2007)

Photographs are the most common form of indexical images in the twenty-first century, those images that have a one-to-one correspondence with the scene in front of the lens. People believed for a long time that photographs were "true"—that they were accurate depictions of the world. Although fakes and forgeries abounded, it was not until the spread of digital photography that the public at large came to accept that photographic images could be easily manipulated, that they were equal parts iconic and indexical.

The camera and other devices for making images (including the growing use of the computer to generate images) drive communication in the realm of the circuit. The computer extends the reach of the lens and of representational images to such a degree that the picture or constructed rendering of the object becomes more important than the thing it represents. We live in a society where we perceive much of our reality through images. Jean Baudrillard (French theorist and philosopher, 1929-2007) described modern culture as the hyper-real world of simulations, a world in which the image refers not to an external object or referent, but to itself. Is Disneyland our reality, or is reality Disneyland?

We are the only creature that does not know what it is to be itself. . . . We are the only creature that must perceive of itself through images. The limits and possibilities implied by these images, then, are the limits and possibilities for our perceptions of ourselves. And because we can hardly be expected to exceed the morphology of our perceptions, it's clear that our images of ourselves determine the morphology of our very lives.
- Russell Banks (American poet and novelist, born 1940), Hamilton Stark

Having your image reproduced and distributed through social, electronic, or other circuits can produce fame. The physical appearance of a celebrity becomes unimportant, as it is the media image itself that produces the reality of celebrity—not the celebrity's flesh and blood existence. Our cultural fascination with Marilyn Monroe (American actress, 1926-62) has little to do with her physical body and everything to do with an aura created by a multitude of representations, and the knowledge that other people were acknowledging her as well. In the 1980s, Madonna (American singer, born 1958) demonstrated an innate understanding of how to manipulate the media image to create a series of identities, from the downtown bad girl to the sophisticated Marilyn clone, each one a new avatar that was propagated through the media environment. Britney Spears (American singer, born 1981) reversed Madonna's "bad girl" vocabulary, plasticizing every aspect of her own persona into that of a sexualized child. For what do we really know of Britney Spears? Is she not just a figment of the lens, and did not the lens destroy her? The extension of the image into cyberspace on image-sharing sites like Flickr and YouTube allows everyone to create and share their own presence in the public sphere. Each of us can fabricate our own histories and persona, creating the possibility of fame, no matter how short-lived or truthful. The fact that lonelygirl15, known as the sixteen-year-old author of a popular video blog, was actually a twenty-year-old actress reading a script did nothing to diminish her popularity.