The Telling Image: Shapes of Changing Times

The Telling Image: Shapes of Changing Times

by Lois Farfel Stark


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Best Non Fiction 2019

National Indie Excellence Award Winner

Nautilus Book Awards, Gold

#1 Amazon Best Seller in Architecture History & Periods

Amazon Best Seller in Art Subjects & Themes

Seeing the World Through Shape
How do humans make sense of the world? In answer to this timeless question, award winning documentary filmmaker, Lois Farfel Stark, takes the reader on a remarkable journey from tribal ceremonies in Liberia and the pyramids in Egypt, to the gravity-defying architecture of modern China. Drawing on her experience as a global explorer, Stark unveils a crucial, hidden key to understanding the universe: Shape itself. 
The Telling Image is a stunning synthesis of civilization’s changing mindsets, a brilliantly original perspective urging you to re-envision history not as a story of kings and wars but through the lens of shape. In this sweeping tour through time, Stark takes us from migratory humans, who imitated a web in round-thatched huts and stone circles, to the urban ladder of pyramids and skyscrapers, organized by hierarchy and measurements, to today’s world of interconnected networks

​In The Telling Image Stark reveals how buildings, behaviors, and beliefs reflect humans’ search for pattern and meaning. We can read the past and glimpse the future by watching when shapes shift. Stark’s beautifully illustrated book asks  of all its readers: See what you think.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626344716
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
Publication date: 02/06/2018
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 1,036,118
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Lois Farfel Stark is an Emmy Award-winning producer, documentary filmmaker, and author. During her distinguished career she produced and wrote documentaries on architecture, medical research, globalization, artists, and social issues. With NBC News, she covered Abu Dhabi's catapult to the 20th century, the British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf, Cuba ten years after their revolution, the Israeli Air Force in the Six Day War, Northern Ireland during its time of religious conflict, and Liberia's social split. 

Stark is the recipient of an Emmy, two CINE Gold awards, two Gold Awards from The International Film Festival of the Americas, and the American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award. She has served as a trustee for institutions in education, health, the arts, and public service, including Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater.  She lives in Houston, Texas.

Read an Excerpt


Connecting the Dots

How We Describe the World Inscribes Our Thinking

How do we humans make sense of the world? As a documentary filmmaker for NBC News, I was trained to look for the telling image — a picture that gives the essence of the story. In covering countries in times of tension and transition, I had to look through other people's eyes to learn how they saw the world. I filmed in Abu Dhabi before the United Arab Emirates were unified, in Cuba ten years after their revolution, in Northern Ireland when their religious conflict burst into urban warfare, and in Liberia covering its social split. While history gives us versions of a story, a telling image has the power to tap a deeper understanding.

I practiced seeing with new eyes, open to take in the unfamiliar and to discover clues to another culture's worldview. Dropping into a foreign country and trying to understand it enough to present its various factions, historic background, and current controversy was daunting and humbling. I knew I needed to lasso the topics at play, and I knew I would never know everything. One approach I took was to step back and look at the situation with the largest lens, seeing all sides, noticing the geography that influenced the culture's way of living, and learning the historic background. I had to find an image that could relay the issues and emotions the culture and landscape, in a way that could convey more than words can explain.

Searching for the telling image of a story, I found one, hiding in plain sight. It was shape itself. Once I looked for shape, I saw it everywhere — in shelters, social systems, and sacred sites. From indigenous cultures to modern societies, our answers to survival, social bonding, and sacred symbols differ vastly. Yet the blueprint for each culture became clear when I looked for shape.

In every era, humans search for pattern and meaning. I became interested in a culture's lens, their picture and version of "how it hangs together, of what it means." As an observer, a witness to the wild variety and eras of human development, I realized how something as simple as shape could help us see the essence of our past, giving us clues to where we are headed and how we make sense of the world.

Liberia 1970

Round thatched huts formed a circle in a forest settlement where I filmed young girls celebrating the completion of their initiation rituals, while making a documentary for NBC News. For weeks, the girls were sequestered in the woods learning the timeless skills of childbirth, and how to find medicinal herbs and edible plants. The day of the celebration, a masked shaman, clothed in grass and straw, led the girls onto the packed dirt of the compound's central hub. With white cloth wrapped round and round their hips, their swaying steps traced circular movements. As I watched their bare feet rotate in a circle dance, my head bobbed with their rhythm, and my feet shifted weight to the sound of the drumming. I felt enveloped by their round settlement, the circle of their dance, and the life cycle of their rituals.

The next day I filmed a military parade in Monrovia, Liberia's capital. Soldiers lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, row upon row, in perfect pods in front of their generals, who stood in a straight line as they reviewed the troops. Then, the soldiers marched into the streets of Monrovia, a city laid out as a grid.

By the 1970s, most of Liberia's bush settlements had traded in their round huts and cyclical rituals for the grid of city streets and soldier lineups. A culture embedded in nature, a social group woven in common identity, a spiritual idea embodied by masked shamans covered in grass had transformed into a way of living delineated by the square blocks of a town, where streets and soldiers organized in lines and squares, instead of curves and circles.

When I arrived back in the States after my assignment, I couldn't shake the images of shapes out of my head: How two very different communities expressed themselves and their surroundings through such opposite shapes seemed meaningful. It made me see my own home, desk, block, downtown with fresh eyes. What might the very circles of a dance and hut versus the right angles of my books, buildings, and city streets tell me about my mental map?

England 1996

The question of shape continued to haunt me. Years later, as a tourist, I explored Stonehenge with the same curiosity and excitement that I had when I danced in a circle with the women in Liberia. I was still trying to figure out how different cultures saw themselves in the world.

Wind in my face, sun in my eyes, I stood at the center point of Stonehenge, enveloped by concentric circles. Beside me stood an inner ring of stone pillars, wrapped by another ring of monolithic stones. Two more circles — a round ditch and an earthen mound — surrounded the inner stone rings. It felt as if I were in the bull's-eye of a target, at the center of a grand idea still speaking to me after three thousand years.

The people who built Stonehenge understood their world as organized by nature. The stone layout reflected a template of nature's cycles, aligning humans to the recurring rhythm of life. The exact placement of the pillars indicated season change at the midwinter and midsummer solstice. From above, the layout looked like a web: rings, cycles, and connections. It reminded me of being in the hub of the forest settlement in Liberia decades ago.

The next day I visited King's College Chapel, in Cambridge, England. As I walked down the nave toward the altar, steep arches and high columns urged my eyes upward. The vaulted ceiling ribs, steeples, and spires gracefully stretched toward a heaven beyond reach like fingertips pressed together in prayer, pointing toward the divine above. Through their use of vertical columns and spires, the builders wordlessly expressed their view of a world as a vertical ladder with the payoff at the top. Theirs was a time of hierarchy — the world was controlled by a king and created by a god above, whose word came to the masses through the priest. The chapel inspires and intimidates. Its beauty still stuns.

The ancient humans dancing in circles under the moon praying for healing or harvest at Stonehenge must have felt embedded in Earth's cyclical, seasonal nature — at one with the circling whole. Similarly, the devotees praying for favor from a duke in King's College Chapel would not have imagined an alternative to the vertical order that penetrated every aspect of their lives. I began to realize that shape, in stone circles or church steeples, could reveal the mindset of an era, how humans viewed their world and understood their place within it.

I was hooked, on a trail, curious to understand where today's version of order came from and where it was going. What shape reflects our era as vividly as the vertical church spires and stone circles did during their time? What shape most clearly defines our current worldview like Liberia's circular huts or gridded streets?

As I waited for my departing flight at London's Heathrow Airport, I watched as airplanes spiraled up into the sky and circled down, converging from all parts of the world. Blinking lights on the terminal's wall announced cities from every continent. Men in pinstriped suits brushed against sandaled women in saffron-colored saris. Newspaper headlines in Cyrillic, Roman, and Arabic letters offered different versions of the same event. The convergence of people, cultures, viruses, and ideas from all over the globe reminded me of a swirling helix — airplanes spiraling in three dimensions, newspapers offering multiple points of view, passengers seeing from above and below.

Heathrow is also a network. Networks are made of links and nodes; and Heathrow is both a hub connecting major global cities and a link to regional airports. People and ideas continuously merge and diverge. It resembles the Internet, with infinite cross connections and wild reverberations. The swirl of a helix and the interconnections of a network match the way we engage with and view our current world.

Shaping the World

Like mental maps, shapes organize and orient our world. They provide a tangible framework for understanding a culture, its values and place in time. Shape seeps into every aspect of living — how we build our shelters, bind our social systems, form our sacred sites, and interpret reality. But at pivot points in time, the shape can change. When the shape shifts, it signals a new way of living, a new way of thinking, has entered. We can see these shifts as round huts turn into city grids, stone circles into church steeples, tribal councils into military ranks, and pyramids into networks. Shape becomes a clue to past mindsets, a way to understand the present and to glimpse the future.

Each era creates a way of organizing and orienting that works for its time. Think about the Big Dipper, the cluster of stars we connect to represent a drinking cup and handle. The image is so familiar; we use it to find the North Star and navigate the globe. The Dipper is so ingrained in our minds that it is difficult for us to look at the night sky and not see it. But it was not always so. To the Greeks and Native Americans, these same stars shaped a great bear. In Medieval times these dots connected to draw a wagon. To the Chinese, these stars formed a heavenly goddess. If we connected the same dots in the twenty-first century, perhaps we would draw a laptop computer.

Each culture saw the same set of stars but connected the dots in their own way to form a familiar shape that reflected their worldview. Each version liberated a culture to navigate from the North Star while simultaneously locking them into a single viewpoint. We see a dipper so automatically that we forget there are other shapes that could orient us. The stars do not move. We change our description of them. How we describe the world inscribes our thinking.

Then, in migratory times, humans understood the world as interconnected, cycling and whole, like a web. Roaming bands and tribes patterned their world by seasons and sunrise. They lived woven to nature and each other until approximately 10,000 to 5000 BC. Over time, humans learned to plant seeds and grow crops, year upon year, in one spot, eliminating the need to migrate. When humans could store enough food to stay in place for four seasons, populations exploded, necessitating a new way of thinking about life and one's surroundings. The order shifted. A ladder model, organized by hierarchy, measurement, and linear progression, defines the next era of civilization. In village squares, pyramid monuments, and eventually skyscrapers, the ladder shape evolved physically. It permeates society's social tiers, political ranks, and economic classes. From ancient civilizations through the Industrial Revolution to current corporate pyramids, the ladder imprint persists.

Now, computer technology is the agent of change, spurring computation, data analysis, and interconnectivity on a new scale, leading us to the helix and network. A helix combines the circling web and the linear ladder. It revolves and evolves simultaneously. Its constant swirl matches the feeling of today's accelerated change. Thanks to the double helix of DNA, we see how past patterns and fresh combinations mix to create the new. The network follows with its infinite links and nodes leading to wild connectivity. The Internet is the master network of our lives. We even use network shapes to describe biology — the connections in our brains, bacteria, and proteins.

Next, from outer space, the lens enlarges. Satellite pictures reveal Earth as a single organism. Patterns repeat at macro and micro levels. The branching fingers of riverbeds carry the same structure as veins in a leaf and airways in our lungs. The blur from accelerated change snaps into the beauty

of the big picture. The constant for early humans was the sunrise. For astronauts in space, the sun rises sixteen times in twenty-four hours. What we see is dependent on how we see. Technology can change the picture. The picture can change our mental map.

Though our mental maps shift over time, eras do not divide neatly. Ideas overlap, morph, coexist, and take time to evolve. Past shapes embed in emerging ones. Even as steeples and pillars become the dominant feature in cathedrals, weblike labyrinths often remain etched on the stone floors, and round stained glass windows still appear above the altar. Ladder hierarchy persists in skyscrapers and management pyramids, but the boons of ladder measurement bring computer-aided drawing, enabling buildings to twirl like a helix. The web returns in new dimensions — in the Internet, global economics, ecological interactions, and space ventures. But the modern web is a dynamic, multidimensional web, not the flat, eternally recurring circle of earlier times.

Enlarging Our Lens

We are at a hinge point in history as dramatic as the change from a web to a ladder worldview — from migratory to settled living, from a nature- centered to a human-centered reality. While the spinning helix and the reverberating network model our time of dynamic change, the space age continues to introduce us to new information that redefines our experience of the world and evolves our viewpoint at a pace not seen before.

Globalization is not new, but the way we experience it has changed dramatically throughout history. It began when the first human bands walked out of Africa into Asia and Europe and was redefined by seafaring explorers like Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus. Now, the effects of globalization can be seen in every aspect of modern life: in the mix of languages, races, financial networks, migrations, ecological consequences, the spread of ideas, instantaneous information, and even in the fusion of music, food, and approaches to health. Each blending and clash of cultures brings new variations of identity and experience. And as our reality reorients itself toward space, the emerging border of identity becomes the thin layer of oxygen surrounding the planet — the biosphere itself.

We are a unique generation on Earth, able to look back at the vestiges of the few remaining indigenous cultures in the Amazon and plan forward to landings on Mars. The Bushman looks up at the stars and recites stories that orient him to the universe. He treks the desert with intimate knowledge of every insect and thorn bush. Astronauts look down at the Earth from space and trek the moon, not knowing how their boots will land in the dust. Floating in space, they are as unmoored in their new world as a Bushman would be wandering in Manhattan. Dramatic shifts that once took millennia to unfold now arise within years. In our time of exponential change, we need the perspective of an astronaut in space, floating with no up or down, alert to the new from all directions, to avoid being stuck in an obsolete mindset.

Enlarging our lens also allows us to realize what we're leaving behind. Some of the girls I filmed in Liberia's backcountry now live in the city. They went from measuring time by the moon to dividing a day by minutes. They left their round thatched huts and now enter their square apartment through a door with a lock. Instead of dancing with their bare feet on the dirt floor of their compound, they climb onto a crowded bus to go to a job. The smell of grass has been replaced by the smell of diesel. It is not simply that they left their village. The old cultures have almost completely disappeared. Even though there are gains and losses, a reality shift can jolt. Water from a faucet makes life easier than walking to the river and returning with full buckets balanced on your head. But, dancing and singing in a nightclub does not bind the community the way circle dances did at night in the hub of a village.

It would be foolish to say we can know the future. But it would be even more foolish not to try to anticipate it. With a larger lens, we can see further ahead. As we become aware of accelerated change, we can anticipate more and adjust to minimize the trauma. We still need to find a solution for the things we've lost, whether they are social orders, sacred ideas, or family structures. With a larger lens, we can see the human potential that endures.

We have the power to see the present for what it is and enlarge that view with multiple perspectives. In cubism, Picasso broke apart a face and gave us several views in one plane, as if the flat canvas were a sculpture or a 3-D image. Technology brings 3-D printing, virtual reality, and holograms — the ability to view our world from all sides, see the imagined in the real, and the whole in the part. Notions of here or there, real or simulated, fact or partial truth, all require eyes wide enough to hold opposites, contradictions, and complexities.


Excerpted from "The Telling Image"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Lois Stark.
Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

i. Point of View, 1,
Chapter 1 — Connecting the Dots, 3,
ii. Then, 19,
Chapter 2 — The Web, 21,
Chapter 3 — The Ladder, 47,
iii. Now, 77,
Chapter 4 — The Helix, 79,
Chapter 5 — The Network, 103,
iv. Next, 125,
Chapter 6 — The Lens Enlarges, 127,
References, 167,
Further Reading, 173,
Image Credits and Sources, 177,
Acknowledgments, 183,
About the Author, 187,

Customer Reviews