Life Writing in the Picture: Using Infographics in Biography

by Dennis Kersten

There is more to biography than books, you know – but not much more. Indeed, book-length prose narrative seems the medium of choice in life writing. Not surprisingly perhaps, since it has proven to be a strikingly versatile form. However, for the telling of life stories, it continues to pose serious problems as well. Conventionally linear and chronological, biographical narratives may be seen to artificially create order in fundamentally chaotic lives and so suggest meaning where there
may not be any.

In an effort to overcome the limitations of narrative, the protagonist of Julian Barnes’ famous metabiographical novel Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) decides to present the “facts” of the life of the author of Madame Bovary in,
respectively, a chronology, a bestiary, a “train-spotter’s guide”, a dictionary
and an examination paper. He never learns who the “real” Gustave Flaubert is, but his go at biography does teach him how one life may be told in a seemingly inexhaustible variety of ways, all true to historical fact. If only Flaubert’s biographers could have used digital designer tools and capture the man’s life and work in a series of infographics! Surely, if Flaubert’s Parrot had been written today, it would have included a chapter with visualized biographical data.

Ammonite Press have published a series of short life writing books, titled Biographic, each part of which represents the lives of cultural icons through tables, graphs, pie charts and other impressively designed visuals. So far, the series has spawned instalments about Coco Chanel, Albert Einstein, Jimi Hendrix, Vincent van Gogh and William Shakespeare, amongst 15 others. There is even one about a completely fictional figure: Sherlock Holmes.

The aim is to convey these subjects’ “essence” and “defining facts” by visualizing their “thoughts, habits and achievements” and, thus, create “vivid snapshots” of them. Which is not to say that there is no narrative at all in the Biographic books: the opening pages of many parts in the series, in which the above mentioned objectives are described, are quite “texty”. And in the chapters to come, readers are guided through the infographics by sometimes quite elaborate explanatory notes. In fact, some of the visuals are text illustrations rather than infographics. Still, the combination of word and image in Biographic calls for a reading of its writing of lives from the perspective of intermediality.

Infographics may be used to great effect, especially when they document data in both an efficient and aesthetically pleasing manner – a point emphasized by books like David McCandless’ Information is Beautiful (2009). In some cases, there is no more impactful way to present facts than to visualize them in one single image. A great example would be Pop Chart Lab’s poster of who played what on which song by The Beatles (2018). With each instrument represented by a unique colour, it is immediately obvious that Beatle songs became increasingly complex instrumentation-wise as
the Sixties progressed, and that that process went hand-in-hand with Paul McCartney’s growing dominance as a player. His “Yesterday” suddenly appears a true turning point in this context.

In Biographic Bowie, infographics are used to a similar end. For instance, the track listing of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory (1971) is presented with
colours for the themes dealt with in the songs it contains. Thanks to that, you instantly realize that the songs about “American heroes” such as Warhol and Dylan are grouped together on side B, like a mini-concept album-within-an-album. The faces of Bowie’s many characters (from Major Tom to the Thin White Duke), but also his changing fashion styles: these are, indeed, best visualized. Shown in one spread, the evolution of both is dramatically highlighted.

Okay, so the use of two consecutive pages to illustrate a quote from one of Winston Churchill’s war memoirs with the door of 10 Downing Street may not be the most efficient or aesthetically pleasing way to get information across in the biography of the British former-PM. Does the repetition of cigars, bowler hats and Spitfires across 50 “defining” Churchillian facts not risk his reduction to caricature? The Aladdin Sane lightning bolt almost
becomes a brand in Biographic Bowie. More generally, why is the series focused on the usual suspects amongst “great lives”? Why is it especially interested in artists? And where are the female icons? Only three of its twenty parts are devoted to women: Jane Austen, Chanel and Frida Kahlo.

Life writing is beautiful, but not only because biographical information is. It also shows how biographers try to make sense of the “facts” they bring together by giving shape to stories about lives that are, essentially, shapeless. In that sense, the Biographic books, which must have been challenging to write and design, are fascinating study material for life writing watchers. With their playful and “fun” appearance, they will undoubtedly attract new readers to life stories that have been documented extensively already – an achievement in itself.

They also raise new questions. Can such happily colourful books also represent the darker pages in an historical figure’s life? And would their infographic approach work for the writing of lives that may be iconic, but the opposite of “great” in all other respects? Dictators leave trails of data, too, of course. What about marginalized and largely unknown subjects? Can the “essence” of their legacy be captured in maximally 50 icons? Perhaps future experiments in life writing along the lines of Biographic will answer these questions. Oscar Wilde once almost said, “Everybody is clever with infographics nowadays,” which may be true for a time in which everybody with a personal computer can be a graphic designer. The Biographic
books stand out, though. A fan of their intermedial life writing, c’est moi.

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