If you're a regular reader, you might remember this plain picture of a tree I used to illustrate a post called "Does Equipment Matter?" about two months ago. It was captioned "A Tri-X 400 Picture."
What else are you going to say about it? It's a tree.
Whenever the subject of captions comes up, people are quick to admonish you that "photographs should stand alone." And, sure enough, some pictures don't seem to need captions. When you take pictures of trees, for example, you've pretty much got a stockpile of titles three deep: "Tree," "Another Tree," and "Yet Another Tree." After that, you're done—out of choices. After all, unless you're a botanist and are interested in the facts of the tree, trees are trees. Like this shot. It’s a tree picture, right? A certain kind of tree, no doubt, but just a tree. A tree is tree is a tree.
And I'm sure a case could be made that some pictures are actually weakened by captions or explanations.
But for the most part, I prefer pictures that have captions. I find I almost always want to know the Who-What-When-How-Why. I noticed this again when I was looking through Matt Weber's website again yesterday (he and I are talking about doing a print sale). The website often features his comments about the pictures, something the book lacks. I prefer to know the stories.
Take this picture for instance:
In the book (page 79) I let this pass by without much of anything registering. But here's what Matt says about it on the website: "It's been over twenty years since I took this picture, and at the time I felt like it was the saddest photograph that I had ever made. Now I still feel that sadness, because the man's eyes show more pain than I could ever expect to know, as he pushed all his possessions across 23d Street in a shopping cart…." The words help me see in the picture what the photographer saw in it. It helps me to see it better.
Certainly, news photographers are used to dealing with captions, but curators and editors and critics also like to know the context and significance of a photograph. Some amateurs, on the other hand, often seem to be engaged in a dogged pursuit of the generic and the pictorial. Don't think that uncaptioned art photographs are actually uncaptioned, either. When Martin Parr made his book The Last Resort, or Alex Soth his book Niagara, each picture may not get its own caption, or only a cursory one, but the context is more than amply provided by the book's written introduction and the photographer's commentary on the project as a whole.
I would venture to say that for someone as besotted with photography as myself, sometimes much of the running commentary is within the viewer's head! Only the photographer can really explain the picture's true signifiers, however, as Matt Weber did for me with his comment. Photographs are documentary much more than pictorial, and they are specific, not generic. Are you familiar with Hiroshi Sugimoto's seascapes, for example? They’re all minimalist pictures exactly bisected by the horizon line, sea below, sky above, often as simple as a rectangle of light gray above a rectangle of dark gray. What makes them interesting—valid, one might even say—are the titles telling which of the world’s oceans is pictured and from where. I want to whack some photographers over the head with a rolled-up photo magazine when I'm shown some fascinating landscape or city scene and the title is merely "Fiery Sky" or "Early Morn." Don’t other people want to know where and when the landscape was taken, or in what city and at what time of year the city scene was made? I do. I want to add the photograph to the sum of my knowledge about the world.
At the very least, I always encourage photographers to take a moment and jot a few identifiers on the back of their prints. You may see no need to label a picture of your very own mother, but then, you are not going to be upon this coil indefinitely, and a hastily scrawled "Mother, age 52 in 2006, by John Q. Doe" may be invaluable to your grandchild half a century from now, because she wouldn’t otherwise recognize her forebear. In her wonderful and sadly long-out-of-print book Photography and Society, Giselle Freund points out how easily the meanings of pictures can be changed by simply changing the captions. (Get a copy of that book if you possibly can. It's wonderful. Your library might have it.) Captions are how photographers become more than camera operators, how we are honest or deceptive, how we become thoughtful. If you've not been in the habit of captioning your pictures (or giving them descriptive titles), take a few minutes sometime and jot down the "stories" behind a handful of your own pictures. It might be an instructive exercise.
I would also claim (perhaps optimistically) that getting in the habit of telling the stories behind your pictures will change what you take pictures of, and even how you see. Considering the meaning and conceiving of the authorial point of view can't help but make one's pictures deeper and more exact. It would probably at least relieve the weekend snapper of the heavy responsibility of trying yet again for that elusive perfect fall foliage picture. (I kid.)
• • •
Oh, and by the way: The tree picture at the top of this post was taken at Manassas, Virginia, near a creek named Bull Run, where the first major battle of the American Civil War was fought exactly 150 years ago yesterday. The tree grows as near as can be determined to the spot where the Southern General Barnard Elliott Bee, rallying his men, cried, "Take heart, men! Look! Yonder stands Jackson like a stone wall!" Bee was mortally wounded soon afterwards, but from then until his own death, and ever since, the legendary Confederate General Thomas Jackson was known as "Stonewall."
So it isn't really a tree picture at all. It's a picture of the place where Stonewall Jackson got his name.
And aren't you glad to know that? I am. Does it change your sense of, even your appreciation for, that pleasingly plain but otherwise nondescript tree picture? It does for me.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
(A version of this essay was originally published in Black & White Photography magazine.)
Featured Comment by Ed Hawco: "On the other hand, sometimes a caption is a great opportunity for a bit of a laugh, such as this 'Smoke Break':
Mike replies: Ed, I have to say I think "Smoke Break" is a bad label for that picture, and, while I acknowledge your right to do whatever the heck you want, I object to that impulse. It trivializes the subject and makes the photographer seems unserious and puerile—if not dunderheaded. If I were your picture editor you wouldn't stand a chance of getting that one through.
"Captions" in that sense can be unfortunately revealing of the project any given photographer has undertaken...some hobbyist photographers are unserious, scattershot voyeurs, without thoughtfulness or purpose, and their "captions" can help betray that fact. Bad captions can also reveal mawkish sentimentality or soppy romanticism or literal ignorance...by that last, I mean they can reveal that the photographer didn't understand what the hell he or she was taking a picture of. The need for literary craft as well as intellectual rigor in a good caption shouldn't be underestimated.
Probably the worst use of captions is when a good, fundamentally serious photographer undermines his or her own work by applying stupid, punning, or dissonant captions to it. The pictures might invite thoughtful reflection and serious interpretation on the part of the viewer, but stupid, knee-jerk captions torpedo that impulse. Redirecting a considered response for the sake of a cheap yuk that isn't even really funny doesn't begin to be worth it, in my view.
The fact that I like and approve of captions shouldn't be misinterpreted to mean that I think all captions are good. 95% of everything is crap, and that probably doesn't exclude captions for photographs.
Just the fact that one can think of punning, jokey, hokey, trivial, or clichéd titles for pictures does not mean that one should use them. (I had an even worse one than these three but I just couldn't bear to do such a thing to John Moore's great photograph.)
When I say I approve of captions, I'm acknowledging that photographs have meaning and significance that goes beyond their visual content. They have context, and the context has significance and maybe even meaning: the connection of the photograph to the broader world is what makes photography different and distinct from all the other visual arts. And the photographer has some sort of relationship to what's in the picture, and some reason for having taken the picture and having presumed to present it to others. Any of those things might be important. Relaying some sense of this, somehow, is part of the responsibility of being a photographer. (Or, I should say, of being a good one.) That might even include redirecting the viewer away from the facts in the picture, if the photographer means to highlight some other aspect of it.
I'll give you another example, a positive one this time:
During the Bosnian war, the city of Sarajevo was shelled by up to 300 mortar rounds a day. As a deliberate memorial to the dead, the scars in the pavement were repaired with a red resin, resulting in what were known as "Sarajevo roses."
Is any picture that puts forward a Sarajevo rose without mentioning where it is, and as if it were merely a pretty colored design on the pavement, enough? I say it isn't. We need context and significance to know what we're looking at. Photography is not just an endless parade of random colors and shapes to be stared at, dully, as you would stare dully at a television screen as you flip steadily from one channel to the next.
Ed Hawco replies: "Well, in my defence I think it's an overstatement to put my 'smoke break' caption in the same category as the 'German fireworks' and other ones you showed (particularly as there were no injuries in the fire I photographed—although how would anyone know that?).
"In my case the most curious thing about the photo is the firefighter on the right, who is casually sitting down in an old chair that happened to be in the alley. If you look at him, he is most definitely taking a break, but it's not some gut-wrenching close-up of an exhausted firefighter who needs to pull himself away from the fight; he looks like a guy —or even a kid—who's just having a bit of a sit-down. If this were video you would have seen that the whole operation was pretty relaxed and had a bit of a 'ho-hum, there's another fire to put out' air.
"That discordant note in the photo—which if you ask me is what makes the photo prompted the equally discordant title.
"Otherwise I fully agree with what you said in your reply to my comment. I just don't see my caption as being as dunderheaded as the other ones you showed."
Mike replies: True. You only inspired my rant, you didn't deserve it. :-)
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "I agree that captions can greatly enhance the viewer's experience with a photograph...nearly any photograph. For example, even one of Helen Levitt's wonderful scenes benefits from having her typical place-and-date captions (example: "Harlem, 1964").
"I also agree with avoidance of silly captions, although your criticism of 'Smoke break' might be rather harsh. You've equated the term with tobacco use rather than the firefighter being overcome by inhalation. I realize that Ed was probably applying the popular term to the familiar form in the image, but I think you see my point here.
"Finally, I think it was in very bad taste to use that horrific image of the injured little girl to make your point."
Mike replies: Ken, I respect your response, but it was intended. Why did you single out that picture and not the other two? It's not clear that the little girl was going to die (although she might have). But there are indisputably people dying in the other two pictures.
I think it was important to use the middle picture because it highlights my belief that what I'm talking about here isn't just a matter of taste, or preference, or pose, or strategy. The other two pictures are so well known that it's easier to divorce them from their original pretext, and accept them as mere symbols or "memes" that can safely be recontextualized, satirized, or warped into jokes like something you'd see on a bad T-shirt.
Yes, of course, that caption on that middle picture is appalling and immoral...it disrespects the reality of the picture and the humanity of the subjects. That the picture connects to a real event and a real meaning that goes beyond what the photographer controls, knows, or "owns" goes to the heart of the point I'm trying to make. As photographers we stand in a relationship to reality that is outside ourselves...we are neither gods nor is everything in the world a straw dog. At the very extreme, one might even claim we don't have the "right" to recast reality in our own terms, especially if it's too far removed from what a sensitive viewer can see and extract from the picture itself. The miscaptioned middle picture makes that point more clearly than the other two, and I think the fact that you objected to that one more than the other two just makes that more evident.
(Ed. Note: Ken replies to this in the Comments section.)
Featured Comment by Jeff: "Mike, I think you overgeneralize (maybe to make a point) about the use of, and need for, captions (used interchangeably, it seems, with titles).
"I'll use some of your recent print sales as examples. Did anyone really need a caption to understand or appreciate Gordon Lewis's 'umbrella lady' photo? (We all would call it that, or something similar, without the need for a title or caption.) And the picture is wonderful without a title or caption. I don't need to know more, and even if I did, it wouldn't change my reaction (unless I learned the situation was posed or 'photoshopped.')
"Charles Cramer's photos strike me the same. Does 'Aspens in Fog' lend anything more than we can already ascertain? Is the photo diminished without the title or further information? We pretty much get it.
"I could use thousands of other examples. Virtually any Cartier-Bresson 'decisive moment,' for instance. Does anyone really care, or know, that the 'puddle jumper' photo is really called 'Behind la Gare Saint-Lazare'? And did the photographer even call it that formally, or did some publisher or curator insist on naming it? And does it really help the image? I think the picture speaks for itself.
"I love much of the work of André Kertesz. His photos all have titles; some, like 'Melancholic Tulip,' are overly interpretive in my view, but that's of no major consequence to me. I either like the photo or not. Learning about Kertesz and his mood or background of course helps me to better understand his body of work, but I liked the work before I knew anything about that.
"Sometimes a caption helps. Sometimes not. And not all work is documentary (even if a scene is documented). It just works compositionally, and sometimes magically, at a moment in time. And, to me, there's nothing wrong or lacking in that.
"Methinks you protest too much."
Mike replies: You might be right.