In the comments yesterday, Stuart944 pointed out a nifty and fun little collection of random historical photographs. I'm a bit of a sucker for that kind of stuff.
You should take a look at the link, but before you do, have a look at this:
I'll wait while you go take a look at the pics. Dum-de-dum-dum [twiddling thumbs]....
One thing that really struck me is how quickly and efficiently the captions of those photographs establish the photographs' meanings. Here, as you probably saw, is the real caption for the photograph above:
Changes the meaning of the photograph quite a bit, doesn't it? Assuming you didn't recognize him without the caption.
Of course, it depends how much resonance "Charlie Chaplin" has for you, too. Naturally a film buff will find more meaning in the caption than someone who think's he's heard the name but can't really tell you where.
The clearest "captionless" photo in that bunch (i.e., the picture that tells its own story) is probably the little boy with the shoes. A lot of what you want to know is right there in the picture. Even there, however, I don't feel like I'm worse off knowing that he's Austrian and that it was taken in the Second World War.
Unfortunately, my rather snarky mind sometimes supplies captions when I'm out on the vast moors of the Internet looking at pictures. "Stupid snapshot by some stupid dude who's too clueless to realize it's a stupid snapshot," my snark-mind will say, when I'm looking at...well, a stupid snapshot. Or "Done-to-death cliché by a noob who doesn't realize it is one." Snark mind is sometimes just not nice.
Notice how I blame this on my mind and not myself. How's that for the apotheosis of the passive voice? But you know, sometimes these thoughts pop up...and I'm a Grumpy-Old-Man-in-training.
Of course, no caption is also, in a sense, a caption. It's the photographer saying "I don't want you to know the facts behind this picture. Just look at it and make of it what you will."
Here's my point. Several commenters also mentioned that they've learned to question their photographs in terms of potential eventual historical significance. In other words, is what you're photographing going to be something that might be of interest to people in the future? And the reason this is an interesting and pertinent question is simply because access is such a potential asset for any photographer, and one thing we have access to that nobody will have access to 50 or 100 years from now is, well, now—what the world looks like now and won't later. I actually remember photographing cars in the '70s and thinking someday I won't be able to see this any more. (Of course it didn't manage to make the cars more interesting.)
But the point (I really am getting to it) is that one thing serious photographers really need to do is to formulate their stance toward captions. It actually helps determine what you're going to photograph and how you're going to photograph it. Because what you're deciding is what your relationships to the facts of photographs is going to be. Most photographs have facts behind them; many photographs have facts behind the making of them (such as, who took them and why. Note that those facts are absent from the pictures at the link). How about you? Do you care? Are you photographing to help convey those facts or are the facts simply incidental to some other concern? Have you positively decided that facts are coincidental to your interests and you're going to encourage the viewer to concentrate on other things about the picture or let the viewer think his or her own thoughts? Whatever you decide, it's important.
Anyway, when you get a chance, take another look at that set of photographs and note the captions. Most are synchronous, symbiotic, superadditive. Even though they're simple.
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Featured Comments from:
[Correction: An earlier version of this post had a Featured Comment attributing the picture of the little boy with the shoes to Ernst Haas. It's actually by Gerald Waller and was published in LIFE magazine. The little boy, a war orphan, had just been given the shoes by the Red Cross.
Sorry for the error...but it does point out that most photographs have real facts associated with them, not only whether you care to share them or not, but also whether you know them or not. Virtually every photo is caption-able whether it has a caption or not; there are facts that pertain to it whether you get them right or not. (Thanks to Anonymous for the correction.) —Ed.]
Andrew Molitor: "One of the themes I am always gnawing on a bit is how photographs fit into whatever context they are in. How does one photograph affect our experience of the next, in a gallery? How does the caption, the title of the show, the artist bio, and so on, alter how we experience a picture? We're sort of trained to think of pictures in isolation, as things unto themselves. This is silly (in my opinion, of course), and increasingly counter-productive. An argument can be made that all the pictures have been made already, in some sense. How often do we see a picture and not think of it largely in terms of other pictures it more or less resembles?
"Increasingly, what makes work interesting and important is that context it's embedded in, the captions, the rest of the pictures in the portfolio. The work is still necessary and vital, but in the age of a trillion photos, a picture needs more friends to stand with."
David Littlejohn: "I recently 'inherited' my parents' box full of snapshots. As I went through them to try to make some sense of them, I found that I was much more likely to discard photos that had no captions, especially if I didn't know the people in them. Since then I have started printing out captioned collections of my wife's and my vacations, events, etc. and throwing them in my own box. (Lightroom is good for this because you can print multiple pictures on a page.) Maybe they'll be kept after I'm gone."