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Friday, 22 July 2011


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The story does make the photo more meaningful, but I'm not sure a caption alone could capture that. Today's reenactment was cancelled due to 102 degree temps here in DC, kids in wool uniforms look pretty uncomfortable today. Not sure how I'd caption it, but it's hotter today than it was in 1861.

Many good points Mike. A.D. Coleman raises some of these points in an essay included in his book Light Readings. Personally, I prefer captions to be as straight forward as possible, like Lee Friedlander does: " Route 9W, New York." Some photographers try to add too much to their photographs: "The Apotheosis of Saint Auxentius.” Good grief…

On a not-quite-related note, I'm always glad when we don't hear much from you for a day or two. It means you're working on a very thought provoking piece.

The Tri-X tree photo brings to mind a Tri-X tree photo of my own, a very bad scan of which I put on my photo blog back in 2005:

It's a much sadder Tri-X tree because it's just a stump. (But I'm sure you'll see the resemblance if you can imagine a better quality scan.) In that case it was on some rolling hill in Vermont, near the cottage of a friend I was spending a few days with. No big story, although it hints at the continuing cottagization of the north country forests.

I do like captions, and I like them to be reasonably clear. I'm ok with more ethereal captions if there is something in the photograph that itself hints at ethereality and the location or other info isn't really pertinent.

But what I really, really hate is when people caption their photos by just grabbing some known catch-phrase, title of a book, lyric from a song, or whatever. Especially when the photo has only a passing connection with said cliché. For example, a photo of a baby in a stroller with an American flag somewhere in the image, and it's titled "Born on the 4th of July." Really? Was that kid really born on the 4th of July or are you just being hokey?

Or a photo of some young people dancing in a night club, and it's captioned "Saturday Night Fever." Or some lonely looking tart staring off into the distance and it's captioned "With or Without You." On and on. Fortunately most people don't fall into this terrible trap of cheese bombs and clichés, but enough do to make me want to rant about it! (End of rant.) :-)

Agree completely with the thoughts in this article.

For a great example of how a caption can entirely determine a photo's meaning (not my photo but one of my faves): http://photo.net/photodb/photo.tcl?photo_id=3999557

On my photo blog - Riff's Photography Journal - I always put a story behind the photo. The few times I didn't, either I was emailed or had a comment left as to what was the story behind the photo. You know, where was it taken, why, what was I thinking, why B&W and not color, etc.

The few people who do follow my site want to know the story behind the photo so I try, as best as I can, to let them know what they want to read. For me, it has been successful... :-)

perhaps it's a larch?

before i read the backstory i was thinking -- that's not just a picture of tree, the tree stands alone in an unusually large field -- so in a sense you could say your photo was successful for me without a caption

People who think photos should stand alone, "can't see the forest.....". The great redwoods in national parks all have names, Great paintings and sculptures all have names, animals that are known to humans all have names, even when they are still waiting to be given away from the litter, or strays at the humane society. I sell yachts for a living and every once in a while someone doesn't name their boat. We need to fill in the blank on the listing form and we put "no name" it seems strange to do that. I do a lot of stuff on fotoblur and all the photos there, including mine are all given a name. From that point on I always remember that particular photo by that name. there is even a bar in Sausalito named "the bar with no name", and it is referred to by locals as "the no name".....took a google break in my writing...went to www.joepayne.org/manassas and there is a photo of the tree in 1939. The tree does have a name and it is "Cedar Tree". Not very creative, but a name. Now you have to give the photo a name or you, the negative, and all the prints will wander around Limbo for eternity. There I feel much berrer now.

While some may claim a caption forces an interpretation upon the viewer, I for one usually prefer a small description that helps me effective situate a photo in time and space. Even a small blurb that tells a story is much appreciated. (By "blurb," I do not necessarily mean the technical details, but a discussion of a photographer's motivation can be a rewarding read). At least for me, viewing photos is one exercise in my own mental mapping of my world, and even few words allow me to do that in a way I find rewarding.

Eva Leitolf's Looking For Evidence is a series of utterly beautiful, if seemingly banal and unrelated, large format scenics- until one reads the informative captions describing the details of the violent hate crimes committed at the site of each photograph.

What a great post, Mike. You really got me to thinking about this more deeply than I ever have. What a perfect and timely example, too. Thank you!

Local info: The man pushing all his worldly possessions in a shopping cart is passing in front of what looks to be a Moishe's Movers truck.


at the near certain risk of being deemed pedantic, and having spent a couple of days on a battlefield tour of First Bull Run (courtesy of a joint venture between the UK and US Command and General Staff Courses), I think your last paragraph of description may be out by a few hundred yards. The point where Bee rallied his men is in an area now fairly heavily covered with trees (in the region of 38 49 01; 77 30 31), and Jackson's mostly Virginian forces were drawn up on the back side of Henry Hill, some 800 yards to the west, and mostly in a North/South line. Key to Jackson's selection of territory was a position that he could place his artillery batteries. Jackson always chose to site his artillery personally, and in this case he opted for a position from which the guns were "just" behind the crest of the hill. As they recoiled after firing, the guns ran back a little way which put them out of sight of the Union guns, making reloading a little safer. Having walked the ground, the consensus among us was that the only position that they could have been in was across a little road about 350 yards north east of the present Museum and Memorial building. This road is now crossed by a line of trees, and the north/south line his Virginians occupied is now marked by the western edge of a wood.

All a very long winded way of saying that the lone tree in your photo does not, in all likelihood, represent the spot where either Bee or Jackson were during the battle. From the look of it, and looking at some of my own photos, I cannot identify that particular tree, but it appears - and the topography and sunlight and shadows indicate - to be taken from a position north north east of the present Battle Museum and Memorial building, and that area is pretty much where the Union artillery battery under Griffin had been placed. Jackson's position would have been about 300 yards east (to the right of the photo, which looks north eastward)), and the treeline in the background now marks the line that would have been held by the 4th or 27th Virginians. Bee would have been about 800 yards away, in the direction of the photograph, but on the other side of the hill.

I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with you on this one. Not totally though.
I think there are two broad categories of photographs*.
For want of better terms, lets call them "straight" and "fine art". Straight styles, such as photojournalism or street photography can gain much by explaining the circumstances of the image, "the Who-What-When-How-Why". This gives context and a point of reference.
Pure "fine art" photography doesn't need a description, in fact description can be detrimental to the image. I could almost drag in Ctein's article "no-one-cares-how-hard-you-worked", which touches on this. (sorry Ctein...) Jerry Uelsmann doesn't always title his works. (now whether Mr. Uelsmann is photographer could be another topic of discussion).
As for myself, yes I should caption some of my work. Others though, I like to think "stand on their own"
*of course with tons of overlap and everything else that comes with broad generalizations. I also have a bias, as I have a lot of abstract painter friends. I don't think "blue #25" counts as a caption...

I'm going to have to disagree a bit. While a find such a descriptive caption can help me better understand and, perhaps, appreciate the subject, it does nothing for my feelings about the photograph, itself.

I think there is a danger in relying on verbiage (aside from titles) to elevate a photograph's stature or sense of quality. Sure, there are times when some perspective is necessary, but those should be the exceptions.

In you tree example, I very much like the image, but found the description to be rather meaningless. Sure, it's an interesting anecdote, but is that really enough?

You want a caption?


Reading that the tree is growing on a former Civil War site made me gasp and take another look at it. This shows that sometimes a good caption will make a photo even more fascinating. I believe that some pictures deserve the time and reflection that goes in to writing a description or giving it a name. There's a reason that a photographer decided to take a picture and it's nice to be able to get a glimpse of the thought process behind it.

Thanks Mike! This reminded me about how much I enjoy Duane Michals' work and that I really must get around to buying one of his books, one of these days.

Good news for those who read French: the original French edition of Gisèle Freund's Photography and Society is still available, e.g. chez Amazon.fr:

Perhaps Mike could find a way to link it via Amazon.com for American readers?
Anyway, here's the publisher's page for it:

Photographie et société was first published in 1974 in a prestigious but cheap paperback edition of standard reference books and essays, "Points/Seuil". As far as I'm aware it never went out of print, in French. (It also happens to be the first book on the theory of photography I bought for myself, back then.)

For those hesitant to brush up their French in order to read Gisèle Freund: bear in mind that she was born and raised in Germany. French was an acquired language of her mature years, forced upon her by exile from Nazi Germany. Her style is very lucid, economical, and to the point.

Nor was the text entirely a product of French writing: the original ideas had been set out in her sociology PhD, which Freund started working on in 1931, finished in 1935 in German — in Paris! — had it translated into French by her friend Adrienne Monnier and published as a French dissertation in 1936. The back-and-forth between languages eliminates fluff and enhances clarity.

Captions are hard. I do think that too many words from the photographer take away the joy of deriving my own meaning; a good image can be completely flattened by a description. (And on-the-nose captions or titles like "old woman with broom" or "man on bicycle" are positively annoying.)

I don't caption photos, but early on, I took to titling almost all of my photos with the location, as vague as "New York Harbor" or specific as "Crosby Street." I think it strikes a fair balance between giving too much away and withholding for the sake of withholding...

Mike, you know I agree. All qualifications and exceptions included!

Seems like once a year or so there is a similar post that reminds us to really contemplate the future relevance of our images. And every year it is much needed and appreciated!


My philosophy on captions, or titles, for my own photographs falls under the KISS principle. Place and date is normally sufficient.

This topic is timely for me in that I'm preparing for an upcoming exhibition of some of my photographs. As such, I need to decide how to label the photos, and whether to include more details on the separate pricing sheet.

When I initially printed these photos for my own pleasure, without regard to exhibition, they remained untitled. But, I always kept good records of the time and place, and often gathered more information from property owners or from people photographed to learn more about them. This, however, was merely for my own curiosity.

One photo for the show, for example, is a black and white of the side of a dilapidated old barn. A friend commented that it looked like a Mondrian painting due to its many blocks of dark space created by openings in the old wood sections. Ever since, I think of this pic as my 'Mondrian Barn.' But, I would never label it as such. I don't like it when artists impose interpretations; that's up to the viewer.

Beyond that description, however, I learned that the barn was owned by a famous musician, and that long before he owned it, it was a 3 story chicken house. If anyone asks me about the photograph, I'll be happy to explain. But, for the show, it's just called 'Dilapidated Barn' (only so I can distinguish the photo if someone is interested in purchase), plus date and location.

The photograph either delights the viewer or not, and I prefer not to 'cheat' and lend more import to the scene than the photograph itself commands. I'm not a documentary photographer; my style follows more along the line of Winogrand's statement about photographing for the joy of seeing something photographed.

With this in mind, I find the description of the tree interesting as background. But, it does little for me in deciding whether I like the photograph.

As an aside, the one thing I never want to see in a back-story to a photograph is how hard the photographer worked to get the pic. I couldn't care less.

Marshaling my formidable pedantry to array against you, all I can tell you is that the lone (and apparently lonely) museum guide said, "See that tree? That's about where Stonewall Jackson got his name"--about nineteen years ago.

I dunno, maybe they fired that guy. [g]


I have a tree picture like that. I call it: "Tree that a bear cub climbed while I dug my camera out of my backpack".

I agree with you wholeheartedly about context and it can do for photographs. I was looking at Fraction Magazine online a while back and in issue 25 found a portfolio by a photographer named Heidi Romano:

At first glance, the photos did little for me, but when I read the photographers comments, particularly this: "When I took these images I had no intention of documenting a crime scene, but when I unintentionally did, the forest transformed into a dark, mysterious place that spoke of hiding under rocks and escaping the country, of police searches, sirens and helicopters" I can't even look at them the same way any more. It transformed them.

- Dennis

Born on the 5th of July

I have a basic rule when sorting through my pictures: If I can't think of a good caption, that's not a keeper.

Wow! What photography is all about:


If I only captured one photograph in my life that powerful and moving, I'd die satisfied.

Rod G.

I love the top photograph. A tree. Simple, beautiful, perfect. Like Henry Wessel was wandering around in Wisconsin.

For me, the bottom photograph doesn't work. It lacks context. The relationship between the man and his environment is missing. Maybe the photograph needs a caption because it fails to convey meaning to the viewer. And I don't find the photograph particularly "sad."

Most of the time I just need place and year to describe a photograph. I prefer to use my eye and mind to explore its content and I'll figure out on my own what it's all about.

Very interesting post on a matter that I've thought alot about. Even after almost five decades I can recall at any moment Christer Strömholm's picture of the blind Hiroshima girl (http://tonguedepressors.tumblr.com/post/2512346069/christer-stromholm-hiroshima-1963). I think that is because the portrait, although thought provoking in its own right, gets a much wider meaning due to the caption "Hiroshima, 1963".

The tree photo means a lot to me, Mike, precisely because of your caption. My middle name is Jackson, as have been the oldest males in my family for over a hundred years. (I've got one of thse obnoxious IIIs at the end of my name.) My great great grandfather served on Stonewall Jackson's staff - went in a private and came out a captain. The family was so proud of him that the name entered the family and has not left. Whenever I see your tree photo on TOP, it fills me with a great sense of my roots. I'm not proud of what the family once stood for, but the connection to history is always humbling.

As someone who is going through boxes of family photographs, I can attest to the value of having a caption that identifies people, places and times. It is much harder to supply the information later than it is to write on the back now.

What is unsaid, is that this applies to prints. I have many, many negatives that have been separated from their prints and have even less chance of being positively identified/dated. And the only way to get started on them is by printing them.

@David, I think the tree in the photo at Joe Payne's website is supposed to be at Chancellorsville, Virginia, which is quite some distance from Manassas.

"Only the photographer can really explain the picture's true signifiers, however, as Matt Weber did for me with his comment." What did the person who is the subject of this photo have to say about the true signifiers? It is a striking achievement in the context of photography, but "as he pushed all his possessions across 23d Street in a shopping cart…" is the only part of the caption that struck me. Context, not what The Photographer felt or feels now.

The caption ideally should be striking journalism that makes the photograph part of something bigger, more than just itself. Of course, no-one will read a thousand words that might grab them unless they've already been grabbed by the photograph. Journalism can be 3 words or a full-length New Yorker piece, but it should grab the reader as much as does the photograph.

And in the internet age, why isn't it more used (and easier to do so) through the Alt-text method. That way, both camps can be satisfied.
I like to do captions, and I add titles to final versions of my files to help me but it's a real pain to automate.

Well, Mr. Crawford makes an excelllent suggestion

"perhaps it's a larch?"

Mr. Larch in court is a total groove. That's just so f'ing funny.

"He's not completely dead but he's not at all well."

The Caption thing...none of that Lolita crap, or, as mentioned before in this comment wheel..

The Apotheosis of Saint Auxentius???????????

'Good grief' is the correct response, thank you.

Was it a macro a picture of a bug climbing a stalk of grass?

Damn, that's just messed up.

My own experience with viewing photographs is quite different. I am familiar with Sugimoto's work and am particularly taken with his seascapes. I have no interest in knowing which ocean is depicted. My relationship with each image is like looking at an archetype - I am experiencing the spiritual truth that underlies oceans. My experience is primal and visceral and words and details wouldn't enhance that. The same goes for your tree picture. It might simply be that the particulars of wars, names and places and dates, are quite uninteresting to me, but I think it's more than that.

For me it's like meeting someone new for the first time. I could start to learn facts (where they grew up, where they went to school, whether the enjoy icecream) or I could start to share experiences with them - to be with them and see them interact with the world around them. This latter will surely show me more about the substance of who they are. The former instead merely possibly gives me some knowledge to sift to find a common ground to try to set up the shared experiences.

When I view a landscape photo, such as a tree in a field, I want to get to know the tree. I want to follow the curves of the branches and see how the light and shadows play on the leaves. Tying a blurb of human history to the subject of the photo (this all changes when the photos is of a person) ... tells me that the subject is important in the context of its ability to be tied to human events (a battle it was near, or the name on a map for that arbitrarily demarcated section of water).

I do enjoy the pictoral. I personally feel that beauty that can reconnect us with the depth of spirit within us and all around us in the world is a very important function of art. Perhaps this is why I find that names and dates and anecdotes detract from my experience of visual art. Sometimes I enjoy them after I have experienced the piece - but never before.

I just posted a whole blog post full of captioned photographs. My thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Norway.


One can start by just filling out the Country, State/Province, City, and Sublocation fields in the IPTC metadata that should accompany each digital photograph. It takes extra time when photos first hit the computer, but with date and time in EXIF and location in IPTC, you know a lot about a photograph. The caption can then add what you saw.

Captions often add much to a photo. I loved Adams's "Examples" book, which provided extensive contextual and technical detail for many of his photographs.

On the other hand, a great caption cannot save a sub par photograph.

Hasn't there always been a question as to whether the 'stonewall' reference was to Jackson or his 1st Virginia Brigade as a whole? In any case, a tree seems a strange monument to raise to the episode - should have been a wall, shouldn't it? Made of, um, stone?

Thank goodness that other famous Confederate general, Privet Hedge Varney, was rightly commemorated.

"What makes them interesting—valid, one might even say—are the titles telling which of the world’s oceans is pictured and from where."

And, tangentially, this is a good example of why honesty in photos is important. The image would lose something if you found out that it wasn't a "real" photo and was some sort of digital creation.

Somewhere on the web (Sadly, I can't seem to find it now) there's another picture that makes a related point, but in a somewhat scarier way.

It's a b&w photo of two soldiers holding a woman's arms, and hurrying her towards the left. The poster asks you to look at the picture with two different captions: "Soldiers help woman injured in explosion." and "Soldiers take woman into custody".

What's striking is that your perception of the facial expressions and the emotional tone of the picture, and your sympathies, change depending on which caption you're thinking about.

It's not an original point at all, but with one of those captions the picture is probably true and with the other, it's probably a lie, and the picture hasn't changed at all.

Ed Kirkpatrick....I stand corrected. thanks.


First, thanks for the original article. Well written and thought provoking, which are always welcome characteristics in a web of drivel.

You caused me to wander our hallways looking at my photographs, and realize that a big part of me prefers captions where appropriate. I regret not having used them more. Thanks for the eye-opener.

Your response to Ed's Smoke Break is a beautiful piece of writing. A bit of passion brings forward additional eloquence I suppose.

Anyway, apart from being well written, it is well argued. Good stuff sir.

"And, tangentially, this is a good example of why honesty in photos is important. The image would lose something if you found out that it wasn't a "real" photo and was some sort of digital creation."

Intersting distinction between a digital "creation" and a photographic "creation". 

How "real" is a picture, such as some of Sugimoto's seascapes, that compresses perhaps 10 hours or more into one single image that can then be perceived in a single moment?  That would appear to be something quite unreal, something that couldn't be experienced by a person in a single moment standing in one spot viewing the ocean, but that they can experience viewing the photograph.

Such a picture can only be produced by means of some kind of camera and film related trickery and seems to me to be highly unreal.

I recall the original article, which, being that I was only about a year or two into photography, cleared up an internal debate. Granted, I typically give just place & date, but that's something.

Missing from this revised effort, however, was your laudable reference to Uncle George George, if I remember correctly.

"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."

That is a good question, Mike. The Hindenberg image has become iconic of the event and almost a graphic illustration. We're very distant from the horror in time and space. The third image is basically an abstraction. Even after you decode the form it's hard to feel any kind of empathy for the subject.

But if that was my daughter in that second image I would be unimaginably angry and sickened that a blogger used that photo to make a small conceptual point, even if that point was constructed slightly to encourage reverence toward such images.

I cannot, for example, imagine how a Norwegian might react to that image this weekend but I would predict that it would not score debating points with them.

A great and thought-provoking piece, Mike.

I remember a debate about captions on a photo forum. One purist opined that if the photo needed a caption, or any explanation with words at all, then it was a failure, because "photos should always stand on their own."

I said "nonsense" then, and I'll say it now. "Saddest Photograph" is a case in point. We don't necessarily know that this is a homeless man with all his belongings in a shopping cart, because the photographer has moved in to emphasize the face. We might be able to guess, but we don't know for sure, becase clear visual context is missing. But if the photographer had pulled back enough for full context, we wouldn't see the pain in the face as clearly.

What provides context might be other photos, or if the photo illustrates a story on homelessness. Or a caption. Especially if we see the photo outside of a story or feature, we may need a clue, just something to fill in what's outside the frame.

Now for more abstract fine art photography, sometimes we may not want a caption. Say I've taken a wonderful photo of the inside of a seashell, beautiful multicolored swirls. Maybe I want you to know that it is a seashell or maybe I don't. If you know it's a seashell, you'll probably see it differently than if it's just an abstract pattern. So I might not caption it, or I might just call it "Swirls 2011." Either way, I've made a choice in how you're going to relate to it.

I've gotten quite a few views of this photo on my flickr stream recently.

It's just a grab shot, taken from the hip as I walked by. I was struck by the juxtaposition of the fully veiled woman and the life jacket. My first thought was to call it "Zero Bouyancy." But then I thought, no, that was *my* reaction. But you might see anything from the oppression of women to touching religious devotion to a safety hazard to an ordinary family outing. So I called it "Floatation," plus the place and date. It gives you a hint of my reaction, but leaves you free to form your own. Come to think of it, maybe the caption is superfluous, but I like it.

A caption is simply a tool that can be used for good or ill.


You are deep bro. To bang that crap out on a Saturday morning is truly amazing.

Dave Kee

Dennis--wanna do a print trade? I'll trade you a print "Mud puddle where there used to be a spotted turtle" for a print of "Tree that a bear cub climbed while I dug my camera out of my backpack".


Re: "What else are you going to say about it? It's a tree."

I think Joyce Kilmer said it better than I could.

Best regards,

You have a mind like a steel trap. Seriously. My waitress at the Japanese waitress tonight asked me what appetizer I wanted, and I said I couldn't remember what they were called. She said, "You had shumai last time." I haven't been there in two weeks.

Me, I can't remember my phone number at the last place I lived. I'm serious, I can't. I don't know how you remembered George George.


Dear Alan,

Apologies unnecessary.

I title my photographs as simply/descriptively as possible-- a scant handful of words that relate to the subject, so the viewer has a verbal hook for the visual object. The titles are, by intent, entirely dismissable and forgettable.

They're also necessary, because few things are more irritating than seeing a series of photos simply labeled "photo 1," "photo 2," etc. Oh yeah, like I can be expected to remember which photo "photo 137" is two minutes after I've moved on.

Were it not for that practical issue, I'd probably not title my photos at all. Most speak for themselves, the few that benefit from context work well enough without.

pax / Ctein

I had the same problems with some of Joel Sternberg's pictures I saw in the Folkwang in Essen the other week. Either Joel behaves like a photojournalist and then his captures are okay or Joel behave as an fine art photographer and then his captures are not okay (I refer to the crime scene series). Now I like the work of Eva Leitolf and she uses captures to. Why she can get away with it in my (somewhat twisted I agree) mind, is that Eva's shots are 100% the opposite of what is in them. Mondain scenery shot in a totally not gloomy way. The contrast between the pictures and the captions is part of the artwork. Joel in my mind missed that point a bit. Personally I dont like captures at all. So in order to title my photo's they are all named in place, month, picturenr. and on my site I state the obvious.

Greetings, Ed

btw. Mike stop shooting with a cruise missile when hunting sparrows.....point made, but a bit to clearly in my humble opinion.

I have to say that I think your response to Ed is absolutely ridiculous.

I like captions (titles) – Not only can they provide information about a location but often a title is a metaphor for certain impressions or feelings a photographer might have had had when he or she captured the image. I have a small volume of images with captions/stories by Wim Wenders – “Once”, Your post immediately reminded me of it.

Wow, that picture of the injured girl is not going to leave my head (having a daughter myself makes it that little bit worse)... that esculation was a bit out of the blue dude.

With the following photo is my caption needed or is the image alone enough?


There are photos of interesting things, and there are interesting photos. Occasionally the two intersect, but IMHO captions should be available but not necessary.

This entry on captions induced me to buy Donald McCullin's "The Destruction Business" even though most of the photographs are in the 2003 Jonathan Cape overview, simply entitled "Don McCullin." As I was leafing through, it seemed to have more captions than the overview. I was especially struck by the caption on his photograph of coal scavengers: " These guys are carrying sacks of coal which they've septa hours sorting from a slag heap…They were against being photographed."

On returning home, I was wrong about there being more captions than in the overview. But they are different. The Cape edition's caption is "Coal searchers, Sunderland, early 1970's."

That image can be seen here:

Way more interesting is the difference in captions regarding his photograph of a marine hurling a grenade. The image is available on the Contact site:

In "The Destruction Business, (p.93) " the text reads (maybe too much text to be called a "caption."): A few minutes after, this man had his right hand shattered by a grenade that he was fumbling with. They were rolling live grenades up to him so he could throw them. I could see him sitting crying with his eyes all burnt and weeping and another negro saying, 'Stateside--you've got no problem--Stateside."

The Jonathan Cape book (p.126) says: "U.S. Marine hurling a grenade seconds before being shot through the left hand, Hue, 1968"

I then decided to see if McCullin had written about this image in his autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour. He had. He wrote:
"I took a picture of another black Marine hurling a grenade at the Citadel. he looked like an Olympic javelin thrower. Five minutes later this man's throwing hand was like a stumpy cauliflower, completely deformed by the impact of a bullet. The man who took his place in the throwing position was killed instantly." (p. 106)

Below the paragraph is the same image. The caption there reads, "The athlete, moments before he was shot in the hand in the Tet offensive of 1968--a turning point of the war in Vietnam."

There is a brief reference to The Destruction Business in the autobiography. McCullin wrote:

"My first book of photographs, called The Destruction Business, was published in 1971. The paper was cheap and the printing diabolical, but I was enormously proud of it. Putting it together gave me the chance to assess where I had been and where I might be going.:

In The Destruction Business ( p. 64), underneath a photograph of soldiers firing rifles, the text reads, "Soldiers firing rifles in war make ordinary pictures because without the action, the smell and the noise, you have no truth."

You make some good points, Mike, but I have to agree with those who think you overdid it in your reaction to Ed's picture. Also, the way you used the second picture is shocking, because unlike the other two, you can actually recognize the facial features of the people undergoing great suffering. Whether the little girl died or not is irrelevant; we're seing her horribly maimed, and that should stop anyone from using the picture to make a point. It just seems disrespectful.
Still, this post and the ensuing debate has got me thinking, so that's got to be a good thing.

Where captions become an issue for me is when someone is trying to explain to me why their bad picture is actually a good picture. A picture works for me or it doesn't, and creative captioning is probably not going to change that.

As I duck underneath the polemical bullets, I'll quickly note that funny you should bring up Japanese, as I tried diligently to learn the language. Unfortunately, much of it didn't take, at least in proportion to time studying. So there are few holes in the memory bucket. However, Uncle George George was something that I could not shake, possibly because I reread the article a few times---after all, couldn't read the Japanese magazines. Well, a glimpse into my mental priorities, perhaps.

Really, though, mostly due to articles by you and Eamonn McCabe and the printer's art section (though never having stepped in a darkroom), Black & White Magazine served as a philosophical guidepost (and technical: picked up a Voigtlander 35mm 2.5 Skopar partially on your recommendation) during my initial years in the hobby.

I almost want to say that I think the captions belong at the back of the book. Having the answers is important, but trying to figure them out for yourself is also valuable.

When we look at something in this world, we too often let our preconceptions of what it is prevent us from really appreciating its visual properties - seeing too much with our brains and not enough with our eyes, you might say. One important thing (certainly not the only one) photography as an art can do is capture some part of a visual impression in a way that prevents or delays the intrusion of our preconceptions about what we're looking at, allowing us to experience an unfamiliar aspect of a particular view. Various exercises in photographic abstraction, confusion, and visual punning all exploit this basic idea.

I think that explanations of what we're actually looking at are valuable for these kinds of pictures, but I also think a big part of what makes them interesting is the experience of taking a few moments to confront and analyze them on their own, before we look over at the caption for a hint. If you have the caption going into things - if you know what you're going to be looking at before you look at it - a lot of the most interesting photos are going to make a very different first impression.


coming back to that "Sarajevo Rose" image, and a couple of days after the main post, so it probably will pass unnoticed.

I spent 18 months (3 six month tours) in Sarajevo between early 1993 and late 1995, twice with the UN and lastly as part of the NATO led IFOR mission. Sadly, I know too well the scenes of such attacks, although I have never seen this artistic and commemorative treatment of the scene.

The only point that I would like to make may perhaps seem technical, but speaks - to me, anyway - of the brutality of this war. The roses are the physical scars gouged by shrapnel on tarmac of mortar shelling. What the roses show is where about 10% of the shrapnel went - the 90% not shown of course went sideways or upwards. Normally, in conflict mortar shells are set to have a delayed explosion, to allow time to bury themselves in earth and be physically destructive on trenches, crash through buildings, or bring down trees. The Serbs rapidly learned in Sarajevo that burying mortar shells under tarmac actually lessened casualty numbers mainly caused by shrapnel flying through the air, so changed the fuse settings to "instantaneous" in I think about June 1993.

What the Sarajevo roses also represent is a deliberate attempt to maximise civilian casualties.

Hi Mike,
Your 'In Praise of Captions' piece and the ensuing discussion recall for me Howard Becker's 'Do photographs tell the truth' in 'Afterimage' February 1978 (a PDF of which I recently purchased from Visual Studies Workshop). For me, a central interest of photography is its ambiguity in the 'documentary' context. That a documentary photographer may have an individual visual style is arguably at odds, to an extent, with any essential objectivity or truth of the work in question. Becker re-iterated Donald Campbell's notion of the 'threats to the validity' of a hypothesis or assertion and proposed such an exercise with a purportedly documentary photograph - is it 'faked' in some way (and this was before the digital era), is its subject matter subservient to the photographer's visual style in a way that misrepresents it in some way, does it sample the subject matter in an unrepresentative way? Captioning of the kind discussed could raise some of these issues, sometimes..
Mark Johnson
P.S. it was your initial photograph that prompted these comments rather than the shocking subsequent ones.

What does "German Fireworks" have to do with Led Zepplin? I thought they were a British band...


(Per my previous comment. Feel free to post this one instead...)

I had not seen this:

but it makes the interesting point that a lot of people heard the description of the Hindenburg disaster on radio before seeing the Sam Shere photograph.

I am very interested in the contextual interactions of photographs with each other and with text or spoken word. There is no question captions and other signifiers experienced at the same time one sees an image change the reading of a photograph. Both cultural context and technology change the possible and common surrounds of photography. We now have the ability to provide captions in many languages, gradually reveal the caption, to index photos en masse, to link to relevant expository content, etc.

At the time of the Hindenburg explosion, voice on radio was the dominant timely technology and now people have to think a moment to realize it wasn't video. Soon search by image will be taken for granted and most photographs will implicitly connected to a universe of possible captions. Of course the photo above will take one to the intro of Dazed and Confused before a history of transportation disasters but such is progress.


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