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Monday, 25 July 2011


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I imagine, literally ;~), that the use of "captions" is more wide-spread than you think...in this era of digital imaging they might be called "keywords". While they may not always placed on the same visual plane as the image, they are often contained in file names and other image-data descriptors.

Cheers! Jay

As a Marine Corps photographer for 4 years during the Vietnam War we weren't required to get any written info. We had reporters that did that. This means that most, if not all, the work I did in Vietnam that I kept has no caption info. Big, big mistake. Memories suck. Try to remember anything after just ONE week and you get the idea.

The book 'Daring to Look' by Anne Whiston Spirn goes deep into the work of Dorothea Lange and her methods for captions.

Worth a read.

Also check this post out. I thought of you first posting on captions when I saw this:

The picture of the injured girl is still with me. It makes the issue of captioning seem less important, at least not important enough to stress over. There are very few times in my life where I have seen that sort of image, with explicit injuries, a few war photos and a couple from specific events, mybe a dozen.

Regarding captioning, I was going to say, "its just photography, not curing cancer", but then of course it is an image that put me in this mood... funny old world.

Mike - Is the problem not "what are pictures of" but "what are pictures about"? I see many pictures in my photo club's competitions and, although I can tell what the picture if of, I often wonder things: what is the picture about (i.e., the story, the context, the significance) and why the photographer included that picture in the competition. I've noted that pictures are only "of" something seldom win ribbons from judges. Pictures that are "about" something are more likely to win ribbons. Thoughts?

An interesting exercise, but in my case, not for the reasons you post it. I am a hobby photographer. I "publish" half a dozen or so of my pictures each year, to picture frames (mostly 8 x 6 inches) in my house. No need for captions.

What I got from your exercise is some clarity into why one of my photographs failed. I live in the East Anglian Fens (drained and reclaimed land that sits mostly below sea level, and is as flat as hell). The story of agriculture is writ large in this area, and that includes the failures of agriculture. About 100 years ago, before tractors, farms were limited in size to what horses could manage. Farmhouses were built on 100 acre plots, and now sit, mostly derelict, in clumps of 10 or more surrounding the modern agribusiness that now farms 1000 or more acres.

I photographed one of these tumbledown wrecks, knowing all of this, but the photo did not work to anyone I showed it to. Just a pile of bricks and overgrown ivy. Going through your words above and the 5 "W"s, I can now understand why the photo did not work. Not enough context and storytelling. A particular problem was that I was too close in. I should have been 100 yards away, showing the landscape through a wide angle lens, with a modern combine harvester or tractor ploughing and the ruins recognisable but not dominating, not the detail of the ruin.

Now we have Magnum Photos requesting help in adding information to their archive of photos. The story is at Lens: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/26/crowd-sourcing-the-magnum-archive/

I shoot landscapes, and you'd think the who/what/where would be utterly self evident, yet I found this to be a fascinating exercise. Some of my large prints are hanging in a public space, without captions, and many viewers have asked me "what's that a picture of?" I've customarily identified the location, figuring everything else was obvious. That's clearly not the case. Perhaps this explains why many of the viewers seemed unsastisfied by my answer.

Most of what I do involves assembling multiple frames into HDR panoramics with very careful processing to get as close as possible to natural perception (well, at least the way *I* see things). Believe it or not, I really hadn't given a lot of thought to what I was attempting beyond creating a beautiful image. But Mike's exercise has encouraged me to contemplate what I'm actually trying to accomplish. I do a lot of hiking in a really beautiful part of the world (NY's Finger Lakes region). Sometimes it sucks; pouring rain, or clouds of mosquitos, or bitter wind. But many times the place, the light, the season and the weather condense into one of those heart-stopping moments of beauty you remember for years. *That* is what I'm trying to express in a print big enough to convey the feeling.

Dang it, Mike. Now I'll have to spend the upcoming weekend writing, carefully typesetting, and printing a set of caption plates that help the photographs convey what I'm trying to say. I'm already halfway through the design and typography process, which is creative in its own way. It's also helping me focus my next project location.

So many photos, so little time....

It's been a few decades since I first looked at the FSA photographs and read their accompanying captions.
There's often something deeply moving - and poetic - about the plainness of those original captions in relation to the graceful plainness of the photographs.

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