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Sunday, 12 February 2012


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Have you read Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"?

I'd recommend it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Menard,_Author_of_the_Quixote it is, I think, relevant to your article.

Dear Mike,

All of which makes it an interesting historical artifact, but I do not find myself liking the photograph one bit more or less for all the background information, real or fabricated.

Are you saying that how much you LIKED this photograph changed with the background information?

pax / Ctein

Splendid bit of education, Mike. Thanks.

I don't always need captions or lengthy text accompanying a photo I'm viewing. Sometimes I just enjoy viewing the visual information. And sometimes I want to know what gear a photographer used, so that I might make better gear choices in the future.

And then there are the photos like your example here, that become a lot more fun to look at when you know the history behind it. And this all brings me to a curious thought. If, for example, I make a photograph of a street in my neighborhood, it'll generally look pretty boring to a viewer today. BUT... a fellow here in my neighborhood collects old glass negatives and makes prints of them. Many of these are pictures of this same neighborhood a hundred years ago! They are fascinating, but would not be nearly as enjoyable if there was no historical background that helps identify what I'm looking at.

Gung Hay Fat Choy

On The Other Hand...

There is a meta level to this.

In the JPEG here (as you noted) the photograph looks, at best, unprepossessing. It could very well be a haphazardly printed corporate mug shot. Knowing that this photo is an Adams means I shall reserve judgement on whether or not I like it until I can see the original, or at least a much better reproduction. Not that the man didn't make the occasional technical misstep, but the odds are good that the original looks considerably different (and better).

Mind you, whether I like it or not, and how much, isn't going to be one bit affected by knowing who it's by or of. But it will affect how and when I arrive at that judgement.

pax / Ctein

Very interesting to see the difference a caption makes in how you perceive a photograph. So I wonder: am I the only one who would like to show his own photographs without captions, in the way the first one is presented; but likes to view work of others with a nice descriptive caption, such as one of the last two?

I just showed some portraits to a friend of mine, who really understands photography, and I think he would find this photograph flawed as a portrait exactly because the background does not provide any context for the sitter. That is the difference between a portrait and a headshot.

I believe that this is really good advice for portraiture. You don't have to go overboard, but just give a few indications to what the persons environment is, even if it is just a few out of focus lines in the background that the audience can try to interpret.

Touche Ctein(?)

Very nice, Mike. You nailed it.

"Are you saying that how much you LIKED this photograph changed with the background information?"

I don't believe I said anything at all about how much I liked or didn't like the photograph, did I? It's not the topic, is it? I thought we were talking about how we like to have photographs presented to us when we look at them in museums.

To me, "liking" or "disliking" a photograph is an entirely different topic. A very interesting one, and one we could no doubt talk about for days, but a different one. Or did you "like" all the pictures you saw at Pier 24 simply because they were presented without commentary or supporting information?

What I'm saying with this post (of course) is, I like knowing who the person is, what he did, what became of him, etc.; I like knowing who took the picture; I like knowing something about the relationship of the photographer and the subject.

That does change the meaning of the picture for me.

The occasion is simply that you were talking on Thursday about encountering an entire exhibit presented with no information, and I just happened to see this one a couple of days earlier with very little background information attached to it (although I did know it belonged to the AIC and it was taken by Adams, which is a lot to know about a photograph right there. Then again, you knew that the pictures were part of the Pier 24 collections and that someone thought they were worth framing and exhibiting, which also isn't nothing).


I came here as I finished reading this piece from the Conscientious blog on the interpretation of a photo, or photos, at the Western Press Photo [ link ].

we look at those photos in the Pier 24 (a wonderful place and lucky to have easy access to it), but the blog entry is how the judges/curators make selection relative to context. apropos, I think, to this discussion.

What a wonderful article today! Thank you sir. I learned a little more about AA and Varian & Associates (I spent the better part of "corporate" career in Silicon Valley).

I also appreciate your comments regarding "context and significance". It certainly is thought provoking. And for my viewing pleasure I enjoy both (even a hybrid as sometime published in books: images without any context or description whatsoever with an appendix with a little to a lot of information regarding each image) and now have started to wonder when and how I may prefer one over the other.

Nicely done.

Google this and go to the bottom of the page for "portraits."

The brothers, both famous scientists who co-invented the Klystron) had another famous (infamous) picture made for Life magazine. They assembled a bunch of techincal-looking pieces from the laboratory, and kitchen, and garage workshop to make a really weard looking contraption.
After it was published in Life, they got thousands of letters from other scientists, government agencies, and investors wanting to know what the "secret" project was.
I think it was taken by either Adams or Halsman. ;-)

"The point is that virtually every comprehensible photograph has these kinds of facts in back of it."

You may have put your finger on a large part of how we all differ in so many ways about words to accompany photographs.

I'd pick caption #3 and really, only part of it. Lines 2-3 are of use to me. Lines 1 & 4 are potentially useful to me for identification should I like to see it in person or in another medium - and should I happen to want to know more about it.

In the moment of viewing it, and in the few minutes since, none of the other information makes it any more comprehensible to me. It all says things about the subject that don't mean anything to me looking at the portrait and things about other people who have little or no relationship to the image beyond what I already know.

Chacun à son goût!


I think this is an outstanding photograph. Look at it first without scrolling down to see the photographer's words.

Now read the words. Did they add or subtract from the initial emotional sense of the photograph?

If you have good eyes or click to enlarge it, it was obviously taken in Russia. Does that change the photograph? Does it change how you feel about it?

If you saw it enlarged and found from the words on the signs it was taken in the US Midwest, would that make it different somehow?

The answers for me are that this photograph stands entirely complete on its own.

There are many answers, none any more right or wrong than any others.


First, regarding captions, photographs fall into different categories for me. The ones I hang on my walls have no captions, nor need for them. That's not to say there isn't a narrative behind them, but that's secondary to the pleasure I first got, and still get, from their visual excitement. No offense to 'the guy with bushy eyebrows,' but he would never grace my walls.

I collect photo books for an entirely different reason: the narrative and photo presentation are equally critical to the whole. And when I go to a museum exhibit, I'm there for both the visual as well as the learning experience; but if the former isn't there, there needs to be a compelling reason for my wanting to be educated. I'd want to know in advance that 'the man with bushy eyebrows' had an important and interesting story.

With regard to seeing original prints, I hope your readers are aware of the many ways to do this. You mention AIC and its viewing room. I can attest that there are many well regarded museums around the country that are all too happy to grant access to their photo archives. A call to the photo curator will provide information on the museum's policies. Curators are sometimes delighted to find someone interested in seeing the works of photographers whom the curator also admires. These photographs, like much of the the museum's collection, rarely get shown otherwise to the public. My most recent such visit to the Baltimore Museum of Art led to seeing some marvelous vintage Paul Strand prints; the quality of one in particular just knocked me out.

But there are many other avenues besides museums. Just about every well known photographer has galleries and dealers who specialize in their prints. If one doesn't know these dealers, one way to meet many of them is to attend the annual AIPAD exhibition in New York. This year's show is March 29-April 1. Another photo and art show occurs simultaneously in NY, this year on March 31 at the Lighthouse. While in New York, this is a good time to see the auction previews at Christie's, Sotheby's and Swann, which happen in advance of the auctions the following week.

Other parts of the country also have wonderful access to vintage prints. In Tucson, Arizona, for instance, there is the Center for Creative Photography (CCP), which retains the archives from many photography greats, including Adams, Weston, Callahan, Winogrand and many more. Visitors can put on white gloves and handle vintage prints that would command a small fortune at auction.

For folks serious about keeping up with the latest exhibits, auctions, dealer news, and so forth, subscribing to The Photograph Collector for $150 per year is a worthwhile expense... http://www.photoreview.org/collect.htm

I recall a 1977 trip to Varian Associates to learn about a linear accelerator they manufactured for cancer radiation therapy. Silicon valley sure has changed in 35 years!

I feel somewhat vindicated...

I think what's missing from this discussion, but plays a huge role in the experience of reading this post, is the effect of the order in which information is received.

I'm mostly too shy to show my photos publicly, but, even if I'm just showing them to friends, I usually want the audience to see the picture without any verbal background, and, if possible, to spend a few minutes thinking about it before they get any of that journalistic information about what it's of or how it was taken. Sometimes I want people to ask those questions, so I can tell them, but I want them to have to think about it first.

And, as viewer of photographs, I likewise value the experience of looking at the image, contemplating it, and then looking at the caption and reevaluating what I saw. At least, I value that most of the time.

I'm not trying to suggest that this is the only way or the best way to structure the combination of image and verbiage. My point is that, beyond the ways that different choices of verbiage or lack-of-verbiage that accompany am image can give us different creative products, different decisions about how the verbiage and the image are combined represent another important degree of freedom.

In the first line of Ctein's article he uses the word art.Artistic photos which are meant to tantalise the eye an exercise the brain should be able to speak for themselves.They work or they don't.The photograph you are using as an example while a great photo for me falls into a different category.Portraits tend to make people want to know who.

Nice find, Bill!

Based on that picture, I think it might even have been taken on the same day as the others. Russell appears to be wearing the same shirt and tie he's wearing in the LIFE photo.


I like all seven of the photos that illustrate this article. Well, number 4 is kinda boring. But the more I look at them, the more I like Sigurd, with his big ears, wild eyebrows, and that crazy pompadour. I like the way the photographer has lit it to bring out the planes in the front of Sigurd's face -- almost like a landscape.

Numbers 6 and 7 do make it easier to look at the picture. Ideally I'd like to look at number 6 first, then number 7, then look at number 1 for a while.

Forgot to mention, for those who haven't seen different versions of Adams' Moonrise, this shows how he printed increasingly more dramatic and contrasty over the years... http://www.andrewsmithgallery.com/exhibitions/anseladams/arrington/arrington_adams.html

I get it already, and I get the opposite point too.
This perhaps is not the best example to "prove" it with.
How would this play out with this image for example:


Mmm, answering your riposte with a prise de fer I note that Ctein was speaking of photos displayed specifically as art, and I doubt that this portrait ever was.

I often go to the great Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena, and one of the features of that market is boxes of photographs, mostly unidentified, unidentifiable and uncaptioned. Most of them have apparently been purchased at estate sales with other items, and wind up on the tables at the Rose Bowl (whose motto, I argue, should be "Where Shit Goes to Die" -- but that's another comment.)

I always stop and go through the photos, hoping to find a treasure, but haven't so far. Many of the photos (virtually all of them are small, typically 2x3 or smaller, and black and white) are from World War II, because that generation is now dying off. You find pictures of sailors on ships, GIs dug into trenches, guys posing with guns...but without anyone to be interested in them, with no identifications, and with no particular artistic quality or intent, they are...I don't know what. Photographs at their most basic level, I suppose, virtually drained of meaning. I'm afraid Sigurd's portrait will eventually fall into that category.

I can't even imagine that an archaeologist, five hundred years from now, would be much interested. But the same archaeologist might be deeply interested in a piece of photographic art, because it would still speak to him.

A couple other Adams photos here
I like this one

Fascinating. I use a Varian turbo pump in my lab. I'm pretty sure it's the same Varian. Very nice (and expensive) piece of equipment.

One of the best posts I've seen on this site. Well done.

Looked like my Principle when I was in Second Grade. I was initially somewhat concerned you were getting a blog discount on vertical space used.....

You're a clever man Mr. johnston. Your illustration is a very interesting way of of approaching the topic and stimulating further discussion.

I discovered that plugging my wife into the audio tour at museums increases my enjoyment of the experience by slowing her down. At the Louvre, it was Winged Victory, Check; Mona Lisa, Check and out the door. I enjoy learning a bit about the backstory with all of the arts. After watching a great movie, I always read Roger Ebert and compare notes. It's the same with photography, theatre, music or literature. It's why God invented Terry Gross.....and Michael Johnston. Thank you.

I can honestly say the captions didn't change my "Eh" response one bit. Ansel did many portraits and most of them were unremarkable. This is no different, regardless of the importance of the subject. The extra information makes me think about the man in the portrait, not the portrait.

This is not to say that captions can't influence interpretations of and responses to art. There is a long line of communications research which indicates that context influences responses to communication/images/art. I suspect that the degree of influence is dependent to a large degree on the amount of abstraction in the image. The more "obvious" the subject is, the less important context will be. The less "obvious," the greater the impact of context.

I was confused but now I understand, I think.
Ansel stopped being a photographer after he took the bush brow portrait and became a millionaire in the radar business.
Ctein prefers not to read this post and Mike is on first.

It seems to me that instead of taking an inflexible stand one way or the other regarding captions, some photographs need an explanation (or at least they're more understandable, or understandable with one) and others don't, so the pictures that could benefit having a caption should have one, and the ones that are self-explanatory should or could just stand as is.

Well, the picture itself didn't gain anything by adding those captions. But, that's not the point. The point is that a photography can be considered an art, and can be considered a medium. Art does not need any captions, medium does. That's the point. Recent World Press Photo is a great example - the winning photograph is just a good (but not great) picture which is worth nothing without the context (honestly, I do not like this picture, it does not impress me in any way exactly because it so context-dependent).

Here is another article about context. (Mike: you should know it...)

Well played, sir. :)

The collection of the AIC ROCKS.....I know because in 1996 or 1997 a collection (about 80) of it's photographs went across the Atlantic in a few crates and where exibited at the Van Bommel Van Dam museum in Venlo....organized and co-curated by my dad.....

Greetings, Ed


I think Ctein's approach is extremely sound as a starting point; if a print of a photograph isn't good enough to be looked at for more than a few seconds it probably doesn't work, whatever the content.

On the other hand you wouldn't expect to 'get' much (for example) European sculpture or (mostly later except for vases) painting between about 500 BCE and modern times without taking the trouble to find out something of Greek and Roman mythology, Christian iconography and an outline of 2500 years-worth of history.

Given that photography deals with a shorter timespan, its demands on a viewer's knowledge or curiosity are smaller but that doesn't mean that it makes none. Pier 24 seems a bit off-hand to me. Photography is 'about' human beings. I think they matter a bit more than that.

I've been thinking from this particular to-and-fro on context back to Ctein's earlier post on "no one cares how hard you worked". Sometimes it seems there is a fine line between setting the scene and explaining oneself as a photographer. All too often, more the latter less the former. That might explain some of Ctein's objection (with which I'd agree). And does any of the back story to this portrait make it any better as a photograph?

I played around with a Varian mini-computer once upon a time. Paper tape, teletype, the whole Olde Computere thing. Pretty fun.

It was designed after Sigurd's time for sure, but Varian was a going concern for a long time doing various cool things, and they have had a cozy place in my heart these last 25 years or so. I had no idea there was an Adams connection, though! Thanks!

An important element of context is missing in this discussion however. Some pictures in some situations, certain landscapes, say, may not elicit the need for contextual information in quite the same way a modern pieta image of, for example, a mother hugging a young, immobile man draped across here kneeling lap. Is this a wounded soldier? someone sickened by industrial pollutants? an innocent victim of hostilities in a civil war? What country is it in? When was it taken? We need to know in order to evaluate what we're seeing.

It might be sufficient to know a gallery of Ctein's Christmas in California pictures is labeled "Christmas in California" without having to know any more about each individual image.

But a posed, corporate-looking portrait of a sturdy man in a suit from a bygone era found in the collection of a photo museum cries out for background information. So it may be more than a simple matter of different preferences. I have different preferences in different situations.

"Or, you could just look at the guy's absurdly bushy eyebrows and shrug and wonder who the hell he might have been, like I did when I first saw the print last Tuesday."

I have to say I think your example reinforces Ctein's case.

My initial reaction to the blank one was "high quality commercial portrait of unusual face", and "not portraiture as art". The various subsequent captions made for a more satisfying narrative but did not add anything to the visual experience.

If you define the experience of an image as including the wall card or caption, you are actually looking for a different art form: the illustrated narrative. This has validity in many photobooks and magazine features, but is not the same as visual art even though admittedly they cannot be entirely separated.

I think there are plenty of photo portraits, e.g. by Cameron and subsequent photographers, whose reliance on the text is far less and whose visual power is far greater. I like those best.

Thank you Mike! This, combined with Ctien's last writing, stands as one of the most instructive pieces I have read on the subject of appreciating a photograph for what it is. Ctien's piece last week was thought provoking, but you have driven the point home. It will enhance my enjoyment of art.

Excellent as usual. I have always added a small caption to my "keeper" prints that I show to people. A plastered stone wall has a caption "San Miguel Mission" The viewer knows a lot more now, maybe enough to ask me a question. We continue to communicate. E.

Nice thoughtful piece Mike. I can see both your argument and the thinking behind Ctein's piece. Personally, I am more persuaded to the "information is good" school, although perhaps a good balance for me - that would help me think before cluttering my mind with others' thoughts - would be a tiny amount of information and context in a couple of lines, and then further information by turning a page.

Having a reasonable amount of exposure to military imagery (for rather boring intelligence purposes), it seems to me that there is another modern and digital dimension to all of this. Metadata. Right-clickable from many image sources. Only today, I right clicked on an image to see if metadata was available (it was not). Now, I've long left active service and my interest is from a commercial standpoint, so no access to official sources. However, the world we live in is changing and increasingly metadata is a modern caption, with quite a lot more detail than the photographer may allow for.


This also isn't about photography but refers to how we see anything in museums. We're used to art being presented in certain ways and many of us subscribe to the idea that art doesn't have to be explained.

I usually point people toward the work of Fred Wilson for this topic.

There's always context. Whether it's the functional use of the piece, how it exists in relation to other works by that artist, or where it fits into history, that information matters and is important.

Hopefully you'll arrange this trip at a time I can go. I remember seeing an AA show in San Francisco back in 90s, and it was fascinating to see the original prints. I'd really like to see them again.

I wonder if you and ctein are actually speaking to the same thing. Perhaps you are; perhaps context truly does merge with a photo to become inseparable from it thereafter. But i am not so sure. I agree with a previous commenter above, that this particular example seems to me to tip towards making the point that a photo stands or falls on its qualities as a picture, not its caption(s).

The captions all make for interesting, engaging stories, but they don't alter my evaluation of the photo per se. It remains to me a competent, interesting portrait of a striking man; not in avedon's league but respectable as art imo thou not up my particular creek.

I happen to think that there are photos whose context can propel them into the stratosphere of greatness regardless of whether the image itself would have stood without that context. Such photos i think almost always rely on extraordinary, rare and/or fleeting moments, however, and the importance of the caption is essentially to certify the authenticity of the photo.

Nice one, Mike. You nailed it.

I think I have a tendency towards liking pictures that don't need captions, in other words they are a graphical statement in and of themselves. I place Haas and Gursky in this category. The names are just labels for identification and add nothing to my appreciation of the picture itself.

I've never been much for portraits that need captions. I stare in awe at John Singer Sargent's various portraits in the Tate, and knowing who they are adds nothing to their grandeur.

Pictures can have uses as historic record or commentary, and then a caption is essential, but then I am looking at the subject not the photograph.

But art that requires captions is trying too hard IMO.

What a shock to see Varian on TOP! I used their NMR spectrometers in grad school in the early 70s. (Back before the nuclear was dropped because it scared people and before MRI machines were used to take pictures of the insides of people.)

But I think you have proved Ctein's point.:-)

Dear Mike,

No, you didn't say anything about how much you liked or disliked the photo, before and after being informed about it.

Which is why I asked if the additional information changed that!!!

How about an answer? It is germane to my column (and, by implication, yours).

Or don't you think it even matters whether or not you like a photo? Hmmm, he asked provocatively?

pax / Ctein

I'm just getting to this now. Nice piece, Mike!

Fwiw, this was actually not one of the prints that Mike McCaskey requested for viewing. I pulled it specifically to show that even the most culturally iconic photographer had to shoot dull, imaginationless pieces of corporate dreck like this to keep the lights on. (Here's the companion.) (Ansel did do some excellent studio-style portraits such as the one that Mike M. requested to view.) But I actually find the rarely-seen, and not too terrific, works to be essential to appreciating a photographic artist's overall career. And, in fact, being able to view the lesser stuff is a great benefit of visiting a world-class museum's collection.

That Mike J. researched the elder Varian portrait far beyond what even we knew about the subject is wonderful. Thank you, Mike.

Mike, littled do you know that you are actually revealing your Christian fundamentalist underpinnings. Investing power in the intrinsic image itself has been viewed by the Church, not incorrectly, as a type of idolatrous paganism. In the late thirteenth and fourteenth century, as image-making began to be outsourced to those other than monks and the like, the risk of deep appreciation for the art object, as opposed to the biblical scene it was depicting, became a greater risk. To a degree this ultimately was tolerated if the focus became the inspiration of the artist who created the work -- a type of creationism one step removed involving the artist-as-agent of God.

Distrust in the intrinsic aspect of the art object remains a strain in modern culture. To be sure, idolatry also has a strong pull, which is why, for example, many would feel better about carrying a Prada bag than one that is functionally identical. I find it interesting to put your views in the context of this dialectic. ;-)

Well, every body wins, because context matters, unless it doesn't. AA's "portrait" of Orville Cox and Georgia O'Keefe, I don't want any context, I want no other information, as I delight in just pondering what is going on ... though his late portrait of Dorothea Lange, context helps.

Another example from the AIC, J.S. Sargent's full length portrait of Mrs. Elsie Swinton. (I'm mixing my mediums). Though I know who Elsie was, that information has no bearing on the sensual delight I take in that painting, the regal, beautiful woman in wonderful satin in elegant surroundings. I need no other info to revel in Sargents bravura, alla-prima masterpiece of portraiture.

We all have our moments, but 1/60 of a second is not much of one, in a sense it's not even real time for us as it's too fast for most human senses.

Still photography is perhaps the biggest lie of reality that has ever existed from a human perception. We do not exist in a frozen moment faster than our perception. Nor in a cropped world of 35mm or other formats.

What is our normal shutter speed, much as somewhere between 35-to-50mm as our normal FOV?


The klystron, an essential high power amplifier, can in a common configuration take a roughly 500 watt signal and turn it into a megawatt class signal in the UHF (television band) frequency range. Varian is a key company for klystrons, many of which were at the heart of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System waiting for the end of the world during the Cold War. Fortunately for us, people thought better of the idea.

Wow. I bought about $10 million worth of Varian NMR spectrometers between 1982 and 1999. My lab had a fabulous research collaboration with Varian. Varian made the first analytical instruments that exchanged data via ether net. Our lab's first UNIX data servers were named Russell and Sigurd after the brothers. Their sister carried the torch and fought the Board off every time the NMR division was in a slump. She knew the brothers loved NMR.

Sigurd and his brother helped change the world by championing NMR spectroscopy. At least half of all pharmaceuticals were brought to market using Varian Analytical equipment. Did you know Kodak film color film dye was developed and improved using 10 or so Varian NMR spectrometers for structural elucidation? I won't even go into how many chemistry and biochemistry scientists used Varian instrumentation to earn their degrees. Russell and Sigurd really made a huge difference.

I may have some photos I scrounged up of Sigurd and/or Russell.

Putting aside the distinction between "art" and other types of photography for a moment, I think the point is that almost every photo (and painting, and drawing) has an interesting backstory, and *some* people like having the context when viewing the photo. There's certainly nothing wrong with that POV. I tend to lean more towards Ctein's POV and dislike lots of text in a museum setting, but there's no right or wrong answer.

I know this is somewhat off topic, but since someone raised it above...I don't agree with the argument that "no one cares how hard you worked." I think most people, especially casual consumers of art and photography, are very impressed by work that is very large, very detailed/sharp, has a lot of dynamic range, and/or has a high degree of "polish." All of those elements suggest a great deal of effort and technical skill. Most casual museum goers are going to be very impressed by a 8'x5' canvas by Ingres or a 30"x24" print by Adams. And that's due in large part to the perceived skill and effort that went into the painting or photo. Whereas works by Pollock or Cartier-Bresson may not get the same reaction because many think they were "easier" to create. The initial backlash against the impressionists is a perfect example of this phenomenon. We've moved beyond that view, but not entirely. It's possible that labels and text are more necessary with the less polished work because viewers need the context to help them understand and appreciate the art.

Not sure how you feel about blogposts showing up in your comments but whenever I end up wanting to write more than a quick response, I end up making it a post.


In any case, the idea that Ctein doesn't want any context ignores the fact that he's looking at photos in a gallery. There's always context even if it's not written.

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