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Saturday, 11 February 2012


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"I will say that I would generally rather look at the kind of photographs that need words than those that don't."

That seems true of what I know about your preferences. We are all different, which is mirrored in our different tastes in photographs. I tend to think that I'm closer to Ctein in my tastes, for images that don't need explanation.

It may even turn in part on an individual's relationship to past and present. Seeing an image is an immediate act in the present. Thinking about it changes it from an emotional experience to an intellectual one. Reading about it moves it into history.

A dead butterfly pinned over a label is very unlike a living one flying.

I know in presenting my own work to others, it seems clear that those that require explication for full understanding seem less engaging overall than those that don't. Words are fine if the image has already engaged the viewer. If it hasn't, words are unlikely to change the emotional impact, although they may get the mind involved in thinking about what I have just experienced.

Looking at Photographs just doesn't do it for me.

I pick it up and try again once in a while. Mostly, the photographs don't engage me, and so there is nothing the words can do.

It might be an interesting experiment to present a book like Szarkowski's not with image facing text, as it is printed, but with images in one section or book and text in another, and to compare feelings about and reactions to the images before and after reading the text.

I wonder if he would have chosen different images if the book was to be only photographs with attributions, but no discussion. If I were doing a book like his, I might have to skip images I like, may even think important, but about which I have little meaningful to say.

Maybe I will one day run across a photograph in such a book where the text only says "I just like this photograph, but I can't tell you why. I hope you enjoy it too."


I tried it out on the WORLD PRESS PHOTO 2012 site. Viewing the content without reading the caption was in some part hard to bear with. After a while I found myself turning to the pictures in Nature category. Then I tried it again on some others reading the capture at least after looking at the picture. Still not a relief it seemed to me a little easier to cope with the content. Supposedly, explanations stimulate just other part of the brain and counterbalance the emotional pull.

It depends on the intent of the photographer. A Eugene Smith is trying to tell a story with his image sequences along with some minimal captions as in Life mag. De-contextualizing any one of them and the story is not there. Whereas fine art photographers want their work to be "objets d′art". A Brett Weston print would be the latter that does not need context.

I'd never thought about it in those terms, but I would agree with you (M.J.) on this topic. This difference in preference goes to the very nature of the difference between a painting and a photograph.

Personally, there is nothing I hate more than looking at the narrative on the wall that often accompanys each painting in an exhibition. All I usually want to know is the date it was painted, and the title. It is visually and cognitively distracting to me and lessens the viewing pleasure. With a photographic exhibition, the opposite is true. Sometimes I will even read the narrative on the wall next to the photograph before even looking at the photograph in detail. I want to know what happened, when, where, how, under what circumstances (which is not to say that some photographs can not stand on their own, but those are usually the visual stunners).


I don't see what captions have to do with whether or not photographs are art. Much more than pictures on a wall, I enjoy seeing photographs in books, and the book naturally pairs text and image. In that case, at least, there is no separating the text from the art: the book itself, text, pictures and all, just is the work of art. I wish more photographers would try to make art where text and picture complement each other. (As an example, I'd cite Taryn Simon's books. When you look at the photos in "The Innocents" or "An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar", they tell part of a story. When you read the text, they tell the other part. Together, they're sublime. In my humble opinion, of course.)

I hear a lot of people these days who want to dismantle any philosophical approach to photography (who say they never want to hear the words Barthes, Sontag et al ever mentioned in discussion) and that photographs should stand on their own as visual art. In my opinion, a (small) subset of photography does fit that bill, but if you restrict your attention to those images, you are missing a lot of the richness and diversity that is represented by still images captured (sorry, taken) by a camera / photographer

I'm fond of quoting Ronis - "photography is closer to literature than to art" - and if you think about that statement even briefly, you get the idea.

I rather like like the Oxford "Short Introduction to PHotography" by Steve Edwards - whose size, and self-effacing title belie a lot of interesting and perceptive ideas. At the very start, he doubts whether it is even wise to contemplate trying to describe something like photography - a bit like trying to describe writing he says (I don't have the book in front of me so I cannot quote).

I also sometimes think that it is better to think in terms of the uses of photography to get a grasp of this slippery definition.

I've quoted Gombrich here before - "there is no such thing as art - only artists" - and this is also worth considering in the context of these recent, rather interesting posts. Which have been much more my "cup of tea" I have to admit...

Have you read "Daring To Look" by Anne Whiston Spirn?

Some photographs may stand alone but in general I tend to look for context when I look at photographs. I also believe other people (non photographers) do as well. Case in point, I recently produced a body of work - as they like to say a "coherent body of work" - in a way I have never been able to do before. When I showed individual images, people thought they were OK but when I had an exhibit of 24 prints, people were able to understand the larger picture and really created a story; not necessarily my story, but in their own mind. That was very exciting for me.

For me, the issue is not if captions/words are necessary. It is about how the artist establishes context. Too much information (visual or verbal) or too little information changes the experience for the viewer. It is a Goldilocks thing. Just right does the job. However, the audience brings another element. Their knowledge/experience base has a huge impact on the "just-rightness" of the context experience for the viewer. As the audience base changes, the success of the context connection changes (with era's, culture, gender, and so on.) Fascinating indeed!

Steve Cifka

It's probably just me but I've always felt that if the photograph needed explanation to be appreciated it was a failure as an image. I've nothing against captions but if they are necessary then something is missing in the image.

Good pictures are made better still, by good writing. Bad pictures don't need talking about, let alone writing about.

Totally agreed. To me, for example, Capa's “Death of a Republican Soldier” makes all sense and power because of all the knowledge that is NOT in the photo. I would not care if it's sharp, saturated, or in/out of focus.

If you do not get it, in my humble view, you do not get photography. Sorry Ansel Adams.

It may seem inane to say so, but photography isn't one thing. Some of its uses are very humble, and make no sense without words.

When you get to "art photography" (and yes, I think that's a category), the images may or may not require words or outside references, because photography is extremely complex. Without getting into the controversial aspects of his practice, what would the Richard Prince "Marlboro Cowboy" photos mean without an outside reference? They'd still be striking, but all the irony (and some would say cynicism) would be stripped away, and the entire "Prince" experience would be negated. Ctein could go into a gallery an experience the photo, but not the "art." On the other hand, any words concerning "Moonrise, Hernandez, NM," are mostly of interest to photographers -- what was Adams doing when he shot it, what kind of camera he used, etc. In the case of Moonrise, there is no "art" meaning outside the frame.

So, neither is better...they're not even that much different, IMHO, although the viewer's personal preferences may differ. Personally, when I'm looking at art, my preferences are for a unitary work, whether or not it contains words. I want one thing. But when I look at Duane Michal's work, for example, I consider his hand-written captions to be part of the frame, part of the photograph. They are not explanations, or "extra" information, they are integral to the work.

Without really getting into it, however, I'll say that extra information often hurts the appreciation of art, especially when it comes in the form of those goddamn earphones that museums peddle to naive visitors. If you're looking at great art you should LOOK at it; some kind of canned narration can only get in the way. It actually detracts from the experience. If you want to study the history of art, or read art criticism, that's best done sitting in a comfortable chair, with a book, and illustrations.

Everybody views an image (photo,painting, sculpture, whatever...) through their own experience, history and values - their "world view". Usually, they will "like" something that fits this view, and makes them feel comfortable. Otherwise, they have difficulty relating to the image. Sometimes a title or description will let them fit the image into their context, by providing links which they can understand and accept. Not always, though. However this world view is unique to each person, so it is no surprise that not everyone likes the same images. Further, images, especially those of real world "things" are abstractions. They are not the "thing" itself, but are interpretations using reduced dimensions (starting but not limited to excluding the 3rd spatial dimension). How this abstraction is performed affects the "readability" of the image by the viewer and affects how they fit it into their world view. There are no exceptions to this. Even totally "abstract" images, such as light painting or a Jasper JOhns or Mark Rothko, are abstractions in the choices made for inclusion or exclusion of shapes, colors etc. as well as in the absence of defined objects.
Viewing imagery is and will always be a very personal thing. For some people the image iteself is enough. For others that textual context can help fit the image into their world view.

I recently visited the excellent Leonardo Exhibition at the British National Gallery and whilst the captions were very practical but the Audio commentary went into huge amount of detail about the paintings with input from the curators, restorers and others often discussing how the painting or drawing related to others in the exhibition. The information really added, for me, to the enjoyment of the pictures. However I can also understand the appeal of the "naked" exhibition but for me I suspect I would want more. Gavin

I suspect that there will be a bias on the part of photograhic artist vs. the photographic viewer on this issue. The conceit that "my work is so powerful it speaks for itself" seems endemic among artists.

Spoken like a true writer of words! ;-)

Photographs should stand on their own, but sometimes it's nice to have a few verbal clues thrown in.

Sorry I think you are both right and wrong in equal measure. Photography covers such a huge spectrum of artistic and social intent that it's hard to make any generalised statement about what it is or should be.


John Camp's point that photography isn't all one thing is key, I think, to so many of the disputes in the field.

Relevant to this one, photography interestingly crosses the lines between documentation and art. In particular, we sometimes hang pictures shot for purposes of reporting in art galleries. (If this weren't the case, it would cause less confusion; works intended solely as art would hang in art galleries, and works not intended as art would not, and it'd be pretty clear which category we were talking about in most cases.)

I think that You (Mike) and him (Ctein), should wrestle it out.

3 rounds and, as always...

Winner RULES!!!

"photographs differ from art in that they often have significance and meaning that goes beyond their visual content"

Ugh. I think, and hope, that you don't actually mean that. Having re-read your earlier post on this subject, I'm pretty sure you don't and just over-stated your point here.

I think that all art can, and the best art frequently does, have significance and meaning beyond its visual content. See my earlier T.O.P. post, Approaching Art.

To me it comes down to the difference between enjoying art on the aesthetic level vs. the intellectal level. Neither is superior to the other, but I think you miss out on a lot of what makes art stimulating, exciting and interesting if you limit yourself to the aesthetic level and ignore the intellectual side. And without any sort of context, you are almost certainly doing just that. Which is not to say that divorcing art from context cannot, on some level, make it easier to appreciate it on an aesthetic level.

I am sure it will surprise nobody that "Looking at Photographs" is probably my favorite photography book as well.* ;-)

Best regards,

*And I am eternally in Mike's debt for having recommended it.

I would say it depends on the photograph. If it documentary then text might be necessary but remember even then it can distort the interpretation. I recall a notable example of the same photo appearing in newspapers of different political bias - The photo was black youths running with police in pursuit - in one the caption was black youths evading police, in the other the caption was heavy handed police chase black youths. The text produced two different photos.

Simon, Norfolk UK

Funny. I agreed with Ctein, even posted a comment to that extent, and now I agree with Our Humble Editor. Imagine a picture of a young dark haired boy, a bit poorish looking, standing in the snow and playing a violin. The caption reads: 'New York, 2009'. Now imagine the same photo, only this time the caption reads: 'Warsaw, Poland, 1942'. I realise that what I had in mind when I read Ctein's column was most of all, phoney artspeak. There is rather too much of that.

I think both Ctein and Mike are onto something. My current favorite example of images that stand on their own is the Digital Darkroom exhibit currently showing at the Annenberg Space for Photography. In that exhibit, each artist's work has roots in traditional photography but is definitely a unique work of art which pushes away from being purely representational. Fair warning: the exhibit does have text, in contrast to the Pier 24 experience.

On the flip side, the book Harker's Barns is a lovely combination of architecture (landscape?) photography which blurs the lines between documentary and the poetry of storytelling. This book would be a far lesser beast without its accompanying text, and illustrates Mike's points nicely.

I think much of the problem with text and photography is when the artist forgets that everything in the presentation must serve the overall artistic vision. The juxtaposition of badly chosen prose with an image may easily produce a whole that is less than the sum of its parts.

Without opining on the merits of your differing points of view, which strike me in significant respects as a manufactured verbal dispute, your citation to Szarkowski's 'Looking at Photographs' can be turned on its head to support Ctein's perspective. Mercifully little of 'Looking at Photographs' is the stuff of artist statements or explanations. Rather, most of the book's text consists of what can be apprehended simply be disciplined looking and thinking about the image at hand -- just the type of looking and thinking that Ctein's suggests is facilitated by Pier24's focus on the intrinsic.

Maybe we need a new word. Photography means pictures and writing means, well, words. Maybe we need a new term that describes what you have when you have both pictures and words. Then it would be easier to talk about this because we'd have a new category to refer to.

I guess that even when a photographer or artist feels that they have to introduce you and prepare you for seeing their piece, yes, that's still part of the work their art; it's the performance art component. Personally, in my mind, the definition of art is so wide that I would find it very difficult to exclude any type of or aspect of photography from it. But I think it would be great if more people would realize that photography is art, because that might help folks understand why we feel such a great call to philosophize about it.

"Sorry I think you are both right and wrong in equal measure. Photography covers such a huge spectrum of artistic and social intent that it's hard to make any generalised statement about what it is or should be."

And I think Steve Jacob is right.

When I and others were working on photographing historic churches built by immigrants to Texas, the "story" of the congregation was part of the presentation. We were genuinely intending to make the photos "art", but without the narrative, they were incomplete.

OTOH, I am now setting out to photograph abstract light and shadows. The locations and objects are quite varied, but irrelevant. Beyond the image itself, what else would I say?

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