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Wednesday, 24 July 2013


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Captions are very important to me. My work is documentary in nature, the photographs tell the story, assisted by the little story or caption I write with it. Most of the places I photograph are close to home, places I grew up around and live around today. They have the most interesting stories because they're part of my experience growing up in Indiana. Most people don't even notice this stuff, even people who live here. My photographs on their own are interesting, but a few words give them context and help preserve the memory of these places.

If you look on my website, you'll see each photograph is part of a larger project, part of a bigger story, as well as the story the individual photograph tells.

I believe that everything you know about a person or thing you photograph influences the picture in some form or another. Hopefully that influence can be seen or felt in the photograph itself so that it can live without a caption as a piece of art. Then the caption can be secondary information. While captions can help give meaning to a photograph, I see a clear danger for that meaning to overwhelm the photograph. I therefore find it very difficult to title my pictures.

When I go to a museum, I like to look at the artwork first, then the name of the artist, title, and possibly the little description the curator added.

If facts are important and/ or you don't want to lose the caption then in today's world we have all the embedded metadata you would want to poke a stick at. No excuses - and if you're not interested it's not in your face.

To think you'd be pegged down as film buff for recognizing this name... times are a changing...

[Bad example for you, then. --Mike]

A friend just sent me one of those long emails purporting to be "significant historical photos" that included a photo claimed to be Sacajawea, the Indian who was on the Lewis & Clark expedition. Only Sacajawea was born around 1790 and died in 1812, although tribal legend has her living longer. But the photo shows a woman probably in her 20s with a baby.
Where's the fact checkers?

I found it interesting that the first person over the Niagra Falls to survive, and also a woman, did it at the age of 63. That is one tough old bird, and the barrel.

In my simple mind, it's pretty simple. To wit ... there are multiple ways to see, interpret and appreciate photographs. (Or any other "piece of art" for that matter.)

It can be captionless, with with caption, with full written essay, etc., etc., etc.

All are "valid", to be sorted through the viewer's experience and comprehension. Judging what is "right", "better", "more accurate" is all useless.

[Okay, I'll continue to seek out and engage with great work made by committed and talented people, and you just look at any old thing that happens to come along. To each his own. --Mike]

One of the most vividly frightening images I've ever seen was of a 5 year old boy.

He was clutching a doll harmless, innocent, wide eyed.....

His name was Adolf Hitler.

It was frightening because we do not normally think of him as a child. It is easy to slot him into the category of 'monster' and 'other', but if we do this, we must realize we do to him what he did to the Jews......demonizing is always a difficult business....fraught with danger.

The truth is that that 5 year old, and the adult he became, were all too human. It makes us uncomfortable to admit such a creature to our 'pack', but we must...for if we do not, we will be visited by another.

He was a human being. Not the best of humans, maybe not the worst, but certainly below the median of accepted behavior....not good....

If you think I'm being too kind, then you really need to read more history.....I'm not being easy on him, just trying to place him in a context.......

And after all, isn't that what we try to do with photography.....place a subject in a context......

So if you want horror, dwell on the idea that one of the 20th century's greatest demons was once a 5 year old child, clutching a doll........

Scares the shit out of me, don't know about the rest of y'all.....

I imagine that you are probably aware of the "Shorpy" blog of old photographs but just in case some of your readers do not know about it...

The Shorpy site is mostly old photographs downloaded from The Library of Congress that have been enhanced by sharpening and increasing the contrast and then posting several of them each day. The images cover the dates from the Civil War to the 50s and 60s. I imagine the peak of the bell curve of dates would be around the 1910 to 1930 era. Registered users can also supply images from their own collections.

Here is the link....

Most images have a "View full size" link in the photo's caption. The full size images, especially from the large glass plate cameras, have amazing detail.
The members comments range from experts with lots of additional supporting information to "experts" with lots of false information (after all it is the internet) and of course there are the humorous comments too. Typically a photo with old cars in it will bring out every car identification expert on the blog.

The photo of the lifeguard in your link has appeared on Shorpy in the past.

Whenever I tell someone about the Shorpy blog I always post this disclaimer....
"CAUTION, You can waste a lot of time on this site" I have first hand knowledge of this fact. It is a must check at least once everyday for me (usually more).

As someone said (maybe it was you Mike?) : "A picture is worth a thousand words, but a picture without a few words beneath it is worth nothing"

I stopped doing descriptive captioning in my online galleries a couple of years ago. Now they are captioned with a sequence number only.

Instead I create short essays(?) that include a slideshow of images relating to the subject. I'm not a good writer or photographer for that matter but the format works for me. Combining images with text provides more information to the reader/viewer and helps me define my photographic process.

The essays are on a website that is separate from my online pBase galleries. I want visitors to read the text and browse the images.

My first reaction was that these pictures were taken as found (except the ones that were posed). Each of the pictures is interesting in their own right, that I wanted to know more about them. Who took the pictures? Are the captions original?

Except for #23, I didn't find the captions sufficiently informative for "historical" photos from the age of film. And none had any photo credit.

Here's what I found out about the identity of the photographers, subjects and circumstances of the pictures in the collection which grabbed me the most:

#13. "Unknown Soldier": Larry Wayne Chaffin. Photographed on June 18, 1965 by Horst Faas.

#19. "Hitler's Officers and Cadets Celebrating Christmas, 1941": Photographed on December 18, 1941 by Hugo Jaeger.
(This picture grabbed me because it's the only one in color. Life says the photo (#5 of 7 in the link) is "part of an enormous stash of color transparencies made by Hitler’s personal photographer, Hugo Jaeger.")

#23. "A Most Beautiful Suicide": Evelyn Mchale. Photographed on May 1, 1947 by Robert Wiles.
(The caption of this picture named the subject, circumstances, and the date, but omitted the photo credit. The New York Times obituary of Miss Mchale is reproduced at the link. Andy Warhol would later appropriate the photo in a print.)

#25. "4 Children For Sale": The Chalifoux Siblings. Photo credit: Bettman/Corbis, photographer unknown.
(The original one-paragraph caption is reproduced at the link. I thought this picture was staged. The "for sale" sign is professionally done like the one in "Atabrine Advertisement" (#6). One of the siblings is quoted saying their mother was paid for the photo. But they were indeed given away, i.e., sold for a song: one of them for $2.)

The collection that Mike (Stuart944) linked to (30 Unique and Must-See Pictures From Our Past) is a shorter version of a longer post in another site (46 Amazing Photographs From The Past) which has no byline.

The "author" of "30" appropriated the collection as his own (providing a link to the source of "46" by way of "acknowledgment"). He dropped 16 photos from the "original" ("46") post and staked his claim on the remaining "30" with a two-paragraph blurb.

Both sites don't have "About Us" sections or owner/author's disclosures. The "46" site is more transparent, though. It adopts the "portal" model, posting "Awesome Links of the Day" with the first link being re-blogged in its entirety. At the bottom of the page it banners the disclaimer usual for such sites: "If you see your picture on the site and would like it removed, Contact Us Here."

The "30" site makes no such disclaimer. Which invites the reader to hold it to a higher standard. Big fail (although it succeeds with the social media audience it panders to). It's a pretentious portal with minuscule original content.

While I was searching for the provenance of these photos, Google returned several sites/blogs containing the "46" collection, or images culled from it with others added. Most were posted in May to June this year. I would like to track down the "original" post of the "46" compilation, but it looks like work.

The Jaeger photos of "Hitler's Christmas Party" also spawned a flurry of blog activity after the online edition of The Telegraph published two of them in December 27, 2011. The Telegraph reports that Jaeger sold the photos to LIFE in 1965; LIFE magazine first ran one of the Jaeger pictures (of Hitler beside the Tannenbaum) in 1970; others were published in 2009 during the 65th D-Day commemoration.

This search turned out to be an eye-opener for me in regards the "photo-sharing" M.O. of social media oriented blogs/sites.

Disclaimer: I have also "borrowed" without prior permission photos taken from the web, but with due credit to the source (including the name of the photographer/agency when available) to illustrate my early blogposts. Otherwise, I made do without them (photos). I have not been called out; most likely because
nobody has read them.

Since I took up photography (travel, nature) as a hobby three years ago, I have posted only my pictures in my blog (with a few exceptions, duly credited). My blog's pageviews increased by orders of magnitude as it became "picturey." But still nobody reads them, I think (mostly bots doing image search). I don't particularly want to know whether my pictures end up elsewhere in the web. I do know that my most popular pics are used as homework fodder by my young compatriots, which I don't mind. (My instant "hits" were pics I uploaded to TOP as Comments; but I can't take credit for those hits :).

I actually started this comment with my reactions to the captions in the spirit of the post's intent, before I got waylaid by my search for the provenance of the photos. FWIW, here are my reactions to the captions.

Pardon this long comment.

Mike, I doubt whether you're a nascent Grumpy Old Man quite yet. As with me, It's probably just Middle Rage.

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