Captions and Other Words in Photo Narratives

Smokey Mountain, Manila1989, Metro Manila's largest garbage dump was home to 30,000 people who made their living searching for saleable items in the rubbish. 50% of Manila's 11 million population live in slums.

Smokey Mountain, Manila1989, Metro Manila’s largest garbage dump was home to 30,000 people who made their living searching for saleable items in the rubbish. Ineffectual government policies leading to the repeated failure of re-housing schemes means that even now 50% of Manila’s  population of 11 million still live in slums.

Introduction

Researching narrative has revised my interest in how words and pictures work together and it is obvious that there are a number of different ways to incorporate words within a photo essay ranging from their complete absence, through captions, cutlines, appropriations, to written essays.

The history of the photo story and photo essay is closely linked to photo journalism, magazines and newsprint so it is no surprise that many such narratives are published with text but it is also common for photo books to use captions, cutlines or editorial text to support the photographers’ work. So, whilst some photographers’ work is inevitably destined to be published with associated text because they are working for news or magazine publishers it is clear that many photographers with editorial control are still making the decision to incorporate text with or within their work and it interesting to look a little more closely at why and how this is done.

When first researching  narrative photography it became clear that there is the photo journalist’s and news editor’s view on one hand and the photography critic’s and writer’s view on the other and an attempt to simultaneously consider both views is often trying to square the circle. It also leads to a semantic debates on the meaning of story versus essay and documentary versus journalism and so forth. It could be that this difference of opinion has its roots in what Graham Clarke *(2) describes as the “extent to which photographic practice has been haunted in its development by what has been termed the ‘ghost of painting'”. In simple terms “great art” before the invention of photography rarely, if ever, resorted to using captions beyond assigning a title so, perhaps, great photography is expected not to need or use them.

Absence of Words

It can be argued that the perfect photographic narrative needs no words and many such narratives exist. Richard Billingham’s Rays a Laugh *(6) tells the story of life with his alcoholic father and was published with only a short photographer’s statement on the inside cover to introduce the characters in the photographs, after which there are no captions of any kind, not even the place and date form of captions found in Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston or Stephen Shore’s work. These works are not lessoned by a lack of captions, the photographers felt no need to offer Cartier-Bresson’s “verbal context” and this approach is clearly highly effective in a photo book or exhibition context where the story can be completely communicated through the images.

A further argument would be that the “norm”, the standard starting point is for there to be no words. The pictures speak for themselves and the photograph only controls the content of the image and the context in which they are made available to the audience. The audience is left to interpret the pictures. If we accept that is the status quo it would appear that we are only looking for arguments for why we would use words.

Appropriations

After assignment 3 I looked at the work of Victor Burgin (Victor Burgin and Appropriations) who has produced a number of series where his photographs appropriate types of words, such as marketing-like slogans, or pieces of text from other sources. In Burgin’s case he is placing an image into a context where we would not normally expect to see it and thereby unsettles the audiences expectations and interpretation of that image.

Anna Fox used the same idea in Work Stations by selecting extracts from corporate “literature” as ironic texts to accompany her images of office life in the 1980s. I had adopted Fox’s approach to my own assignment 3 and attempted to highlight issues with the fashion industry by using their own marketing material as ironic captions.

Fox and Burgin both use appropriation by juxtaposing text and image that are in conflict with one another. For example a piece of fashion speak that celebrates the virtues of a pale skin with a photograph of a black women in a bus queue. (Burgin “Life Demands a Little Give and Take”) *(1).

Appropriation could be a valid technique to use in a photo story or essay and I am considering using it in assignment 5 but, this time, in a less ironic manner by combining the written words of a late 19th / early 20th Century writer who published several books about the village in which I grew up, combined with current images of the same village.

Other Examples of Combining Words and Pictures

Research into narrative has led me to several other photographers who use text as part of their work, or who have produced work that is nearly always seen with the original magazine text in place; I have previously made notes on:

Photo Journalism

Although I can’t find the origin of the quote Harold Evans *(3) quotes Cartier-Bresson as saying “The who or what and the why are incorporated in the subject – or should be – and the how is unimportant.” However, in The Mind’s Eye *(4), Cartier-Bresson also says “in A Picture Story, the captions should invest the pictures with a verbal context, and should illuminate whatever relevant thing it may have been beyond the power of the camera to reach.” It appears that even Cartier-Bresson had more than one view on the role of the caption.

Evans is less ambivalent believing that the idea that words “pollute photographs” is “a piece of intellectual debris from the early idea that photography was art or it was nothing” and, in his world of newsprint, we would expect no other view. The typical process of understanding a news photo is to first look at the picture, then read the caption and any short descriptive extension to the caption (what the American press calls the “cutline”) and then to return to the photograph for a second look. This process builds an understanding by ‘reading” and absorbing the information in the picture, reading the caption and its associated text to gain any helpful explanation or additional data and then revisiting the image to use the context provided by he caption to reveal any nuances missed on the first visit. Newspapers and magazines are expert in the field of caption writing because they know that only headlines have a higher readership that photo captions *(5) and readers are drawn deeper into the editorial or news text through the process of reading photographs and their captions.

Photo journalism, photo stories and photo essays as published in magazines and newspapers are rarely offered as stand alone pictures, in fact, it is so rare that it is only a slight exaggeration to say that this type of photography always includes a caption and is often linked to a more detailed descriptive context or, is providing a visual context to the text.

Not surprisingly, as a newspaper man, Evans, is an advocate for words; he believes that, by adding text, the editor can enhance both the emotional and cognitive experience of viewing a photograph or a series of photographs. In the world of newsprint the aim of this text is to add to and explain the story by providing descriptive detail although Evans recognises that too often it repeats the facts we can see on the photograph because it has been badly executed or is unnecessary but this doesn’t detract from the fact that many news photos are enhanced by their relationship with text. When this is done well the photograph and the text each contribute to the story and the relationship is inevitable, it is a known result that both photographer and writer are working to.

Summary and Next Steps

The two ends of the spectrum are the pure visual story and the story embedded within and closely related to text. In the middle there are a significant number of photo books that extensively use text to provide context, additional information and explanation and, whilst assignment 5, is set as a “magazine cover and article” and therefore inextricably  linked to text if it is to be authentic, it is this middle ground that interests me most. Why does a photographer choose, in Evans’ words, “to pollute” their images with text?

The relationship between words and pictures in a photo book is complex and not inevitable. Anna Fox explains that, whilst she knew that she wanted to use text from the corporate world in a association with her photographs in Work Stations, she collected the pictures and text quite separately, only selecting combinations when she was collating the final presentation. I followed this approach in assignment 3 by collecting phrases during the same few weeks that I was taking the photographs but selected the pictures and decided on my final sequence before starting to look for, what I saw as, natural matches from my collection of quotes.

To explore how text is used by different photographers I have looked at three books.

Koudelka’s Wall –  that I have looked at twice already once as a general review (here) and once in the context of how he used olive trees as a metaphor (here).

Josef Koudelka and the Use of Captions in Wall

Philip Griffith Jones’ Vietnam Inc. that I have looked at in the context of The Engaged Photographer

Philip Jones Griffith and the use of Captions, Cutlines and Other Text in Vietnam Inc.

Tong Lam’s Abandoned Futures that I have not previously reviewed previously in this blog.

Tong Lam and the Use of Text and Appropriations in Abandoned Futures

Conclusion

In each case the photographer has decided that his photographs only tell part of the story. Koudelka provides short captions that explain and educate to ensure that we see past the beauty of his images. Jones Griffiths is constantly explaining “why” so that we understand the history, the back story the broader context of he Vietnam war and its impact on the people and their culture. Lam is offering us two ways to see and understand post industrial landscapes, the words and essays are blended but neither fundamentally relies on the other, they are two parallel data sources.

These different approaches show that words and pictures can be successfully integrated in media other than news or magazines. In the case of Jones Griffiths his book is a direct reaction to the what he sees as the way that the news editors take photo journalist’s work out of contact to illustrate the story they want to publish.

My final conclusion is to agree with Jones Griffiths when he says that we live in a literate society so, if we believe we have a story to tell why would we limit ourselves to using pictures as a complete narrative form? It is essential that the words compliment the photographs, they must add to the story and not be simple and redundant descriptions of the image. The ideal is for the photograph to be strong enough to provide the majority of the information and for the caption or essay to provide the context that explains why the event is happening, or how others events have unfolded to lead to this moment. The two forms of communication need to work together to gain an emotional reaction.

Sources

Books

(2) Clarke, Graham (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(3) Evans, Harold (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-Journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.

(4) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture Foundation

(6) Billingham, Richard (1995) Ray’s a Laugh. Books on Books Edition (2014). New York: Valerie Sonnenthal

Internet

(1) Zero Focus – Victor Burgin – Life Demands a Little Give and Take – http://shihlun.tumblr.com/post/84456144504/victor-burgin-poster-life-demands-a-little-bit

(5) University of Kansas web resources – A picture is worth a thousand words (but only of it’s got a really good cutline!) – http://web.ku.edu/~edit/captions.html

 

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