To caption or not to caption?

A few weeks ago I wrote about my plan to carry a notebook with me when I was out photographing to capture some of my thoughts and motivations for choosing a particular subject and composition. I have to say that with most of my intentions it has been somewhat erratic. On the occasions I have made a note, though, it has been interesting to see how far my intentions have been met in the photograph. That then led me on to thinking about the role of words with photographs.

To caption or not to caption?

In an effort to answer that question I decided to take a look at what photographers more famous than myself felt about the subject; borrowing other people’s experiences, as it were.

“I don’t like captions.”

Josef Koudelka

At one extreme, the Hungarian photographer, Josef Koudelka, dismissed captions entirely: “I don’t like captions. I prefer people to look at my pictures and invent their own stories.”

“[captions add] clues to attitudes, relationships and meanings.”

Dorothea Lange

On the other hand, Dorothea Lange, documenter of the American dust bowl in the 1930s, took captioning very seriously.  She wrote in a letter: “This is not a simple clerical matter, but a process, for they should carry not only factual information, but also added clues to attitudes, relationships and meanings.”

The most obvious reason for the differing viewpoints is the purpose of the photographs themselves. Koudelka had been a painter and he saw photography as an artform; Lange was producing photographs to tell a story of the plight of the migrants travelling across United States to try and make a better life for themselves in the face of devastation.

The writer, Jerry L Thompson, photographer, and author of “Why Photography Matters” divides photographers into two sorts: the journalistic ones who care only about the information their work imparts. He argues, “their pictures need captions, and the captions often do the same work as the pictures, though with less visual impact.” (p41). The second sort are the pictorialist ones who care about how the picture looks. For these people their photography is an art and  “their pictures need captions no more than a symphony needs a … story the music can be thought to tell.” (p42).

Lange would have been one of Thompson’s journalistic photographers and her captions added to her work. They tended to be very factual and straightforward, reflecting the fact that she was working under government contract for the Farm Securities Administration, so her words reflected that organisation’s style and purpose, for example:

Country store on dirt road. Sunday afternoon. Note the kerosene pump on the right and the gasoline pump on the left. Rough, unfinished timber posts have been used as supports for porch roof. Negro men are sitting on the porch. Brother of store owner stands in doorway. Gordonton, North Carolina.”

Alfred Stieglitz was the pioneer of photography as an art form in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; he could be described as a pictorialist photographer.  However, he did tend to caption his works. Unlike Lange’s captions, they were shorter, perhaps more like titles. His captions were more to do with how he wanted the viewer to interpret his work. They gave a bigger message, a deeper meaning to the photograph. He captioned one of his photographs of a steam train rolling along railway tracks under a lowering sky, “The Hand of Man“. He was perhaps trying to convey the sense of a man-made landscape in an age when most landscape photographs tended to be of the countryside (the photograph was made in 1903). Without that title what might the picture represent?

A photograph on its own and out of context can be ambiguous. Take a look at any of your photographs of your own family and friends, perhaps on holiday or on special occasions. To you and the subjects, and others who know you all, they are very significant. Imagine, though, someone coming upon your pictures in years to come when everyone in them are long gone. What might they make of your photographs? The people in the pictures now are strangers and any original meaning is lost. The viewer can put their own meaning onto the photographs.

One interesting exercise is to come up with your own caption to a photograph. This is a popular part of the BBC TV quiz show, “Have I got news for you”. The participants are asked to come up with a humorous title to a news photograph; their suggestions are not usually flattering of the subject matter and tend to subvert the original image. You could do this to any photograph not necessarily for humorous effect but as a way of helping you interpret it. Take a look at the picture at the top of this page. It is one I took a few years ago. How might you caption it? I would be intrigued to know your responses.

The caption can be used to provide additional information to support the photograph or it could be used to provide a deeper meaning for the image. Or a photograph could have no caption at all. In which case, could photography be said to be a language itself?  Can it be learnt? I think that will be a subject for another blog entry.

In the meantime, how did you caption my photograph? Here’s a couple of versions:

St Luke’s Church, Old Street, London. One of the churches designed by the eighteenth century architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor. A student of Christopher Wren, he designed a number of churches in and around the City of London following the Great Fire of 1666, of which this was one.


Published by Stephen Taylor

Freelance e-learning developer and instructional designer, photographer and cyclist

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