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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Do Captions Matter?

Greg Mallet-Prevost and Cabin, by Matt Houston/AP

Do photographs need captions? "Rock and tree" photographers are fond of saying that pictures have to stand alone, on their own, without being shored up by words. I see their point, but I've never trusted the idea. The pictures I like best are pictures with significance, and often the significance simply must be explained: it isn't contained in the picture alone.

Consider the above, taken by Matt Houston for the Associated Press. It was taken on Dec. 21st, 2005, and shows a man named Greg Mallet-Prevost standing in front of part of his the house where his family has been living since the 1960s.

The significance of the picture is that the log cabin, now a minor extension of the house, was part of a large plantation once managed by a black slave named Josiah Henson, who lived here. Henson, through his autobiography, was the chief model for Harriett Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom.

So this is Uncle Tom's Cabin. Who wouldn't want to know that about this shot? How could anybody fully appreciate the picture without knowing it?

Incidentally, Josiah Henson hardly deserves the approbrium that has befallen the "Uncle Tom" epithet. He was a capable, literate, and honorable man who eventually escaped on the Underground Railroad to Canada, where he welcomed and sheltered other escaped slaves and wrote his biography. Incidentally, Henson's historic cabin has been purchased from the Mallet-Prevosts by Montgomery County, Maryland, and will be preserved as an historic site and tourist destination.


NOTE: The photograph shown here was originally properly captioned by the photographer. I'm not questioning or criticizing his captioning abilities; merely pointing out how important captions can be for many types of pictures. —Ed.


Blogger Juan Buhler said...

What you say is true for documentary photographs. Of course, when there is something worthy of mention that the photo is showing, a caption is necessary. In this sense the photograph becomes accessory to the main issue at hand. In artistic photography (and of course, the line between documentary and artistic is blurry, thick and grey) captions are often used as a crutch.

You hint at this in the first paragraph when you say "Rock and Tree" photographers. I would actually include all purely artistic photography in the group that doesn't benefit from captions.

2:56 AM  
Blogger scotth said...

I thought Uncle Tom's Cabin was in Dresden, Ontario, Canada.

7:21 AM  
Blogger Eugene S said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Eugene S said...

Alright, there are different traditions and venues. *Journalistic* venue (documentary tradition and such) benefits greatly from captions. *Artistic* venue is extremely variable. Sometimes art pictures have captures longer than this whole blog. Sometimes they have nothing, or just a number. Sometimes captions are crucial in art, sometimes they are not at all important (other than the de rigueur signature). It depends on what the artist has to say and how he or she frames it. By no means would I blindly include all *rock and tree* photographers into the artistic group as Juan did. Art belongs in the sphere of the symbolic (metaphors and such), not of the direct aesthetic experience (rocks and trees). Buying somebody a rose is not an artistic statement, it is a romantic statement, in other words. Same for taking a picture of a beautiful rose or sunset. It is not art, it is direct aesthetic experience. Art is a matter of sophistication (sophistication of expression, not necessarily social sophistication and such) and signatures. Sophistication may place completely unexpected demands on captions and other trivia. Signatures, on the other hand, are often captions...

10:37 PM  
Blogger Robb said...

A photograph, regardless if it’s a journalistic, documentary, or artistic one (one image can be all three – but that’s a different thread) that uses words to explain it has become an illustration. Don’t (necessarily) read that as a value judgment.

Journalism requires captions, documentary photos often require some contextual framework, and all museums post an artist or curator’s statement accompanying a show.

For a visual medium photos are almost always supported by words. Because for all there literalness photographs are not concrete in the way words are. A photo taken on July 14th, 2003 cannot tell you it was taken on that date, or where it was taken, or any of the other journalistic W’s.

That being said, a photograph can convey a great deal of specific information but that information is often about perception itself. I once heard Joe McNally speak and he said, “Light has all the power of words to communicate emotion.” I believe that is absolutely true. And I also believe photographs are supported by words because we don’t trust in our emotions. It’s easier to be told what to think about a photograph.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Eugene S said...

But you have to agree, Rob, that a photograph (or any other artwork) doesn't have a value "in itself." Van Gogh isn't selling for $50M plus because his paintings communicate with light, he is selling for that much because he is Van Gogh.

By saying that "light" has the power of words to communicate, you miss the point. Light isn't some mysterious force that makes us suddenly understand something, the "scribble of God" and such. The only thing that light does is it reveals context. It creates a caption, in other words. The caption is always there.

Another thing is captions are not always explanatory. Very often, in art, you see captions that don't give you a clue as to what is depicted. Caption is a vector, it directs you, it doesn't necessarily explains everything. The rest is up to the photograph.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Robb said...

Eugene, the value of any artwork is simply what someone will pay for it. Whether you buy a print of mine for $350 or a Van Gogh for $50M. I'll give you that. A name certainly helps in the art market – in any market for that matter. When I said value judgement I meant, good or bad not $$$$.

But I don't agree that light "creates a caption ... the caption is always there." Here's why.

When art of any kind of turned out to the public without any contextual information you only have what you bring to the artwork to create meaning for yourself. Even when art is given context people can only see it with the baggage they carry. Two cases in point:

1: In anthropological circles there is a well known text titled Shakespeare in the Bush, by Laura Bohanon. In it she tells the story of Hamlet to the tribe she is studying in West Africa. She was trying to see if there are fundamentals in human nature. To westerners, marrying your brother’s wife (especially after you killed him) is not something we do. It’s one of the most important elements to Hamlet. To this tribe, marrying you brothers wife and be the father to his children, is exactly what you do. No problem with that whatsoever.

2: I’ve been working on a project about the relationship between people and the land they live on. The area is where I grew up; it’s going to be changing because of a bridge going over the Ohio River and the connecting highway. (look at all this context) A few weeks ago I was back there photographing, this time I brought a box of prints with me to show people what I’ve been up to. Where I see formal beauty, they see fences in need of repair; where I see honor in the quotidian, they see work unfinished. It’s not that they don’t like the photos and they are even happy I’m doing this project. But they don’t see what I see.
(Shameless plug – see for yourself - more coming at the end of January)

People see what they see because of who they are.

On a personal level the more I look at photos the less specifics I want to know. I find myself enjoying being able to get into a photo and play around with things. I much prefer a photo that is enigmatic, that asks more questions than it answers, to ones where it’s all laid out for you. I’m trying to get my own work more in that direction.

And I’m enjoying this a great deal, I’ve been working on a paper about visual communication.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Eugene S said...

Interesting thoughts, Robb; thanks for responding. I definitely agree with you that the viewer's baggage determines to the largest extent what he or she sees. That is true. Yes, Shakespeare in the Bush was a fun story for me to read in an anthropology class and is very much to the point here.

The issue where we started diverging on this topic, I think, is this: I don't see textual captions as something definite, as something that forever nails a photograph or an artwork into what it is and what it cannot be. To me, caption is just another tool in the box, on the same level as separation between foreground and background with narrow depth of field and so on.

I was thinking recently a lot about the predominant "documentary" aesthetics and how it can become problematic in cases where a symbolic statement is all that counts. The book I was reading then was Cotton's "Photography as Contemporary Art," and I had found that she specifically avoids discussing anything resembling the documentary tradition in order to give way to more unbound symbolic expression and reflection. Anyway, I see that textual captions go in line with this; you don't see captions saying "look, this is horrible/pretty" or "look, this is just like Salgado," but that is what a lot of documentaries imply.

Yeah, you do have very good work in your portfolio. Thanks for the plug and happy New Year..

1:32 PM  

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