Most photographs will speak to us in their own way, if we only take the time to listen carefully…Clem Kadiddlehopper — photographer, philosopher, sage
Supplying the viewer of a photo with a title, provides a bit of additional information in order to produce an intended response or message from the image, but in doing so, may do a disservice to the viewer by suggesting that he or she cannot absorb the information within the photo to extract the photographer’s intent through a normal, visual interaction, and needs some gentle guidance. It could also suggest that there is only one correct takeaway from an image, when it’s possible there are many, many more. Another possibility is that the photographer has failed in conveying whatever intention, story or message there may have been for taking the photograph in the first place. Quite often, the inclusion of a title offers the exact information the maker wants to provide in order to lead the viewer to a desired conclusion, suggesting the idea, story or intention behind the photo, thereby possibly reducing the intensity of any engagement the viewer might otherwise experience.
I have to admit here that I have fallen victim to this on occasion as well, most recently titling a sequence from a morning shoot on the Outer Banks Spectacular Sunrise No.1, 2, etc. It was done to easily indicate to me which morning it was, and immediately bring to mind that day. It was not done to steer a viewer into believing it was indeed, a spectacular sunrise, when they may not have the same view, but the title nonetheless does make that inference.
The concept of titles was radically suggested by a photographer friend of mine many years ago as unnecessary, and should never be included since the image should speak for itself, and be heard by the viewer, as they see it, without any outside influences from what the photographer’s take is from the piece; a title being one of those outside influences. Along with the title, any background story of extra effort needed, or extraordinary circumstances to “get” a photo is totally irrelevant, especially if the photo is nothing special, since that effort will not make the image any better. For the most part, I completely agree that a title will influence the viewer’s initial response, but only if it’s read before viewing the image. It is possible, that by including one, the viewer can look at the image first, come to their own conclusion, and afterward, their conclusion can then either be validated or supplanted by what the title has to say about the image, or simply incorporate the title information into their own takeaway. Obviously, there are several ways to consider the idea of titles and their purposes, and whether or not they should be included with specific photographs.
Generally speaking, titles are useful within my own libraries to indicate what the image is of, and the location it was taken as a reminder of that information in case it escapes my memory. This was begun during the prehistoric age of film, when each medium format chrome was cut from the full strip of developed film, placed in a clear interlocking plastic sleeve to which a thin adhesive strip was added with an identifying number, year, subject and location, and then placed within a plastic slide sheet of twelve. This was done so that prospective photo editors (magazines, calendars, etc) would be able to clearly see all the photos and identify them by number and location, and what it was they were looking at when considering them for possible publication, because back then, actual slides were mailed in for consideration. Now, much of that information is automatically generated within the metadata created when the photo was taken, and submissions are done over the internet, making all that additional work and expense unnecessary (yay!!). Yet, even though I’ve gone completely digital, for some unknown reason I still find myself continuing the practice of giving most “fully” processed images a title as described above: generally only the subject and location. Unprocessed images retain the “title” of where only in the file name added on import, or if deemed useless, are simply tossed.
When initially importing the photos into Lightroom, each has the date, location, and specific number added as a “title” for easy reference later (04-18-2021-Jordan Lake-037). Images that are processed and considered among the better of the bunch, are given a more formal title of what it is and where. An example might be: Aspen Grove in Afternoon Light, Boulder Mountain — Dixie National Forest, UT. The title provides all the immediate information about the photo anyone might need regarding what is being viewed, even though it may be fairly obvious just from the photo itself, and where it was taken with some specificity. But for an image like the one above, a viewer may not even know what it is they’re looking at, so a title may be important later on, but only after it is seen and judged on its merits as a photograph. But to be quite honest, when I view many of my older photographs, with rare exceptions, at the very least I do remember where it was taken, though maybe not the exact year. That’s most likely because the majority of the work is of familiar subjects and locations either locally or on major photographic trips I’ve taken. So titles are basically for the benefit of others should they want easy reference to that information. Any titles for non-landscape photos usually follow the same simple rule of what it is, eg. Red Onion.
For these two images, the one above and below, there really is no mystery as to what is being viewed; nothing needs to be explained. The line of trees are leafless in a lake of somewhat high water levels, with the sun breaking through the fog and reflecting on the water’s surface. The addition of the boat in the image below adds a possible story that is left to the imagination of the viewer, while the first only bears witness to the events at that location and at that moment, possibly a unique moment, but that point is left for the viewer to decide. By injecting a title suggesting that it is indeed a unique moment (Spectacular Sunrise, again?), the title then leads the viewer on a particular predetermined path decided upon by the maker rather than allowing the viewer to choose that path after engaging with the photo. A title such as Foggy Sunrise doesn’t provide any additional information that the viewer couldn’t have gleaned by themselves. But the title Ode to a Joyous Heart says more about the photographer and the “proper” conclusion toward which the viewer is being led, than the photo itself.
Does it really help the viewer if you add a “cheeky” title to the image above such as Angling in the Morning, Liquid Gold, or Heading Home? It may be more important for the viewer to access one of their own life experiences, and assess their own perception of what can easily be seen within the frame without any added commentary, in the form of a title from the maker. The image is readily recognizable, and needs nothing additional other than a keen ear to hear what the image, and you the photographer, might have to say. Escaping Jaws as a title however, just might sway a viewer in a different direction all together!
For the image below, you might come across some titles that are simply several words strung together that may suit the maker, but could also be used interchangeably with any number of other images as well; Walking with Angels, Autumn Spirit, or maybe something on the order of Beacon of Hope, or simply Requiem(?). It is always my hope when a photo is shared, that the same emotional reaction occurs within the viewer as I experienced at that moment without the benefit of a title, whether it’s the awe of a grand scenic, the quiet of a more intimate natural portrait, or even an abstract. In either case, it is the initial interaction with the subject, or in the case of an abstract, the excitement the combination of colors, shapes and textures provide, which caused the internal response strong enough to take the photograph, and so when it is seen by someone else for the first time, hopefully the same response will be experienced by them as well. Even though it is certainly acceptable if they do not, there is still a hope they will, at the very least, have a strong response to the image, whatever that response may be, because if there is none, then the photograph(er) has failed in whatever was the original intent.
Returning to the image at the top of the post, it was one of about four or five taken within a minute or two. Each of them appear very similar to one another, yet each time I tripped the shutter, there was a specific and different intent for the viewer if one were ever printed. But it was this particular one that really connected with me for several reasons which I will not share here for the purposes of this particular post, fearing undue influence to you, the viewer. Quite often, as we take a particular photograph, we know intuitively that it will be one that will always bring back all the associated thoughts or emotions, and we will be able to relive that moment. This is one of those, for me.
There is one other point that needs to be mentioned regarding work that appears within the framework of competitions or juried exhibitions. Some require that the signature or any identifying information of the artist be omitted to assure that judges are not influenced should they happen to actually know the artist, which is understandable in the spirit of fairness. Additionally, should titles be eliminated as well? After all, they do influence a viewer’s thoughts and perceptions about an image, especially if they may not easily determine either the subject or purpose of the image, and seek the crutch of the title to help in those determinations. Titles are such a messy business and I’m sure can cause extensive discussions, most likely without any consensus.
So, what is the proper way to handle the issue of titles? Do we provide them only as informational as in the case of images that are abstract and a viewer cares to know what they may be looking at? Should they be provided even though it may be leading the viewer? Or should they only contain the obvious, and possibly a location if that information is important? Maybe use a numerical sequence of Untitled? Or simply not provide anything to guide, influence, direct or suggest a possible meaning or story within the image? There are many uses for titles, as well as reasons to not provide them, and how you choose to use, or not use titles, plays an important role in viewing your work by others.
What is your view on titles and their use or necessity? And if you were to create one, what title would you give to any of the images included in the post. Please share your views and/or titles in the comments.