The art of the caption

Tomoko Yoneda, Beyond Memory and Uncertainty. American B-52 returning from a bombing raid in Iraq. Fairford, England, 2003.

Choosing words to go with photographs is a big issue for us photobloggers. Some of us avoid them, others use them with caution, and some, like me, can't seem to hold them back. Choosing the right balance between words and images is a very tricky thing and this tightrope walk often makes me think about the power of captions and titles in photography.

On his NY Times blog, the film-maker Errol Morris has been writing recently about the idea that photography can somehow translate some objective truth. In one post he focuses on the issue of the caption in relation to photojournalism, showing how a caption can lead to radically different, if not opposite, interpretations of the same image. Morris's example is a little too black-and-white for my liking, but it does provide an extreme example of just how easy it is to modify the way that an image is interpreted by the viewer through its caption.

In the world of fine art photography, the caption is less ubiquitous than in photojournalism. In the former the image isn't required to fulfil the function of conveying specific information. In fact I am most drawn to photography which tries to not have a specific message: images which raise questions or evoke possibilities rather than images which try to show the viewer something. I have written about this before in the context of Ken Domon and Kikuji Kawada or Shomei Tomatsu's radically different approaches to photographing the aftermath of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But even for the 'subjective documentary' of Kawada or Tomatsu their photographs still had some form of documentary function and their titles or captions were written to give the viewer factual information about the contents of the image.

In much fine art photography that documentary function doesn't exist or is consciously avoided. And yet the issue of choosing a title for the image remains, even if only to be able to archive or catalogue a series of images. In this context, I know that a lot of photographers struggle with the process of giving titles to individual images, precisely because they want them to remain as open to interpretation as possible. One photographer told me that he didn't want to give his work titles but that his gallery talked him into it for sales purposes. (On this note, I recommend checking out Olivier Laude's portfolios for a terrific subversion of the often ridiculous text that works inherit when they are released into the art market). And so images are reluctantly given titles or more often just join the brotherhood of the 'Untitled'.

However, for some photographers the caption is crucial to their work. Tomoko Yoneda is a Japanese photographer based in the UK who uses captions very effectively to transform her images. A large part of her work centres on major historical events and Yoneda uses captions to invest extremely banal scenes with great significance (see the picture above). In her work captions are able to invest a single photograph with a profound sense of the history of a place. Her work is the perfect illustration of how what you see is most definitely not what you get. For Duane Michals, one of the highlights of last year's Rencontres d'Arles festival, it sometimes feel like his photographs are there to illustrate his writing rather than the other way around. He uses writing and images together to construct narratives that somehow manage to be both hilarious and sincerely profound. By writing his captions on his prints by hand, he makes the text and the image inseparable.

Duane Michals

Another great illustration of the transformative power of a caption is the website Unhappy Hipsters. The site is a series of shots taken from interior design or architecture magazines with added captions describing the existential angst of the people that appear in these pictures. Beyond the fact that I find it frequently hilarious, the site shows how a caption can completely change the way that we read an image. In the context of a magazine like Dwell, the focus is squarely on the architecture and design; the people are mere accessories to dress the space. But with these captions, the roles are reversed: the image is no longer about some material consumption but about human emotion.

Hiroh Kikai. A polite young man who powders his hands, 2002.

But my favourite use of captions in recent times has to be in Hiroh Kikai's portraits. In an interview with Kikai he told me that he sees his captions and his images as "intrinsically linked". What makes them stand out to me is their ability to suggest a huge amount with a great economy of language. Sometimes just by describing a person's profession ("A bookbinder"), a detail in the picture ("A man with four watches") or even outside the frame ("A man using a wooden sword as a walking stick"), or indeed from a different moment than the frame itself ("A young man about to make a peace sign for the camera"), Kikai gives just enough information to set off questions in our minds which bring these people to life.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that all photographs need captions; actually in my view there's nothing worse than a throwaway title. But the caption is an art form and online, where images get cut and paste all the time without much attention paid to titles, captions or even the photographer's name, one that is too often overlooked.

Arles 2009: 40 years and Nan Goldin

© Nan Goldin I have finally managed to sit down and collect my thoughts about this year's Rencontres d’Arles festival. For Arles’ 40th anniversary, I decided to try and cover the festival in some detail. In this post I will be giving my overall impressions and in the next few days I will follow up with reviews of the exhibitions that I considered to be highlights.

DelpireWhen it comes to festivals, I have always found that birthdays tend to be mixed affairs (in fairness 40th birthdays have never been easy for anyone). Paying tribute to 40 years of photography while still looking to the future (or at least to the ‘now’) is no small task. Given the mandatory set of exhibitions celebrating Arles glorious past (a tender look at the extraordinarily prolific career of the French publisher and curator, Robert Delpire; an exhibition of new work by Lucien Clergue, an Arlésien photographer and one of the founders of the Rencontres; a Duane Michals retrospective, including a lot of work which has been exhibited before at Arles; and a ‘photo-album’ show allowing the audience to take a nostalgic stroll through 40 years of the festival’s history), the choice of the guest curator was always going to have a big impact, perhaps even more so than in a ‘normal’ year.

Nan Goldin seemed like an interesting choice: despite her rise to fame she remains a prickly, startingly honest, both brutal and fragile creature who will charge straight at anything resembling ‘the establishment’. Having heard her speak several times during the festival (despite lots of official events, she did her rebellious image justice, showing up drunk or very late more than once), she knows her mind and speaks it. Goldin also knows what she likes when it comes to photography. Her 13 guests show her strong leaning towards what could be called a ‘photography of the intimate’: J.H. Engström, Leigh Ledare, Antoine d’Agata, Jim Goldberg, Jean-Christian Bourcart, Annelies Strba. This collection of exhibitions, Ça me touche (It touches me), bears its name well: it came through clearly that this was all work that touched Goldin “in some profound way.” This need to be touched seems to go beyond the work, as Goldin is very close to several of her guests (she referred to Engström and Bourcart’s families as her muses). With two projections of her own work (Sisters, Saints and Sybils and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency) and an exhibition of her personal collection, Goldin’s footprint was stamped forcefully on Arles 2009.

Leigh Ledare

Despite the honesty of her approach and choices, overall I was disappointed. I think Goldin has a real eye for the sincere and much of the work has an undeniable, visceral, emotional power. But, with 13 exhibitions in one massive warehouse space: massive prints of J.H. Engström’s newborn twins and their mother’s bloody placenta; Leigh Ledare’s mother fucking, fellating and stripping for her son’s camera; Antoine d’Agata caught in a 20-year Baconian cycle of drug and sex-addled self-destruction; Jean-Christian Bourcart’s distressing document of the lives of the inhabitants of the US’s poorest city (Camden, NJ); ending with Jim Goldberg’s experimentation with young runaways in San Francisco; can we really be expected to have any emotion left at all? Not all of the work explores the same difficult emotional terrain, but this difference gets diluted by the ‘full frontalness’ of these artists.

David Armstrong

There were a few misses (David Armstrong’s beautifully installed and completely forgettable images of young, pretty boys, Christine Fenzl’s worthy but incredibly bland documentation of street football, and Jack Pierson’s large folded photos of stuff that he walked past one day—incidentally Pierson’s ‘statement’ is a must-read), but individually most of the work on show here is interesting (in terms of its approach rather than photographically). Unfortunately, the impact of this work was diluted by the sheer quantity of it. Three exhibitions stood out for me: Anders Petersen’s dark, primitive, but dignified gaze at life on society’s edges, Marina Berio’s beautiful blow-up charcoal drawings of negative images and Lisa Ross’s exploration of the physical manifestations of faith in China’s Xinyiang province.

Marina Berio

Towards the end of the festival, I heard Goldin reveal some of her thinking on photography. She explained that for her, photography has almost entirely lost its integrity, that it is difficult to believe images anymore. Of those very few photographers that she still admires, most are dead, and the others she keeps close to her. And as for her own work, she says she no longer has any interest in still photographic images. She only exhibits in the form of projections and she is currently exploring new ideas which move even further away from still photograph. This could be interpreted as pushing the boundaries of photography, but in her case it feels more like she is turning her back on it. I think Goldin remains an interesting artist whose struggle with life continues to provoke her to make challenging and powerful work, but as the guest curator of a major photography festival like Arles, her vision felt too narrow.

Naoya Hatakeyama

My highlights of Arles 2009 (which I will come back to in more detail in further posts) tended to go against the Goldin grain: Naoya Hatakeyama’s Scales and Maquettes/Light, Magda Stanova’s intelligent commentary, Without Sanctuary’s harrowing exploration of the darkest side of ‘vernacular photography’ (if postcards of lynchings can still bear that label), and an event which wasn’t even on the official festival programme, Chambres d’échos, an exhibition of the Musée Reattu’s photography collection which succeeds in creating fascinating resonances from confronting different kinds of work in exhibition rooms set up as echo chambers.

You will probably remember that there was quite a lot of criticism in the blogosphere of this year’s NYPH (somebody still has to explain that ridiculous acronym to me) and I think it is worth remembering that these events are pretty difficult to pull off and the fact that they manage to happen at all is worth applauding. Even if I felt disappointment at some of the choices this year, Arles still manages to be a huge injection of photographic adrenaline in a way that feels festive and celebratory. On it’s 40th birthday Arles felt very much like it was in the middle of a mid-life crisis, but one with glimpses of a promising future.

Update: Further reading Jeffrey Ladd on Nan Goldin Evan Mirapaul on Arles '09