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.

Hiroshima, 6 August 1945

Today is the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The magnitude of this event for the Japanese wartime generation is almost unfathomable. For several decades the atomic bombings cast a huge shadow through the work of many Japanese artists. It feels slightly ludicrous to suggest that something good could come from an event causing such total annihilation, but it did undoubtedly lead to some of the most extraordinary photography of the twentieth century. I wanted to draw attention to a few of these on this anniversary. Ken Domon, Hiroshima

The Americans photographed Hiroshima extensively to document the physical impact of the atomic bomb for their military archives (the Boston Globe's  website is running some of these images), but it took some time before a photographer would take on the task of shooting a series of images dealing with the human impact of the bombing. Although he was a tiny man, Ken Domon had an extraordinary strength of character and he became the most influential photographer of the immediate postwar years. Domon advocated the "absolutely unstaged snapshot" and championed the 'objective', social realist photography that became so popular in Japan in the late 1940s and early 1950s. With his direct, unflinching approach, he was the first to undertake a major project on Hiroshima. The series was published in a 1958 book, Hiroshima (Tokyo: Kenko-sha), which deals with the physical destruction of the city, but focuses mainly on the lives of the hibakusha (the atomic bomb survivors).

Arguably this 'objective', head-on documentation was the only possible approach at the time. On a personal note, I find that the directness of Domon's approach can be counterproductive. Some of his images of skin-graft operations or of keloid scars are so graphic that the only response is to turn away and therefore, although their initial impact is extremely powerful, they fade quickly. They leave you with no option but to stare the horror right in the face, making it difficult to absorb or to digest their implications.

Kikuji Kawada, Atomic Dome, Ceiling, Stain of Blood

On a trip to photograph Hiroshima's Genbaku Dome (The Hiroshima Peace Memorial), Domon was accompanied by a young photographer, Kikuji Kawada. When Kawada saw how the bombings had caused a horrific fusion of human flesh and blood with the walls and ceiling of the dome, he decided that he needed to come back to shoot it for himself. Combined with photographs of artefacts from the war (a photograph of a young kamikaze, a trampled Japanese flag, discarded coke bottles), these images were published in Chizu (The Map, Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppan-sha, 6 August 1965), arguably the most important photo-book of the period (Parr & Badger singled it out in The Photobook: A History volume 1, London: Phaidon, 2004).

Kikui Kawada, Chizu (The Map)

Kawada's images are radically different from Domon's earlier documentation; many of them are dark and dense to the point of illegibility. For me this is precisely what makes their strength: they draw you in, forcing you to try and make sense of these black, tableaux of texture. The images are not designed to stand alone, instead together they form a map of the scars that the A-bomb left on the Japanese collective memory. In the following year, Shomei Tomatsu published 11:02 Nagasaki, a similarly personal and harrowing look at the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, three days after Hiroshima. In Tomatsu's words, "what I saw in Nagasaki was not merely the scars of war, it was a place where the post-war period had never ended (...) We must resist the natural erosion that memory is subject to. We must build a dam against the flow of time."

Eikoh Hosoe, Deadly Ashes

These series dealt directly with the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the impact of the A-bombs rippled through practically all of the photography of the time, from Eikoh Hosoe's collaborations with Tatsumi Hijikata in Man and Woman and Kamaitachi, to the are, bure, boke (rough, blurred and out-of-focus) aesthetic of Provoke in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For the generation of photographers that came of age in the postwar years, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have not faded in importance. However, we are living in an increasingly post-nuclear age, and these events don't have the same resonance for younger generations. In order to build this "dam against the flow of time" many of these photographers have continued to return to this subject. Eikoh Hosoe recently published Deadly Ashes: Pompeii, Auschwitz, Trinity Site, Hiroshima, (Tokyo: Mado-sha, 2007), linking volcanic eruption, genocide, and the atomic bombing to the birthplace of the A-bomb: an alienating vision, which is almost a demand for such massive annihilation to cease.

Hiromi Tsuchida, Lunch Box. Reiko Watanabe (15 at the time) was doing fire prevention work under the Student Mobilization Order, at a place 500 meters from the hypocenter. Her lunch box was found by school authorities under a fallen mud wall. Its contents of boiled peas and rice, a rare feast at the time, were completely carbonized. Her body was not found.

Hiromi Tsuchida has returned to the bombing of Hiroshima more than any other photographer. For close to forty years, he has explored the changing significance of 6 August 1945 through several different series, three of which are available online. In 1979 Tsuchida photographed those elements of the city that survived the bombing (trees, buildings, bridges), returning to photograph them again some 15 years later, resulting in the book Hiroshima Monument II (Tokyo: Tosei-sha, 1995). Alongside these cityscapes he took portraits of a group of hibakusha that had written a series of poems about the A-bomb as schoolchildren in 1951. His later series, Hiroshima Collection (Tokyo: Tosei-sha, 1995) is perhaps his most successful. This is a record of articles from the collection at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum accompanied by texts including descriptions of the objects and their owners. Tsuchida's cool, neutral images don't attempt to create a sense of drama but present these objects as naturally as possible. The space and calm that he manages to create with these photographs, and the texts which humanise these objects by linking them to their (mostly young) owners, allow these images to sink deeply into your mind.

Miyako Ishiuchi, Hiroshima

Recently Miyako Ishiuchi undertook a similar project, photographing 66 articles of clothing and personal items belonging to people who were killed on the morning of 6 August 1945. These photographs were published last year in the book Hiroshima (Tokyo: Shuei-sha, 2008). Describing the experience of photographing these items, Ishiuchi says "I found myself overwhelmed by the bright colors and textures of these high-quality clothes. Countless threads of time drift in the light, intersect and create fountains of memory." She was born after the war (1947) and it is interesting—and reassuring—to see that the events of August 1945 continue to resonate so powerfully over 60 years later.

Japan: A Self-Portrait opening in Tokyo

© Kikuji Kawada I have been a bit quiet over the past few days as I have been busy working on two exhibition projects. Last week I went to Sweden to meet with a museum who will be holding the exhibition, Tokyo Stories, which I curated last year and was shown during Paris Photo 2008 at Artcurial. The details still need to be confirmed, but I'll be posting on this again soon I'm sure.

The exhibition that has been keeping me really busy these past few weeks (going on years) is Japan: A Self-Portrait, based on my first major project in the field of Japanese photography, the book published by Flammarion in 2004. The exhibition brings together work by the leading photographers of the postwar years, a time of radical and disruptive change for Japan and to my mind one of the richest photographic periods in the country's history. The photographers included in the show are: Ken Domon, Hiroshi Hamaya, Tadahiko Hayashi, Eikoh Hosoe, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Kikuji Kawada, Ihee Kimura, Shigeichi Nagano, Ikko Narahara, Takeyoshi Tanuma and Shomei Tomatsu. You can find out more on the show on the Studio Equis website or on the excellent Tokyo Art Beat. The exhibition opens at the Setagaya Art Museum from 2 May to 21 June and will then travel to other venues in Japan. I hope that some of you will get a chance to see it.

Update: I just did an interview with the blog on Japanese photography, Japan Exposures.