This is a story in three pictures.
Our guest tutor wasn’t interested in captions but I am. In fact, words and pictures are exactly why I want to get into documentary photography work. Anyway, he gave very clear and useful technical advice, but I think I never want to be the kind of photographer he seems to suppose as the obvious and normative model. I do need to improve my compositional skills so I fully appreciate his advice, but I think it is a bit narrow-minded to say that captions are irrelevant. I’ll explain why:
In my mind, the picture is like a chord being struck. The text is another chord struck at the same time. They can be composed to blend together, support each other or strike out against each other. I’m really excited by the potential here – two parts can mean a lot more than their respective territories or tones. Picture by picture, text by text, something quite complex and melodic can be created. Also, importantly, this process recognises the textual nature of the picture and the pictoral nature of text, and plays with it, saying more with it than if we are to assume a picture is a flat truth or straightforward mark of an event (an ‘index’ if you’re a Barthes fan).
By the ‘textual nature of pictures’ I mean the power a single photo or a group of photos has to tell a many-layered story. In this way, for me, photos beg us to add words, whether we do it in a simple or complicated way, we want to say something, put them with some words. That is not to say the photo is weak as a sign, which seems to be often the assumed implication of such a comment. It is to say, the photo is strong and complex and engaging and that this excites our linguistic capacity. Maybe this will help to show what I mean about the textual nature of pictures: In Andy Grundberg’s introduction to his collection, Crisis of the Real, he writes this of Evans’ American Photographs and Robert Frank’s The Americans
“The experience Evan’s opus describes is one in which imagery plays a role which can only be displayed as political. The America of American Photographs is governed by the dominion of signs. […] Frank used automobile and the road as metonymic metaphors of the American cultural condition, which he envisioned every bit as pessimistically as postmodernists do today. While not quite as obsessive about commonplace or popular-culture images as Evans, he did conceive of imagery as a text – as a sign system capable of signification.” (Grundberg, Crisis of the Real, 1999, p.16)
In short, Evans’ and Frank’s work constitute persuasive texts that tell a story. They are not just pieces of stuff from the real (straightforward) world, they are told symbols and reported conversations of a potently visual world. Indeed, I would argue that they utilise a quality that runs through the world we live in, and is not uniquely imposed by or invented within the bounds of the photograph – that the world is a constructed story of speaking images and texts; a big telltale landscape. This is a massive area that I do not want to go into too much right now. But I want to say, although it may take an academic, theoretical language to explain it in conscious terms, the world as ‘telltale’ is in fact something everybody works with and responds to everyday, unconsciously and consciously. I mean, why paint your finger nails? Why put a certain postcard on your notice board? Why does you table have a square top and four legs? It’s because of a chain of symbolic decisions and intended meanings, passed on from one person to another, that reveal whose voice is loudest and who gets to shout for the longest – i.e. which cultural and social groups get to dominate the story-telling process which figures out the world.
Yes, it’s Derrida stuff. But anyway, what I’m saying is, let’s not use photography like a blunt instrument when it can be so much more exciting and communicative, when it has a chance to be a medium which reflects upon and even interferes with the very construction of our social existence. Basically, make sure that when you join the conversation you know what noises are coming out of your mouth.
So, here are the same three photos, which on a basic narrative visual level tell the viewer about some rowers practising on the river. I’ve put different captions with each set to see what happens to the meaning. In the first case, these captions come from the Oxford University Rowing Association’s Coxing Handbook and give instructions for a rowing practice outing. In the second case, I’ve applied subjective and more ambivalent captions to see what feelings I could stir up between the image and the caption. I’d like to know what people think of these – does it feel as if the photo is overburdened by the subjective captions? Do the words from the handbook leave the photo a bit blankfaced and dull? (Click on the photos to see the captions well.)
In my mind, in the case of the handbook captioned images, the words turn the photographs into a kind of artefact or object – something you could almost put in a manual or a museum, except the feeling is a bit off – the photographs aren’t quite technical or illustrative enough, and I think this could be an interesting generated feeling.
In the case of the more subjective captions I hope it could be seen that the words are telling more than is available in the image and that the captions have an anonymous, personal voice that is a bit like somebody whispering into your ear. This could potentially colour the image, make it seem a little more melancholy etc. It is more self-consciously about the ambiguous meanings that can be generated in the space between symbols, like the sometimes potent silence in the air when a conversation ends but the two speakers remain.
The guest tutor kept insisting that the photo must illustrate the situation. Which is obviously a totally reasonable instruction for the working photojournalist, the stock photographer or the manual compiler, and I in no way dismiss it as an important part of all imagery – it must tell something. However, I object to the idea that the photo(s) must always tell everything clearly – indeed, I just don’t think they can tell everything clearly. And I think they are a whole lot more interesting when they stop trying to act as some kind of straightforward representation of the ‘reality’ and start interacting with it, reflecting upon it, playing around with it. It’s not that I think the clear representational mode and belief that this is possible does not serve an important purpose, it’s just that personally, I have no desire to serve this purpose myself. I want to get technically and compositionally good so that I don’t miss my shot or fail to communicate in visual terms, but that’s really only the beginning of telling the story – it’s like learning to spell and use grammar. Mostly anyone can get a grip on that stuff with some study. Why leave it there? I want to get the point where I can also write a persuasive and involving story. I am by no means done with my study of the ‘spelling’ and ‘grammar’, but I do feel that these technical skills should be developed in parallel to the reflective and persuasive storytelling capability, and not one after the other, or else we risk obscuring the latter skill altogether and the old charge ‘but anyone can take a photograph’ becomes a fair comment.
p.s. I do not want to veer off into the argument as to how text is pictoral right now, but it is somewhat missing from my discussion. It’s a big area and I don’t want to confuse my emphasis upon the picture being textual. For now can we agree that words at least generate pictures within our minds and help us to visualise things which are not in front of us at that moment? That would be nice, thanks.