Without Captions, Are Photos Meaningless?

The wonderful documentary filmmaker Errol Morris [pictured] posted a thought-provoking piece on the New York Times Web site that poses the question: “Would it be possible to look at a photograph shorn of all its context, caption-less, unconnected to current thought and ideas?”

His answer:

It would be like stumbling on a collection of photographs in a curiosity shop — pictures of people and places that we do not recognize and know nothing about. I might imagine things about the people and places in the photographs but know nothing about them. Nothing…

The idea that photographs hand us an objective piece of reality, that they by themselves provide us with the truth, is an idea that has been with us since the beginnings of photography. But photographs are neither true nor false in and of themselves. They are only true or false with respect to statements that we make about them or the questions that we might ask of them.

The photograph doesn’t give me answers. A lot of additional investigation could provide those answers, but who has time for that?…

Now, of course, there are photos that are designed to be more or less self-explanatory — commercial stock photography, for example. The value of the stock photograph is that I, the marketer, can take the image and supply my own context. A man with trumpet is a man with trumpet — nothing more, nothing less.

In fact, if a person who viewed the photo knew too much about its origins — who the model was, where it was taken, etc. — it would undermine the meaning with which I wanted to imbue it. That’s why, to promote an upcoming jazz festival featuring local musicians, I might use this image but would never use this one.

Fine art photography can also lose some of its value — its mystery, its ability to be open to interpretation — with too much context. As Jack Crager of American Photo writes in discussing Morris’ piece:

In the newspaper world, accuracy and clarity were the watchwords. But in the art world, titles often add quizzical mystery to a photograph’s meaning (like some of Bob Dylan’s song titles used to do, a la “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”); often the most “artful” name is that who-cares, photo-says-all honorific: “Untitled.”

But when it comes to photojournalism and photography related to current events, it is as Morris says it is. Indeed, with Photoshop and other tools that photographers use to alter images today, sometimes a caption alone doesn’t provide enough of an explanation.

As Crager writes:

Our advice to contributors is to offer as much info as possible — the absolute best is detailed metadata in a Photoshop file, complete with camera and exposure information so we can tag that to the picture for those who care.

But often the devil is in the details. What matters is what’s presented to the viewer — or not. Remember the furor over Time magazine’s cover showing O.J. Simpson in 1994 — soon after the double-murder story broke — with an “illustration” picture by Matt Mahurin that was intentionally darkened? Later Mahurin — a talented and accomplished illustrator — spoke with me about that cover and defended the work, saying it was a “commentary” on the race issue that imbued the Simpson trial from day one. (A case could be made that this cover helped spark a backlash against the prejudging the suspect that, subsequently, resulted in O.J. walking free today.) Trouble was, Time didn’t label the picture as “commentary” or point out that it was altered, until well after controversy erupted. So…was that picture a lie?

Some would say that the alteration of O.J.’s mug was no different than the regular retouching that enhances celebrity-photo covers each month — except that it made his skin “darker” as opposed to “smoother.” I would say that with photographs, and with text, while beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, truth is in the hands of the creators.

[tags]photography, captions, Errol Morris[/tags]

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