The initial responses to this innocent enough question posed by Doug Chinnery in preparation for his next print exhibition showed that there is more of a divide on this subject than I anticipated. Let me come out and say from the outset that adding a title to a photograph is something I’m strongly in favour of, though I fully appreciate that there will be a broad church of thought as to whether a couple of words leads, detracts, is a bit pretentious or completes an image…
Indeed, I am about to contradict that first instinct too, but I think it can depend on whether you are presenting a cohesive series of photographs or set of single images. For example, my Lunch Club series is a case in point; if being presented as a series on my website I haven’t even numbered them, but when printed individually I’ve titled them so that they convey the emotion I saw or felt at the time.
My Backwater series is all numbered because I felt they were too abstract for titles and no words were necessary, nonetheless I thought a series number was still necessary to give them a minimum identity to tie them together. Above all I wanted the viewer to make their own mind up as to what they could see or feel and any guidance or reinforcement of the image was unnecessary. I love the ethereal quality of some of the scenes in the series and sometimes if you suggest or lead with a title the viewer might start to look for the visual cue they can identify with instead of seeing a photograph for what it means to them that they can connect with. I do worry though that merely numbering your art makes it feel somewhat robotic, certainly anonymous and even a little production line and I’m not sure I like the idea of that very much.
However for anything that doesn’t directly sit in a series I like to add some reinforcement of my artistic intent. I have a particular example of this in mind here and it’s my photograph that I titled Earth’s Lament:
When I created this photograph I had a very specific intent that to the casual eye I didn’t feel would be translated without a tiny bit of extra help in the title. The back story to this image is that I found this nest while I was cutting back a large hedge. The nest had long been abandoned by some blackbirds but at the centre as you can see was a single egg. Just one. Cold, lost and abandoned, an unfulfilled promise or potential.
This makes me somewhat sad when nature stares back like this and I put the nest down on my clover covered lawn not really thinking too much about it. When I finished the job I went to pick it up again and this time saw my image; I saw a planet which could represent earth (the nest), I saw stars (the clover), and I saw the egg. The egg is a symbol of new life but in this case represented death, it was never going become a fulfilled life. I reflected on our destruction of earth and nature, hence the title Earth’s Lament. I specifically used my Tilt Shift lens to add some creative blur to draw the eye into the centre and the vision was complete. When I showed the photograph to my wife she loved it and asked for it to go onto the wall. When I told her the title of the image and what it represented she hated the photograph. This was a surprising but should not have been an altogether unexpected outcome I suppose but to me it demonstrated how two words could entirely change the perception of a photograph, planting the idea of the vision with a title (no matter how short) could indeed be very powerful.
A title definitely helps me to really focus on what I want to say with a photograph and I often have something in my head very quickly when I have an image in the viewfinder that enables me to draw out of the scene what I want to do with it. A title might only be reinforcing words but it ensures I get the right message and detail across, even if it is blindingly obvious. I also think it helps with building a creative vision for the viewer, especially if your image is somewhat subtle or relies on smaller details. Denying your image a title definitely leaves a lot to chance. It’s not necessarily a bad thing of course (there can be no right or wrong here) but if you’re an artist with a subtle vision then helping people to see what you want without standing over their shoulder pointing out the merits of your landscape might be the difference between indifference or real affection for what you do. Some more examples below – when you look at them consider if the title is necessary, unnecessary, shaped your view of the image or made no difference whatsoever…