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Roger Hicks -- Author of The Rangefinder Book

Roger Hicks is a well known photographic writer, author of The Rangefinder Book, over three dozen other photographic books, and a frequent contributor to Shutterbug and Amateur Photographer. Unusually in today's photographic world, most of his camera reviews are film cameras, especially rangefinders. See www.rogerandfrances.com for further background (Frances is his wife Frances Schultz, acknowledged darkroom addict and fellow Shutterbug contributor) .


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Can a photograph speak for itself?
Old 09-04-2017   #1
Roger Hicks
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Can a photograph speak for itself?

The latest piece on my .eu site was prompted by a common reaction to my previous piece about titles. Many people believe that a photograph should "speak for itself". But what (if anything) does this mean?

Cheers,

R.
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Old 09-04-2017   #2
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Would it be more accurate to say that we speak to the picture? Our reaction is based on our life experiences, how can we know what the photographer's experiences were? Me, I just take pictures of things that catch my eye. I've never been good with hidden meanings or messages.
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Old 09-04-2017   #3
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'In other words, a picture does not (and cannot) "speak for itself" in any universal manner.'

Very true, I don't know where I stand on titles, but some information is good or helpful. Some times it is in the image itself: sunset with the Eiffel tower tells you a lot. Other times the location and year steer you in the right direction. And finally sometimes a title is needed.

I like to know what camera, film, and sometimes f stop. I know that is childish and/or egocentric being a photographer that obsesses on process.

Again, thanks for the provocation, I like it: anything to get me thinking.
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Old 09-04-2017   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roger Hicks View Post
Many people believe that a photograph should "speak for itself". But what (if anything) does this mean?
It simply means that an image itself elicits a response from the viewer. That response may or may not be the same for each viewer. If you title an image, the title may either constrain or enhance the range of responses. If you elect to title your images, choose your titles carefully.
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Old 09-04-2017   #5
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no, that's a positivist idea that went down in flames a long time ago.
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Old 09-04-2017   #6
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no, that's a positivist idea that went down in flames a long time ago.
Are you suggesting humans do not respond to visual stimuli?
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Old 09-04-2017   #7
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A photograph can't speak for itself anymore than a table can. Context is vitally important; one of the reasons why internet memes are so annoying and funny. If a photo speaks to you, then you are actually speaking for it.
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Old 09-04-2017   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by benlees View Post
A photograph can't speak for itself anymore than a table can. Context is vitally important;
Yes, context in general, but not a title per se. Normally, the context is something we already know...
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Old 09-04-2017   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roger Hicks View Post
The latest piece on my .eu site was prompted by a common reaction to my previous piece about titles. Many people believe that a photograph should "speak for itself". But what (if anything) does this mean?
Roger, read and loved them both for the "food for thought" content. Maybe a bit too philosophical for the many here but that's no problem for me.

While I tend to disagree with as much of what you say in these two pieces than I agree with, I really love you prompting me to think and consider your points.

FWIW, my thoughts of this have evolved over the years from meaningful caption phrases to sentences to explanatory paragraphs. Even to the point that the paragraphs need some bolding or underlining to provide a short identification of the specific photo.
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Old 09-04-2017   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by johnwolf View Post
Roger, just a personal observation, FWIW. I am interested in this topic but will not go to your site to read about it. I strongly feel that if you are going to introduce content, you should do so here on RRF and not repeatedly direct this audience away from RFF to your site. Personally, I feel it is a misuse of your mentor role and this community. Once in a while for something special is fine. We all do that. But for you it is now the norm. Sorry, but it seems inappropriate to me.

John
I, personally, don't see this as inappropriate in any way.


On to the subject at hand:

In my opinion, a well chosen title, the product of the same creative mind that produced the image, can add dimension, context, further insight into the photographer's thinking to the photo.

Roger's example of a photo of chairs with the title, "The Life of Chairs," illustrates this very effectively. I think this title adds dimension to the image.

I think the fewer "rules" we have governing creative processes, the better. This reminds me of statements like, "I never crop." I don't dodge and burn;" I don't do any post-processing;" etc. I have my own purist streak (more than a streak), but I don't expect others to adhere to my personal rules. I think this is an example of that.

- Murray
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Old 09-04-2017   #11
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I was translating to Russian one of the RFF members memoirs about studying photography as art with GW, recently. It was good reminder why none of GW photos needs title and why they talk to me.

I don't think it needs explanations. Very banal (most popular) photography yells its stories at you. GW didn't like it, but many of his photos yells at me. Even if it would be with title, I don't need it. I see it on the picture.

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Old 09-04-2017   #12
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One way of answering this is to ask why do we make black and white photos when a color photo suffices? Or why do we insist on buying expensive lenses that are not just sharp and accurate but have lovely bokeh or beautiful color rendition? The answer in both cases is that we do not want the photo to be literal and "speak for itself" but instead we very often want it to be interpretative.

In my view an artistic photo is often at its best when it is a little ambiguous. This is because it allows the viewer to interpret it within their own frame of reference and therefore "own it". Photos of this sort at least remind me somewhat of poetry - poetry can often be ambiguous in this way and speak not to itself but instead speak directly to the reader or listener's own psyche. Thus it might have a different meaning for everyone looking at it.

I suppose a highly literal photo can "speak for itself" but my view is that if it does, it may not end up saying very much. Having said that I have no objection per se to the photographer putting a title on a photos - it tells you what he thinks it represents. I frequently do this myself. But of course the viewer is always free to make his or her own interpretation of it.
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Old 09-04-2017   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ko.Fe. View Post
............ photography as art with GW, ....... none of GW photos needs title and why they talk to me...................
GW didn't like it, but ............
I give, who is "GW"?
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Old 09-04-2017   #14
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Quote:
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I give, who is "GW"?
Garry Winogrand ....
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Old 09-04-2017   #15
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Old 09-04-2017   #16
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I have many photos hanging around my house, mine and other photographers. While they all have titles of some sort, the title is not visible while they're hanging. Despite that, they still speak to me about what they are, what they represent etc. The ones of my family are obvious, but I have a Trent Parke print that I have no idea what it is called (I forgot long ago but I think it's purely descriptive). But that doesn't mean that the photo cannot speak for itself. It doesn't need context to be understood, any context would probably ruin my enjoyment.


Quote:
Originally Posted by benlees View Post
A photograph can't speak for itself anymore than a table can.
But a table can speak for itself. My table tells the stories of many meals, kids doing homework and art, and many other things that happen at a table. It's written in the texture, paint drops, pencil marks, dents, and so on.
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Old 09-04-2017   #17
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Roger,

I have to respectfully disagree with your statement:

Quote:
In other words, a picture does not (and cannot) "speak for itself" in any universal manner. It is always the intermediary in a transaction between the photographer and the person looking at the picture.
Once a picture and photographer are parted, it can do nothing but speak for itself. The creator is no longer there to act as an interpreter.

In many ways it is like an 18 year old leaving home and making their way in the world without their parents. They say many things, not always what their parents would like, and not always the same thing to all people, but none the less, they speak for themselves:

Quote:
To pretend that one's own response is the only possible or logical or legitimate reaction is feeble-minded in the extreme.
Agreed.
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Old 09-04-2017   #18
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For sure an interesting subject...
When I was a student, my (rude) teachers once told me something like this: from now on, don't bring us ever again any photograph with words, texts, explanations or titles: if the image doesn't say it without words, you've failed. You're just learning to express visually, so if you put words next to your photographs, you'll cheat yourself and feel it's your photograph that's talking. Besides, every word can just have one gift to a photograph: to give it limits. And that's bad. The joy of images is, precisely, to live away from words... Don't write!
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Old 09-04-2017   #19
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I'm not sure I entirely agree with either side of this discussion.

I would have been sorely tempted to title the pictured piece "Mind and body" which tips the assessment over to the bits of people and the bits of surrounds that are captured - as well as the whole elements like shoes.

And I don't know whether I should "see" something more deeply in Roger's "reflections" or have I already seen too much.

But this picture may particularly effectively illustrate the issue - because clearly the perspective of the photographer (Roger) is what makes this image anything. The oddity of the disconnection within the image, being preserved (permanently?) rather than resolving as you walk past.

To me the main purpose of giving a work a title is to give it that credit - to say it is worth titling, it is a work rather than simply an unvalued image.

And as such, the main issue with "Untitled" is not the lack of memorability as much as the subtle message that it isn't worth naming.
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Old 09-04-2017   #20
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For my work, photographs are made to tell a story. They can only say so much though. The photo needs a title and a short text about the subject. I find myself frustrated by most photos people post online because there is this silly idea so many have subscribed to that a 'good photo' stands on its own. A good photo makes me want to know more and they aren't telling me more.
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Old 09-05-2017   #21
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I've never been a fan of 'explaining' art. I studied visual communication (I know, I know...) and as the name suggests, it was very much geared toward how to convey a message without words.

As art in general goes, a title is useful and can benefit the art overall, but an explanation or written contextualisation is, for me, superfluous and I'll not bother to read it. I let the art speak for itself.

But with photography, I'd say the opposite. Titles for photos seem to be 99% contrived or cringe-worthy and they add nothing to the image. But a description and context do help with a photo because you often want to know more about where/how/when the photo was taken. And the story that goes with it brings you closer to the photo/photographer/subject.
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Old 09-05-2017   #22
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A photograph is a record of an event - just like a documentary film. But there's a huge difference: unlike the moving image in a film, time is frozen in a photograph, so we cannot watch the event unfurl; all we see is a single static moment.

A photograph by definition is thus an enigma; it is impossible to know what is happening in the depicted scene. We will never know what led up to what we see, or what occurred afterwards. Nor, of course, can we see what is outside the frame. Add to all this the intent of the photographer - which may simply be to record the event as truthfully as possible or to subvert the scene to convey their own message (consciously or not).

Finally, the unique interpretation of each viewer is overlaid over everything.

Roger asks if a photograph can "speak for itself". Yes, most definitely. But through a glass darkly - which is also Roger's answer to his question.

Turning now to titles, we humans catalogue every object we interact with. It is as needful and natural as breathing, and as impossible not to. Labelling can be deliberate, but often it's merely an abstract mishmash of thought and pattern used to tag an item to identify it. It's more pertinent to ask who should do the titling, how and why.

From Through the Looking Glass ... almost:
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory'," Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't - till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.

"When I take a photo," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make photographs mean so many different things."
In their entrenched positions, they are both wrong of course.
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Old 09-05-2017   #23
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The best photographs are silent. They don't speak, they stimulate thought or emotion. Or both.
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Old 09-05-2017   #24
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A title is appropriate for a photograph -- sometimes.
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Old 09-05-2017   #25
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Lots of great responses: thanks everyone.

One of the most important points is that there is rarely if ever a "one size fits all" to any question. And, of course, it is impossible to address all the variations and special circumstances. All anyone can do is THINK about why they do things. Sometimes there's no need: I don't think very hard when I'm using a keyboard (unless it's AZERTY instead of QWERTY). But most of the time, it's worth questioning what you do, and why, at least from time to time.

It's also worth thinking about why other people do things. Sometimes it looks suspiciously like habit or even plain stupidity. At other times it merely demonstrates that there are different ways of thinking: that something which seems entirely logical and natural to me may seem eccentric or even perverse to you, and vice versa. At best, we may find ourselves on the same wavelength, and someone else's ideas or suggestions may throw light upon our own thoughts.

The last is why I write a lot of this stuff. If you fundamentally disagree or just don't like it, that's fine: just ignore it. If you think, "Yes, but..." or "Had you considered...", that's great -- though it's more agreeable if you're polite when you make your suggestions. "You're wrong because..." is unlikely to help anyone.

So, please forgive me as I answer a lot of others' posts individually: I just find it quicker and easier than trying to respond to multiple posts from others in a single post of my own.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 09-05-2017   #26
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Darthfeeble View Post
Would it be more accurate to say that we speak to the picture? Our reaction is based on our life experiences, how can we know what the photographer's experiences were? Me, I just take pictures of things that catch my eye. I've never been good with hidden meanings or messages.
First (and second) sentences: YES!

Last sentence: But they may still be there anyway. That's the Evil Genius of semiotics. This is especially true when it comes to clichés: doors, lone trees, swans-and-sunsets...

Cheers,

R.
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Old 09-05-2017   #27
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Why does one post photos? Why have a blog? Why does anyone do it? Because we humans have a need to communicate.

Photography inherently is an act of communication. And I'm sure that's what folks mean when they say that a photo 'speaks' to them.

Captioning is a title or explanation - a way to impart your information. Another form of communication.

In some cases captions are a personal choice. There may be none, or succinct or wordy and technical. Submit a photo to a news outlet or magazine - there are style rules about captioning. 'Artists' can ignore those rules.

Personally I don't care - caption or not. I accept the creator's choice and go from there.
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Old 09-05-2017   #28
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Quote:
Originally Posted by johnwolf View Post
Roger, just a personal observation, FWIW. I am interested in this topic but will not go to your site to read about it. I strongly feel that if you are going to introduce content, you should do so here on RFF and not repeatedly direct this audience away from RFF to your site. Personally, I feel it is a misuse of your mentor role and this community. Once in a while for something special is fine. We all do that. But for you it is now the norm. Sorry, but it seems inappropriate to me.

John
Dear John,

When I first read your post, I could (sort of) see why you wrote it. But the more I thought about it, the less sense it made.

These are not throwaway ideas. They are quite carefully thought out; written at some length; and often illustrated. Here on RFF they would soon disappear in the enormous swamp of past posts. On my own site they can be preserved and re-examined: you are not looking at an archive of often random and trivial thoughts, outdated questions and threads about pictures taken with a particular lens.

Nor is RFF the only forum I frequent. It makes more sense to direct people to my own site than to point them to an evanescent thread on RFF.

I have absolutely no difficulty with the approach I have adopted, the more so as it drives traffic to RFF (and wherever else I link the articles). If you don't like it, that's your privilege, but it seems somewhat perverse to ignore something deliberately, even though you admit that it interests you. I don't make any money out of either this site or my own sites, and I'm doing things as best I can. What, exactly, is your objection?

Cheers,

R.
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Old 09-05-2017   #29
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bob Michaels View Post
. .. While I tend to disagree with as much of what you say in these two pieces than I agree with, I really love you prompting me to think and consider your points.

FWIW, my thoughts of this have evolved over the years from meaningful caption phrases to sentences to explanatory paragraphs. Even to the point that the paragraphs need some bolding or underlining to provide a short identification of the specific photo.
Dear Bob,

Para 1: That's what it's about, cf. post 26.

Para : Yes, I agree. Some pics benefit from captions. Some don't. Trying to make either observation into a general rule does not strike me as a very good idea.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 09-05-2017   #30
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CMur12 View Post
. . . I think the fewer "rules" we have governing creative processes, the better. This reminds me of statements like, "I never crop." I don't dodge and burn;" I don't do any post-processing;" etc. I have my own purist streak (more than a streak), but I don't expect others to adhere to my personal rules. I think this is an example of that. . . . Murray
Dear Murray,

We are of one mind on this.

And thanks for the rest of the post too.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 09-05-2017   #31
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Quote:
Originally Posted by peterm1 View Post
. . . of course the viewer is always free to make his or her own interpretation of it.
Dear Peter,

Indeed. I am much puzzled by those who seem to believe that a caption somehow forces them to see a picture a particular way. It can be an aide-memoire for remembering the picture; a convenient shorthand for referring to it (Rhein II again); or an integral part of what one might slightly pretentiously call a "communication package".

Cheers,

R.
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Old 09-05-2017   #32
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Quote:
Originally Posted by michaelwj View Post
I have many photos hanging around my house, mine and other photographers. While they all have titles of some sort, the title is not visible while they're hanging. . . .


But a table can speak for itself. My table tells the stories of many meals, kids doing homework and art, and many other things that happen at a table. It's written in the texture, paint drops, pencil marks, dents, and so on.
Dear Michael,

First para: Same here.

Second para: Not really. It stimulates your personal memory of that specific table. This is not the same as telling a story. I'll give you a specific example. Frances wears my mother's engagement ring (my mother died long before Frances and I met). My father sold his Rudge 650 motorcycle to buy that ring. But if you saw that ring in the window of a shop, it would not tell you any of that story.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 09-05-2017   #33
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Quote:
Originally Posted by michaelwj View Post
.. . Once a picture and photographer are parted, it can do nothing but speak for itself. The creator is no longer there to act as an interpreter. . . .
Dear Michael,

Hmmmm... Sort of. But you would presumably not argue that a love letter cannot speak for the person who wrote it? Or even a poem, addressed to the world at large?

I do not dispute for a moment that the photographer has little or no further control over a photograph once it has left his/her possession.But I would argue very strongly that (as I said earlier) a photograph is normally an intermediary between the photographer and the viewer.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 09-05-2017   #34
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Chriscrawfordphoto View Post
For my work, photographs are made to tell a story. They can only say so much though. The photo needs a title and a short text about the subject. I find myself frustrated by most photos people post online because there is this silly idea so many have subscribed to that a 'good photo' stands on its own. A good photo makes me want to know more and they aren't telling me more.
Dear Christopher,

Which is also why I like to see more of a photographer's work than a single picture. Like you, I want more than a single picture can normally give; or, I just want to see more of their work. Even Cartier-Bresson's rue Mouffetard (the small boy carrying the bottles of wine) is enhanced by seeing more of his work.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 09-05-2017   #35
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RichC View Post
A photograph is a record of an event - just like a documentary film. But there's a huge difference: unlike the moving image in a film, time is frozen in a photograph, so we cannot watch the event unfurl; all we see is a single static moment.

A photograph by definition is thus an enigma; it is impossible to know what is happening in the depicted scene. We will never know what led up to what we see, or what occurred afterwards. Nor, of course, can we see what is outside the frame. Add to all this the intent of the photographer - which may simply be to record the event as truthfully as possible or to subvert the scene to convey their own message (consciously or not).

Finally, the unique interpretation of each viewer is overlaid over everything.

Roger asks if a photograph can "speak for itself". Yes, most definitely. But through a glass darkly - which is also Roger's answer to his question.

Turning now to titles, we humans catalogue every object we interact with. It is as needful and natural as breathing, and as impossible not to. Labelling can be deliberate, but often it's merely an abstract mishmash of thought and pattern used to tag an item to identify it. It's more pertinent to ask who should do the titling, how and why.

From Through the Looking Glass ... almost:
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory'," Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't - till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.

"When I take a photo," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make photographs mean so many different things."
In their entrenched positions, they are both wrong of course.
Dear Rich,

Sums it up pretty well.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 09-05-2017   #36
Roger Hicks
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Originally Posted by Juan Valdenebro View Post
For sure an interesting subject...
When I was a student, my (rude) teachers once told me something like this: from now on, don't bring us ever again any photograph with words, texts, explanations or titles: if the image doesn't say it without words, you've failed. You're just learning to express visually, so if you put words next to your photographs, you'll cheat yourself and feel it's your photograph that's talking. Besides, every word can just have one gift to a photograph: to give it limits. And that's bad. The joy of images is, precisely, to live away from words... Don't write!
J.
Dear Juan,

And they were flat wrong, as most people are who try to pass off their personal prejudices as universal rules. What do you think they'd have made of The Secret Life of Chairs? Is it in some strange way "not photography"? Or is it just not the sort of photography they liked, in their general attitude of being more royalist than the king?

Cheers,

R.
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Old 09-05-2017   #37
Roger Hicks
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Originally Posted by intheviewfinder View Post
Why does one post photos? Why have a blog? Why does anyone do it? Because we humans have a need to communicate.

Photography inherently is an act of communication. And I'm sure that's what folks mean when they say that a photo 'speaks' to them.

Captioning is a title or explanation - a way to impart your information. Another form of communication.

In some cases captions are a personal choice. There may be none, or succinct or wordy and technical. Submit a photo to a news outlet or magazine - there are style rules about captioning. 'Artists' can ignore those rules.

Personally I don't care - caption or not. I accept the creator's choice and go from there.
Seconded, in full.

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R.
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Old 09-05-2017   #38
Mute-on
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Some photos merit a long look, and maybe elicit a smile or an uplifting thought, even a depressing thought. Some photos barely merit more than a glance. Sometimes words change these responses to enhance the effect, and sometimes to diminish or reverse it.

And then, each person will respond differently depending on their own experiences and sensibilities.

What a wonderful world of possibilities captured in an image, with or without the company of words ...

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Old 09-05-2017   #39
Bob Michaels
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Originally Posted by Chriscrawfordphoto View Post
For my work, photographs are made to tell a story. They can only say so much though. The photo needs a title and a short text about the subject. I find myself frustrated by most photos people post online because there is this silly idea so many have subscribed to that a 'good photo' stands on its own. A good photo makes me want to know more and they aren't telling me more.
Exactly what I wish I would have said.

At lease here on RFF we have the ability to include text with the photo as a means of additional info. Chris' photos here are a clear cut example. Imagine looking at photos from his series on Ft. Wayne without the included words.

Additionally, think about any of one of Chris's photos standing alone without the support of the rest of the series. They are clearly a case of the total body of work being much more than the sum of the individual photos.
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Old 09-05-2017   #40
Out to Lunch
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Dear Roger, Your knack for self-promotion is admirable. Plein de bisous, Peter
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