Repost: Titling and Storytelling

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I’ve always believed a strong image should be able to stand on its own without a title – after all, sometimes images and titles get separated (quite often, actually) – and if it isn’t self-explanatory to some degree without it, then the image itself isn’t clear. However, a good title certainly enhances impact of an image; it can explain, direct, add another layer of meaning, put into context, force the thoughts of the audience in a certain direction, create contrast or tension between perceptual reality and actual reality (visual content vs asserted content or vice versa) or merely serve as an easy method of reference to an image. I’ve frequently been asked how I pick a title for my images; today’s essay explores that in a bit more detail. There really isn’t a lot of science in it, though a large vocabulary probably helps, as does a ready store of cultural references. Firstly, I don’t think choosing – or perhaps more appropriately, creating a title can be entirely spontaneous and retrospective. In fact, it really all boils down to the fourth important thing.


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Do you think this image works better with or without a title?

Titling is really an exercise in distilling the visual overload of an image down to a punchy epithet – condensing the thousand words a picture is said to contain down to just a small handful. This of course means that without clarity in the mind of the creator around precisely what the image is about, there can be absolutely no way to distill it down to one essential sentence; and if the creator cannot do it, how on earth can they expect the audience to manage?

All good images must start with an idea: whether that idea is preconceived and the image constructed around it, or created in the instant in which the photographer happens to see all of the necessary elements in a scene come together is irrelevant; the idea remains the core to which every other aspect of the image (subjects, composition, output medium, title etc.) must aim to support and remain faithful to.

It’s actually fairly easy to create a strong title if the idea is clear. Beyond the obvious purpose of serving to enhance the overall impact of the image, the title itself can serve any one (or more) of several functions:

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Relative value

To state the obvious
This is probably the weakest kind of title because it adds nothing much other than a way of easily referring to an image, or confirming something the audience might have suspected on their own. That said, you still have to get a bit creative in order not to have duplicates if you’ve got a lot of images to title. I don’t think there’s much point in a title like this unless the ‘label objective’ is important, or the image is likely to be seen by a wide audience – some of whom might lack the specific knowledge or context to identify the subjects or what is going on in the frame. I think there are only two exceptions to this rule – landscapes, which are generally very difficult subjects to turn into metaphors; and images whose content is so simple and minimalist that anything more in the title would simply seem pretentious.

To provide context outside what is visible
Sometimes context in word-form is necessary because it’s physically impossible to include all of the necessary elements due to temporal or space constraints, or because we want to focus our audience’s attention on a detail, then get them to appreciate its place in a much greater whole. It’s also possible to extend this into a caption – the kind of thing that’s seen accompanying news or documentary images to give some explanation of why the specific moment captured is an important one, and in what grand scheme of things exactly. I don’t think it really works other than in a documentary application for the simple reason that if that much additional explanation is required, then we’re probably looking at the image as support for a greater presentation of information rather than being a standalone piece.

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Sliced thin

To highlight a less obvious aspect of the image
There are situations in which an idea requires the subject to be less visually prominent than would be ideal to make it stand out on its own (i.e. if the focus of the image was just the subject irrelevant of the context) – in this case, the title can help to direct the attention of the audience back to the subject – and in turn, the contrast between subject and its environment. Beyond this, there’s also the metaphorical or conceptual element of an idea – this isn’t always something that can be carried purely on visuals alone, for reasons of physical impossibility or cultural context; it’s not the same as providing context – e.g. “Emperor Mobutu’s heavily armed delegation meets union delegation to discuss worker benefits amid countrywide rioting against the the current regime” vs. “Only the clouds are truly free” – both allude to events outside the frame, but the latter has a conceptual rather than physical basis.

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To provide contrast
Perhaps this should be stated a little differently: an alternative way of reading the image. It contrasts with the obvious visual content, but perhaps not necessarily the full range of plausible interpretations; anthropomorphization is perhaps the best example of this, and I find these types of titles are best applied to more abstract images: either because the real, physical object isn’t obvious, or because we’re seeing something that really looks like something else (but isn’t).

To set the mood of the image
I think this is fairly self-explanatory. Remember, photography is as much applied human psychology as it is technical skill – both for the photographer and the audience. The use of certain words can trigger specific subconscious expectations by association; e.g. ‘morning’, or ‘dark’ can bias the audience’s perception in a certain direction that might help to tip the overall feel imparted by an image in a particular direction, especially if the image itself is lacking in those visual cues (or those cues are very difficult to provide, e.g. smell, temperature, sound).

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Big shoes ot fill

To enhance remembrance, raise a question and provoke thought
The overarching purpose of a title still remains to provide additional information: whether that information is simply to inform, to arouse curiosity, or to confirm what the audience’s eyes are telling them, if the title does not do this, it fails. But in doing so, there’s absolutely no reason why the title cannot also serve to enhance the long term impact and retention of an image in the mind of the audience long after the image is not present; either by the completeness of the image-title pair, or because something there requires additional cogitation to understand fully: in essence, a philosophical morsel offered in joint visual and literary form.

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City in a box

There are actually times when a title might not be appropriate; this isn’t quite the same as the use of ‘Untitled’. In a series – e.g. the Verticality project – I may not use a specific title for each image as I want to project an impression of consistency throughout; they make do with just a number. I don’t want to give any one image dominance over another by singling it out and giving it a name – especially when the others may not necessarily have obvious names. I’m also avoiding names because I think the subject matter is cold, hard, to some extent inhuman, and therefore not deserving of any sort of anthropomorphization.

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Untitled

The use of ‘untitled’ can be laziness on the photographer’s part, but often I often used it instead when I deliberately do not want to color the impressions of the audience with my own interpretation of the scene; it’s a sort of cue that I want to present the image and let you form your own conclusions. The only impression I want to give is one of a wide range of possibilities. It too is not quite the same as simply leaving out the title entirely – in which case the images are perhaps commoditized somewhat, and not as individually celebrated as if they were isolated. Note that not all images can be titled – some are simply lacking in coherency of idea.

The example articles in this images have been chosen specifically because they were composed with the intention of being multilayered and also because I believe they need a title for maximum impact; now that you’ve read the logic behind how I title, it might be worthwhile to go back through the images and titles again – or view them without titles. It’s also important to note that for maximum impact and coherence, the literary feel of the title should suit the visual feel of the image – e.g. minimalist, technical, surreal etc. Remember that the image should always be capable of standing on its own without its title – perhaps not as strongly, but titles and images often get separated (or the photographer simply forgets after a period of time). To close off, here are two little exercises to try next time you’re shooting and curating: firstly, try fitting a title to your image as soon as you’ve shot it, or only keep/process images that you can easily title; then look at the resulting set overall and see if the impact has increased. Secondly, give a title immediately after shooting, then give another title after processing – and compare the two. If the first title stuck after a period of time – I call it the ‘objectivity waiting period’ – then you’ve probably got a winner. MT

Now over to you: a) shoot and title based on an idea, b) respond, and title afterwards, or c) no title? Discuss in the comments 🙂

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Comments

  1. R. Engebo says:

    A truly interesting article on an issue I never manage to agree on with myself.
    Another topic I wish you could make an article on is the use of borders around images. Why you choose to use borders, why yours are always black (most I see elsewhere are white) etc? Would be much appreciated?

    • Simple, answered frequently in the comments because it’s not really worth an article. It’s more to do with intellectual property than anything else – watermarking on the image itself spoils the competition, but not watermarking is asking for it. The only solution is a black or white border; for electronic display most pages are white, meaning white borders become invisible. Colours are distracting so black is the only solution (and somewhat more acceptable since we frequently see this with older images both in print and physically because of frames, anyway).

      • Rune Engebo says:

        Thank you Ming Thein for taking your time to reply. I agree, a full article on the subject would probably be overkill.
        Best regards Rune

  2. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Talking about interpreting the photos, have you thought of PS-ing top part of the path with a man on it in the first photo, into a question mark??????

  3. Michiel953 says:

    No surprises here. I prefer the un- or sparsely titled image. Place, time, maybe a name, that’s all. Let the viewer attach meaning, if any; I will not do that. And yes, I’m very strict in that.

    • But surely you must attach some meaning of your own to it – otherwise, why shoot? I suppose then it becomes your duty to ensure the intended and derived meetings are not the same…

  4. To compare with classical Music;In the case of Vivaldi he has more than 300 concertos I think, The 4 Seasons are the most played classical pieces in the world, the other concertos are hardly played(except a few used for teaching), most of which concertos without titles. Would The Planets by Holst have been played much without their titles,if it was called Symphonic Poems.
    If the piece is striking enough and you think long term,(what will be remembered in 100 years) I would stress that the “easy-to-remember” and obvious and the ones there is a demand for is probably the best. But title for the long term even trumps the actually work sometimes.
    Is Beethovens 4th symphony much less played than the 3rd(Eroica) just because it doesnt have a strong title connected to it?
    When Pendercki changed his “8,37”(8.26 sometimesand composed in 1960)to the title to “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” the piece and he became world famous.
    In Paintings maybe the same? though this is not my field. “The Scream” by Munch has an obvious and good title. A more subtle title or one more clever might have subtracted from the value maybe? “Vampire” the title tells additional maybe and helps?
    Just a side thought.
    Great Pictures.
    Do you make ultraprint of the 2nd? How is the quality of the micro details with that in mind?
    All the best from Henning

    • Hmmm…it will be very difficult to say what, if any images will be remembered in the hypothetical 100 years – the whole problem of visual overload and too many images is a real one; exceptional images have layers, that often require contemplation and further digging to fully appreciate. That simply doesn’t happen if the rest of the world is also vying for attention…I’m of the opinion that they deserve as much help as they can get! 🙂

  5. Ming I have not been to your site for quite a while having recently returned, I must express my admiration for your refinement of composition, beautiful range of light in colour or black and white – especially black and white. Each image is a delight and rewards one the longer one gazes. I believe you have crossed over from a most competent technician to artist. What a treat! Thank you.

  6. I really like your photos Ming but to be honest I don’t like seeing titles on photos because it leads my mind towards something (which is fine if the photographer wants to make a point clear) but I’d like to think everyone has their own take on an image and if it’s strong enough (which yours are) then the message comes through but leaves some scope for the viewer to see other things. Seeing a title means that’s all I think about and I almost switch off rather than looking for other messages or my own meaning. I guess you could call it confirmation bias.

    It’s like eating food or drinking coffee and having a really vivid description of what the tasting notes are. Once you read it that’s what you look for “oh yeah I can taste that now you mention it”. If there’s no description you are forced to use your brain more. The more you practice the better your palate becomes and such with art/photos, the more you analyse on your own the more you’ll discover. I prefer to read a little story even if brief about what was happening in the scene or at the location rather than just a title but that’s just my 2 cents 🙂

    • Makes sense. I suppose even if confirmation bias doesn’t exist, there might be anti-confirmation bias at work encouraging you to actively challenge whether the ‘tasting notes’ are in fact true…

      Regardless: important to remember that the tasting notes are just that: one person’s subjective interpretation (though admittedly in the case of a photo title, the photographer usually had a bit more context beyond the boundaries of the frame that may even not be possible to depict visually (e.g. smell, temperature etc.)

    • Frank
      I think you raise an important point, however tasting notes probably relate closer to a critique or review than the title, caption or label.
      I would however agree that if titles are used they can be counter productive; as can tasting notes for a coffee or wine which can enhance an experience only if it actually corresponds to what, or how, someone is experiencing the drink.

      Regards

      • Tasting notes are more descriptive than a review, I think – more along the lines of ‘the coffee has top notes of berries and base of chocolate’ as opposed to ‘I didn’t really find chocolate and berries to be a good combination personally’ or a title which might add something else, like ‘chocolate notes from Ethiopa’s Misty Valley’.

  7. Jorge Balarin. says:

    I like very much the second photo and the one of your daughter.

  8. I have, perhaps, a hundred photos with a story behind them. Each photo could be worth a second look if the viewer knew
    the story, else not.
    Books have titles, songs have titles.

    • Would they be strong images still without titles? I think (perhaps paradoxically) then titling is legitimate: you’re adding something. My 2c: if the image doesn’t work without the title, then it’s unlikely the title can save it…

      • If it’s just a great picture, a title maybe isn’t important.
        I have a photo of a great friend. He had a medical issue and there was a concern for spreading
        germs to him. We were sitting side by side having breakfast, and I was always careful to keep
        as much distance as possible between us. I had my Hexar Af with me and handed it to my friend’s
        wife who was sitting across. Just as she was about to take a picture of the both of us, we each pushed
        our shoulders into each other. A release of that tension of needing to be careful. Knowing the story
        behind the picture gives it so much more meaning. Otherwise, a nice picture of two people
        sitting together that may not get a second look.

        But, there are certainly pictures that stand alone. When I find them on the internet I save them. Over the
        last five years I have come up with three.

        Years ago, Jonathan Edwards wrote a song, I think the title was Sunshine. Words in the song were “sunshine go away”.
        Jonathan was at a protest in Washington and slept out over night. He was woken by the sunshine in the morning and
        this prompted him to write the song. At least that’s the story that I heard from him. Because I know the story,
        it adds to my appreciation of the song.

  9. Some great images can be made better with great titles. It can be a wonderful punch line. No rules on this. It’s just another “legal” piece to add or omit, as you judge.

  10. Mark H. says:

    I’m always really uncomfortable with titles – both with other photographers’ titling and with my own. I add titles but only because I feel it’s expected. In truth, I object to the photographer trying to lead me in my visual interpretation of the image; so I try to avoid looking at the title. Then I take a sneak peak when the curiosity gets the better of me. So why do I use them – because I’m a conformist. Note to self…. stop it.

  11. Good idea to republish this article!
    A lot of thought provoking thoughts.
    The community of photographers is greatly benefitted by thinkers like yourself, Ming.

    • No problem. Reposted after a few people happened to ask me again about titling recently…admittedly, most people still prefer gear though.

  12. I read your post about titling a couple days ago. Lots of food for thoughts. I had a period when I stopped titling photos. My thoughts were “if your image is strong and with clear message, you don’t need title. Viewer will interpret your image”. But now, when I read your arguments why to use titles I have to say you made me think about it.

    Lets say, a photo with silhouette of man on the construction. Second photo in this post. My thoughts about this photo goes “… little guy is like an ant on a huge construction, he might be in danger standing under the load….or another thought…. little man can make big things”. It is clear, that without putting title every viewer would have slightly different thoughts. If you put title to it, you will change direction of viewers thought about the photo. You will tell them how you interpret. You give people key to your own photo.

    Documentary photos describing some even needs a logical title , event name, place, date…

    Still life with flowers….no reason to add title I think…

    • Not everything needs a title, but sometimes the title can add another extra layer that changes context or interpretation entirely.

      Still life with flowers: agreed, unless required for cataloging purposes 🙂

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