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About titles for photographs

Friday 6 January 2012

A question over on the Luminous Landscape discussion forum regarding the need  to “explain” photographs got me thinking about titles for photographs. Here is my response to the original post (edited for context here):

Hi John: Your question about explanations for photographs is certainly one that some of us are at odds about. Although this is, perhaps, an oversimplification, there seems to be two schools of thought:

  1. Many photographers add a title to their work that helps to explain it. Sometimes it’s “cutsey” other times it is meant to evoke a certain emotion that may or may not be present in the photograph.
  2. Other photographers believe the work should stand on its own merit without explanation. “If it needs explaining, then it wasn’t executed well enough” or “People can see into the photograph what they wish to see” are two common points of view to support this second school of thought.[/li

From what I understand of Ansel Adams (mentioned in the original post), he was positively against the cutsey/evocative title for explanation. His titles were very plain and for identification purposes only (e.g. El Capitan, Winter; Leaf, Glacier Bay National Monument). Some photographers in this camp go as far as using no titles or perhaps just numbers or dates to identify the work.

From a marketing perspective, I am in the first camp. From an artistic perspective, I’m in the second. In other words, it seems the general public is drawn more to an evocative title, hence the many photo posters that proclaim in bold letters the emotion one should feel. The more open-minded purchasers of art seem to be content with buying the work for what it is, so a plain title is acceptable.

I often “battle” with myself about whether to include a location in the title. Many people like to identify a photo with a place, especially when I’m selling local landscapes. But with evocative photos made, for example in Europe, but which could be in someone’s own backyard in Canada, I leave the location off so that people are not limited in their thinking by that location (does this make sense?).

Golden Summer Morning, Bavaria

Golden Summer Morning, Bavaria

The attached file is a case in point: “Golden Summer Morning, Bavaria”. While I shot it in Bavaria, it could be anywhere. If I am selling it here in Canada, I leave off the “Bavaria”; but if I was to sell it in Bavaria, I would leave the location in. One could ask if I should even include the word “Golden” as that may be construed as imbuing an emotional response that others may not share.

Some day, I would like to do a study or read of a study that pits a photo with an evocative title against the same photo with a simple identifier like AA used. I often wonder if a cutsey/evocative title would sell more copies, but at a lower price point than the same work with a more austere title like Adams used.

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