With a formal background in Speech Pathology, and a passion for language in general, I have such a fascination with verbal and non-verbal communication, and the way in which this translates into photography.
This relationship is something that I explore with my students in my workshop Fine Art and Visual Expression and lately I have been thinking a lot again about how these concepts relate when giving our work a formal title.
Often when submitting our work to shows or online competitions, we are prompted to enter the title of the image. Publishing or submitting images to blogs, magazines or juried shows are some examples when a formal title might be required, and social media outlets such as Facebook pages and even Instagram, encourage the same process to a lesser degree (through hash tags, album and image titles). While some may not give this too much thought, I know myself that posting to my blog, or to the Daily Project often takes me quite a while longer than I had originally anticipated because of this process.
Giving your image a title (or not), may have more of an impact on the image itself than you realise.
For many, titling an image is a relatively quick and simple process, however is it always the right thing to do?
When we look at an image for the first time, the meaning that we apply to it is formed based on our own personal and prior experiences, memories, and opinions. This process (more formally known as ‘isomorphic correspondence’) typically influences how wide an audience our image will reach. An image of a sandcastle on the beach in summer for example, may evoke memories of family holidays as a child, or perhaps time spent with cousins and friends.
If we attach a title to that same image however, we are running the risk of influencing our audience as to how they should interpret the scene, and perhaps inadvertently decreasing the amount of people who can relate to our work.
Sometimes an image has much to say, and allowing the viewer a chance to explore and process this message without these written prompts or cues results in them spending longer with the image than they might have otherwise.
Take this image of a building I captured a while ago. For now, we’re going to call this image ‘untitled’. What are your initial thoughts and impressions of the building?
Okay, now I’m changing my mind. I’ve decided to title the same image ‘abandoned’. Have your thoughts/impressions about the building changed at all now? Do you think that they reflect the title?
Assume I enter the image in a competition, and have to title it and I again change my title, this time to ‘new beginnings’. In contrast to the previous title (abandoned), we might now be encouraged into thinking more along the lines of someone having purchased the building.
But what about those times when you don’t necessarily want to title your work? I know myself that sometimes I will take an image perhaps more personal to me than my other work, or at least speaks loudly to or of myself as an artist, and I may want it to be able to stand alone and speak for itself. Self portraits are one such genre that I find particularly difficult title – as often I am using these as a means to avoid verbal expression of where I am at, personally, in that particular place in time.
While it would be nice to think that every image either needs a title, or doesn’t, in truth there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach here. In determining whether or not an image needs a title, the following may be worth taking into consideration:
- Does the image require additional context in order for it to be understood?
- For example – is the body language in the image likely to be taken as sad, when in fact the truth of the moment (and intended mood of the artist) was a happy one?
- Do you want the image to be perceived in a certain way?
- Is there a specific response you are trying to elicit from the viewer?
- Is the image personal, or is there something about what it says to you that you want others to see/feel?
While titles may not be appropriate for all images, there are many that not only benefit from a title, but are potentially stronger for it.
The following is a list of common title formulas used when titling photographs (examples taken from the Daily Project) that might help in naming your next masterpiece.
1. Keep it simple/Label the subject (eg. Use the subjects name or label (eg. ‘Max’, ‘Foal’, ‘Barn’), use the location of the photograph (eg. Harbour Bridge, Sydney, 2014), age of subject etc.)
Most commonly achieved using a noun, labelling the subject of the image is a great tool for ensuring the interpretation of the image is left largely to the viewer, with little additional information provided that may sway their thoughts.
2. Add an adjective (same as above but ‘old barn’ or ‘little girl’ etc)
Adjectives in the verbal and written sense, add a descriptive element to the noun (which is most commonly the subject in photographic images). Adding an adjective to the title can help to convey a little extra information that the viewer may or may not have been able to interpret from the visual information within the frame alone.
3. Use a verb (eg. run, twirl)
Verbs bring with them a sense of action, or doing. Some verbs require an object in order to decrease their ambiguity (these are called transitive verbs), though if some ambiguity is desirable they may well be used on their own (eg. ‘gave’). Other verbs communicate their meaning clearly without the addition of an object (intransitive verbs), and these are the type we see most commonly used in titles.
Using verbs to title our work is a great tool for bringing or emphasising the movement or energy within an image, and can help the viewer to become actively involved.
4. Attribute an emotion (eg. ‘lonely’)
While many images are emotional, and/or emotive, attributing a specific emotion to your work may be necessary in clarifying some of the more subtle emotions, or those which may be similar in appearance visually to others (eg. sad vs lonely vs devastated). This kind of title may also work well in images that incorporate some level of anonymity.
5. Identify an element or ‘key-word’ within the image (eg. ‘blue’, ‘hydrangeas’, ‘two’ etc.)
Again, this approach ensures a simplistic categorisation of something within the frame, and ensures the viewer is not overly restricted in their thoughts and perceptions relating to the image. It may also be employed successfully when the artist is wanting to draw attention to an element within the image that is perhaps not an obvious dominant theme on first glace.
6. Utilise song lyrics, poetry, or well known quotes/expressions
While this technique relies on the viewer’s knowledge of the reference the artist is making, chances are if the viewer is unsure of the meaning they are likely focus less on the title and more on the image itself.
7. Adopt an opposite, by stating what the subject is not (eg. ‘not pretty’, or ‘not afraid’)
Though there is the potential for a negative feeling to be imparted on an image, with a negative connotation being used in the title – the concept of adopting an opposite has been used effectively by artists to communicate missing elements in an image, or perceptions about the subject.
8. Use alliteration (eg. ‘summertime slumber’ or ‘rainy day rides’)
Alliteration occurs when a string of words all begin with (or almost all begin with) the same initial sound. Many big brands use this technique in their slogans as it is typically very engaging and catching, and the same can be applied to photography works.
9. Or you could simply go with ‘untitled’….