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Thursday, 09 February 2012


I won a Bruce Haley portfolio a couple years ago and when I leafed through the pictures I was struck by the complete lack of explanatory text. There was nothing but a cover-sheet with some faux cyrillic on it and an end-sheet with a designer's credit, Bruce's name and signature, and the number of the portfolio. I thought that the simplicity of it really helped sell the images.

I shot Bruce an email thanking him for not weighing his photos down with unnecessary verbiage and he wrote back to say that gallery owners push really hard for titles, captions, biographies, artist's statements, and the like.

Interesting that many of us were persuaded of the merits of the last print submission here only after we had some background information.
Pier 24 sounds like a real challenge!

I'm working less than a mile away from this gallery, and I've been wanting to go and visit it ever since I heard about it. The concept is really interesting.
The appointment thing is a good idea, but somehow a blocker when (like me) you're not able to plan things in advance.

Great post. This is something everyone "receiving" art should know. Every art is essentially a form (something we perceive using our senses). Any narrative content is an addition. Now, this content addition is extremely important, it can lead to a kind of a conscious dialogue between an artist and a receiver. But when you dig deep enough, the only thing that remains is form. Pure form without narrative content can be an art, content without form cannot.

Thank you for this! Whenever I view an exhibit I make one complete pass through without looking at the title or captions or any other external information about of any of the photographs. Then, if the images have succeeded in drawing me in in some way I'll seek out more information about them.

Photographs are a form of visual communication which should communicate without requiring a secondary mode (channel) for comprehension. Some pictures do this, especially those where form, color and/or other structural elements are central. Some stand alone, but are enhanced, or their meaning modified by a second mode (text/description). For example, the famous Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill stands alone as a portrait, but for me, is enhanced by my knowledge of who it is (and his 'backstory') and how it was taken. Another situation is the picture story, for which both text and image are integrated - even when the images can stand alone. W. Eugene Smith comes to mind. I think that many photos taken for art purposes tend to be stand alone, whether the photographer does so consciously or not, while much documentary work is similarly 'designed' for integration with the word. Both have their place.

Another nice things about this museum, is that you are allowed to take pictures of the pictures.

We're really lucky to have Pier 24 in San Francisco. Check out this Pier 24 time-lapse that condenses a 2 hour visit down to 2 1/2 minutes: http://www.joereifer.com/words/2011/06/23/pier-24-photography-exhibit-time-lapse/

Wow. I haven't been to San Francisco since 2007, but after reading this I feel officially overdue for a visit. This sounds perfect!

It brings to mind my visit to the Fred Herzog show that was on at the National Gallery in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada) last summer. There was one fine fellow walking around with his young protegé, scowling at each photo, shaking his head.

I wondered what his problem was until I finally overheard him. He was complaining that the small card accompanying each photograph did not include any information about shutter speed, f-stop, and what "glass" was used.

Because of that, the entire show was a wash for him. Completely pointless.

Throughout the history of music many composers wrote descriptions about, or attached descriptive titles to their compositions.

Think: Antonio Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," and
Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony #6, "Pastoral"

Other composers let their music stand on its own, so that each listener's reaction was not influenced by any predetermined idea.

Think: the piano music of Frederic Chopin, and Felix Mendelssohn.

The silly titles we see in the current editions were added later by publishers with the notion that the music would sell better. (Chopin's "Raindrop" prelude). Even some composers penned their own descriptions to the 24 Preludes:


I recall reading an interview with a composer many years ago (it may have been with Aaron Copland) who was asked to describe the "meaning" in a certain composition.

He responded that if he had wanted to convey the "meaning" in words, he would have written a poem.


Often photographs created as fine art stand alone without further explanation, just as works of art in other disciplines do. A Picasso painting or Rodin sculpture don't need an artist statement or detailed explanation to be admired for their beauty.
However most works do benefit from - and some need - a title in order to be fully appreciated. Knowing the artist and the creation date are also useful to allow further research and to place the work in the time line of art.
Abstracts often need a title in order to be decoded and made meaningful. The subject may not be obvious to a purely visual interpretation. It may still be beautiful or interesting to look at, but decoding may lead to a change in the viewer's perception and new insights.

Thanks for the notes, Ctein. Indeed, I'll be visiting Pier 24 this spring.

The notion that a photograph should be able to completely "communicate" by itself is a bit of purist fancy. It's an appropriate goal for photographs created as art, especially images of constructed scenes. Here the photograph itself is largely irrelevant. It's the scene, stupid! (Ex: Greg Crewdson's work.)

But It's not necessarily appropriate for other images sourced for other applications. More to the point, as Richard Newman notes, additional knowledge of the image's context and of the photographer really enriches our appreciation and enjoyment of the work.

And is that not the point?

But I'm looking forward to Andy Pilara's museum!

Richard Newman's comment on the famous Karsh portrait(s) of Winston Churchill is an excellent example of a narrative providing even more detail than a caption would.

For those that don't know -- there are two WC Karsh portraits: the scowly one, known world wide, was taken after Karsh asked WC not to smoke and then when WC didn't comply he took the cigar from his mouth and immediately took the photo. The other is a much happier and more ordinary portrait taken later in the session.

The famous image of WC captures what most people think of as "bulldog spirit" but was really transient annoyance. But perhaps that annoyance really symbolizes WC outlook and character. Karsh was clever enough to bring it out.

Without knowing the narrative all of that technique is missed.

Sometimes photography (and other visual art) is a process that exists in time and understanding the process and the object leads to a deeper understanding of the artwork. Other times just viewing and thinking about the stand alone object is enough.

The quick walkaround followed by concentration of a few pieces and reading the captions is something I like to do in most galleries.

Really good straight up and down writeup Ctein,I liked it a lot.

I don't mind a few words if they say something interesting. The problem is that often it's not so interesting, and sometimes even embarrassing. Your photo might hint at a cliche, and you don't want your words to confirm it. Let the mystery be, as the song goes...

a photograph can only convey so much information. as photographers we try our best to use the tools available to create images that communicate effectively with the viewer. as artists we may wish to communicate something to the viewer that even the most perfectly thought out photograph cannot convey. the artist must decide what, if any, text or other media may need to accompany their photographs.

the work of Duane Michaels may be of interest, Or even that of Szarkowski where, for instance, he pairs text from a journal with images of an old barn. I could list a dozen more if I thought about it for a bit.

we need to be careful about writing too many rules about how effective art presents itself. yes, we need to be good photographers, but we need to be good artists as well. whatever that may entail.

This is sort of a disconcerting notion. I've been under the impression that a bit of context helps me appreciate a photo. Maybe I haven't seen enough truly good photos. It may also be because I'm not confident in my rudimentary art appreciation skills. (Why are Jasper Johns' paintings based on the flag so admired ? I read Sister Wendy's take on it and still didn't get it). But on the other hand, I can definitely see the argument for it. I've been perusing the copy of Ernst Haas: Color Correction and have been enjoying the undistracted viewing of the photos, most of which are abstract. I've wanted to know more about a few photos, but only a few and I'm not sure whether knowing more would make me appreciate them more or less. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

We have a monthly critique group here in Portland, Oregon that has been running for almost 50 years founded by Minor White and his group of local students. His style has stuck for all these years. Participants put up their prints under lights and say NOTHING.The audience may then make comments and even ask questions for answering later. Only after the conversation has died down is he photographer "allowed" to respond and answer questions. This really prevents just the problem you are speaking of. We also ask that all of the viewers not talk when they are studying the prints as well so as to keep side talk down. The focus then is purely on the images. Works great and those prints you have sweated over really get looked at!

One of the interesting (and often frustrating) things about photography is that it is not a clearly defined form in the same way that for example painting is. It is much more multi-faceted. For this reason it doesn't make sense in my mind to make broad statements about photography "in general". While I totally agree that explanatory information is often anathema, there are times, in some genres, where contextual information is important. Often that context is no more than accompanying images by the same photographer, but once we start assuming that an photograph, any photograph, should always be able to stand on its own visual credentials I think we are diluting the possibilities of photography, and going down the fine art road.

To take a simple example - if you visited a show of say 50 images, would it be important to you to know if they had been taken by 50 different people, or just one?

This is a "one size fits all" solution. There are some photographs that are amplified by their context, others that need none.

That said, I always take in the picture as an image before I read the little label or click on the play button of the audio guide.

I find it useful on occasion when there is additional information on the content of a photo, similar to what Richard Newman noted above.

What really cracks me up is the technical information museums give to their displayed works regardless of kind. They're showcasing the most irrelevant details in the most ponderous and earnest tone. Say, we are informed that the displayed work was made of "acrylic paint with inclusions of glass beads on base of 20% polyamide and 80% cotton canvas". In photography that happens too of course. "Silver gelatin on fibrous base with archival matting" isn't really of any interest to the viewer except if you are interested in preservation issues.

I always wonder how this would sound in architecture, characterizing a house chiefly as a "structure with fiberglass siding over frame of pinewood on basis of calcium carbonate blocks, with latex paint cover and bitumen impregnated fiber top over cedar slats". Or such.

I dont like a lot of words, but I do enjoy some well chosen words...I agree that the art should support it's own weight but sometimes/many times, having a choice blurb can really lead the way to some tremendous stuff as you look at a show.

That's pretty much it, now go to bed.

>>...the group's coordinator does work that is stunning (and I would introduce you folks to it if he would ever get a friggin' website up, and yes, I'm talking about you, R.A.).<<

TOP's next print sale ?

Great post and ditto comments. I don't know about the States, but here Holland (and in most of northern Europe, for all I know), galleries emphasize the importance of 'narrative content'. At one gallery the woman in charge advised me to 'do some really hard thinking' to increase my chances for getting a show. She liked my picures, though. So this wasn't a polite way of saying that my pictures were in her eyes too much of the geographic calendar type (they're not, as I don't find that road very interesting myself). It is just that a very brainy approach dominates the arts in general right now, although lately a critical reaction can be noticed here and there. I've put a newspaper cartoon on the wall of my loo which shows a painter staring somewhat dumbfounded at an empty canvas on an easel, while his wife (standing behind him) says: 'Honey, I know how involved you are in your iconographic self-investigation of modern identity, but isn't it time to just start painting landscapes again?'

Oh, thanks a bunch. I never knew about those mouseover texts on XKCD! One down, 1014 to go...

Whenever I look around the photographic graduation exhibitions of the art school in my city, I am always struck but the extreme reluctance to let images stand on their own intrinsic visual merits. Photographs always have to be part of grand projects, and the project always has to be accompanied by a justificatory mini-essay. These essays often contain statements about how a photographer's images are only intended to be appreciated as part of a complete body of work, and not on their own, and this usually comes across as a proud boast...

I recently looked the advice given to people interviewing for places on photography degree programmes (purely out of idle interest... I have no plans to apply!) Again the advice generally seems to be that portfolios should contain collections of images from projects. You are given the strong idea that you just aren't going to get in if you present a collection of individual images that can stand on their own merits, no matter how good they are.

When I see an image I really love in an exhibition, I can't help to want to know at least a little more about it and the photographer. But I really like the idea of keeping this information in an exhibition catalogue so that you can find out more (or not, as you choose!) after enjoying the intrinsic visual merits of the photograph without distraction.

My better half insists on not knowing what films are about before she watches them. I try to tell her that there's no spoilers in the synopsis, but she wont have it.

She wasn't too happy with all the lesbians in Lesbian Vampire Killers.

Thank you. I'm a firm believer that what the world needs is fewer words and more pictures.

Pier 24 is an impressive place. I saw the exhibit there in early March of 2011. The quantity of well known images from well known photographers was stunning. Really overwhelming.

Yes, it did shake me up a bit that there was no text in the galleries. I admit I thumbed through the catalog as I entered each room, at least if I didn't recognize the photographs.

I wish I could remember the name of the poet who when asked to explain one of his (her?) poems answered something to the effect of "you want me to say it worse?" [Robert Frost --Ed.]

By the way, if you change the xkcd link to this: http://xkcd.com/1015/ it will continue to point at the "kerning" cartoon, which is, maybe the one Ctein refered to. But perhaps it was the "Car Problems" which is number 1014. Both are good!

OK, so we're down again on the poor sap (i.e. art history major) who writes commentaries besides the pictures in the hope that people will stop saying "my dog could have done that!".

We're also doing a little Laocoön-esque argument against the confusion of the arts (read it, it's a great essay by German 18th century philosopher G.E. Lessing).

Finally, we're pretending that photography is pure visual sensation that needs not the pollution of words, a perfectly pre-linguistic medium.

Here's how I would reframe Ctein's admonition against commentaries: when you are an experienced photograph, an experienced amateur, or someone who has a modicum of visual culture in them, it creates cognitive dissonance to read someone else's sometimes awkward interpretation of pictures along their side. No commentary is better than a bad commentary. And there are many of us who have sufficient experience with the art of photography to figure out by themselves what's going on, or who can actually rise up to the challenge of trying to piece together the meaning of a photograph.

But in no way should that entail in us the beliefe that photography is in any way an art that you can just "get." Remember painting? Have you every managed to understand all by yourself, say, Nicolas Poussin's "Et in arcadia ego" ? I have, and failed. So I went and read Panofksy (go see whoever else you may find trustful). But the aristocrat who saw Poussin's painting on the day of the vernissage did not need Panofsky: he "got" the painting all by himself because he was part of a culture that was in constant dialogue with ideas of Arcadia, classical revival, and the grammar of Latin which he learned at school.

None of this do we readily acquire in our current education, and that's why few of us can quickly grasp a painting like Poussin's. On the other hand, we can very quickly grasp the average high-middle-brow photograph in reasonably-falutin' galleries because we live daily with photography, we have read books about it, we have seen exhibits earlier on, we have taken them, we recognize the objects being represented, or we are familiar with the ways of representations entrenched in the photographic medium.

Leave me alone with your unmediated experience, and directness of perception. That kind of crap died its slow death with the overblown amateurs Americans liked to call "academics" in the early 20th century.

So much food for thought my head is about to explode. I will merely say, I agree with it all, and am a proponent of what you any other commentators have already mentioned, that photography can be a singular feast for the eyes, and any other intellectual comprehension is merely a bonus (at least for me). Thank you thank you for confirming my suspicions with regard to titling and captions.

I am really of two minds when it comes to labels on photographs. Sometimes they convey useful information which allows the veiwer to understand the context of the photograph. To understand the situation, location, what was on the photographers minds, people involved, really helps to to appreciate the results.
However, the label, caption, whatever you wish to call it is just the flatulance of someone trying to justify their paycheck. It is usually cute or informative but in the end it is at best distracting and at worst so distracts one from actually looking at the photograh that all you remember is the caption and not the photograph.
I wish that captions were such that you actually had to make the efort to look at them and could easily turn them off if desired.

Richard Jones rather undermines his argument by using the example of Beethoven's 6th symphony - "Pastoral". Beethoven, unusually, attached a program to the symphony, but to understand the artist's intention in this it should be noted that the symphony was composed in tandem with the 5th, and as a counterpoint to it. The juxtaposition is very enlightening about the composers intentions and has nothing to do with latter-day additions of nicknames to musical works

Dear Mike R.,

No the link was supposed to point to the "title" XKCD-- http://xkcd.com/322/

It'll be fixed soon, probably as you read this -- this is a head's up for earlier readers who wondered why the hell I was pointing at XKCD 1014.

pax / Ctein

Nerdy woman here.

I think No.1014 too, was a good xkcd for this article. Possibly even better than No.322. Though the latter has the title.

Interesting how things work out.

Andrea :)
(That's a left-handed smiley.)

How interesting. Yes it is often too easy to go to the title too quickly. What would be nice would be a 1 minute delay before the title if any were shown, so that you can really make sure you have taken something in. There is a type of photograph that never needs anything more, but I think there's a majority that are enhanced by a title and their context. It's not really only the image is it? Many times the image is an invitation to a deeper story and a fascinating context that adds more to subsequent viewings.

I can't decide on the informative photo text. Some images I'd like to be hinted on, but with some images I'd like everyone to just shut up. I guess it depends on the visual's 'hypnosis power'.
& I'm with Xavier, I can't plan things that far in advance. Such a shame! It sounds like a wonderful experience.

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