How does text shape the understanding of photographs?
To illustrate how text shapes our understanding of a photograph I have chosen three images of different styles and eras. The first is a photograph by Brassai depicting a simple night scene in Paris. The second is from the popular press and is a recent article reporting binge drinking in Britain. Finally an examination of a photograph by artist, John Baldessari, who uses the combination of photograph and text to challenge convention and force the viewer to think laterally.
Before expanding on these it is worth noting the different styles of text used with photographs:
Title From its early relationship with painting photography, especially in the artistic field, a photograph was accompanied by a short descriptive title. As Man Ray said:
I've always attached titles to my objects. They do not explain the work but add what you might call a literary element to it that sets the mind going (cited in Scott, 1999, p. 47)
Caption Captions, especially in the field of journalism, are used to expand on the photograph
Narrative A photograph can have an associated story or narrative which complements or expands on the image. Again the popular media often uses a photograph as the introduction to a news story. Photo essays are another example where a longer narrative is employed.
Photographs are, by their analogue nature, ambiguous; they can guide us but they are not definitive. Many photographers have published images without text, Martin Parr's “Common Sense” is a recent example. However these tend to leave the imagination free to find its own conclusion where as text generally directs or constrains our thinking and moves the viewer to a conclusion. Roland Barthes describes this as the photographic paradox;
"the coexistence of two messages, one without a code (the photographic analogue), the other with a code (the 'art' or the treatment, or the 'writing', or the rhetoric of the photo)" (Barthes, 1977, p19)
We need to examine how these different codes interact with each and how the use of text guides us in comprehending the combination of photograph and text.
Brassai, Staircase in the Rue Rollin
My first example is the “Staircase
in the Rue Rollin” by Brassai.
Brassai moved to Montparnasse, Paris from Hungary in 1924 and met
many like minded artists such as Picasso, Kertesz, Matisse, Miller
and Dali. In the spring of 1930 he started walking Paris at night to
try to capture the cities mood, light and reflections.
In this example he has used a short title to tell the viewer where the photograph is taken and what it contains ie this is a staircase and an advertising poster on a Paris street. Brassai occasionally gave his photographs more subtle titles eg a nude photograph called Fake Sky and he could have used a similar approach here. Escher's famous Endless Staircase image could be applied here eg “Paris Endless Staircase”). However this would distract the viewer from the dream like mood, aesthetics and composition of the photograph. The photograph is the important element and the title is simply saying “this is what it is” and confirming the photograph's denoted message.
Roland Barthes defined this type of text as anchorage, where the text isolates the meaning indicated by the photograph (Barthes, 1977, p. 37). The intention is to fix the viewers mind and not deviate. Alternately Clive Scott describes this type of title “as destination, that which explains and synthesises the image” (Scott, 1999, p.47)
The Sun, Booze ban for binge hotspot
The second example comes from a photograph published in The Sun newspaper on the 21st October 2009. The photograph is of a street scene in Cardiff with three women in the foreground. One of the women appears to have a pair of knickers around her ankles. To hide their identity the three girls faces have been pixelated.
Booze ban for binge hotspot
The photograph is credited to the Wales News Service and is accompanied by the headline “Booze ban for binge hotspot”. The associated article outlined the decision by the local authority to allow Wales Police to confiscate alcohol from people drinking in public places and to arrest anyone who defies them.
A slightly different picture (this time with the girls faces not pixelated) was published by the Daily Mail on the 23rd October with the headline “The streets of no shame: The shocking picture that epitomises Britain's ladette culture”.
Not surprisingly the picture was subsequently used by various internet sites and blogs both in Britain and further afield. The sites castigated the attitude of the revellers and portrayed them as representative of everything that is wrong with Britain. The BBC even commented that the woman's picture would “for years to come be associated with the fall of civilised society as we know it”. Sky News also used the photograph to highlight the fact that binge drinking has lead to an 80% rise in female violent crime. Whilst The Sun Doctor in a side panel sited alcohol as the No 1 date-rape drug.
The newspapers saw this as an opportunity to highlight the social state of Britain; the subsequent feasting on the photograph by the mass media, including the internet, reflects equally on both the state of the media and any decline in British lifestyle. As WJT Mitchell commented in Picture Theory:
The 'taking' of human subjects by a photographer (or a writer) is a concrete social encounter, often between a damaged, victimised, and powerless individual and a relatively privileged observer, often acting as the “eye of power” the agent of some social, political or journalistic institution (Mitchell, 1994, p288)
All of these headlines, captions and stories lead away from the photograph and take the viewer far beyond the image. This type of text was defined by Barthes as relay; where text is providing information beyond the visual semiotics in the photograph and directing us in interpreting the photograph. Generally with this type of relationship the text and photograph complement each other. In this case the picture has become subservient to the text. Although Barthes described text as providing anchorage for the photograph, in this case it is the photograph that is providing anchorage for the text. As Clive Scott astutely noted:
Put [a photograph] in a newspaper and it becomes a peg for a related event or trend (Scott, 1999, p. 99)
In today's mass media we have become accustomed to seeing photographs wedded to text. Photographs are rarely presented without some reference to words either with a simple title, captions or even an accompanying story. As Barthes correctly pointed out in 1964:
Today, at the level of mass communications, it appears that the linguistic message is indeed present in every image: as title, caption, accompanying press article, film dialogue, comic strip balloon (Barthes, 1977, p. 38)It is worth pointing out that in a follow up article The Sun named the woman with the knickers quoting her as saying she was not drunk and the knickers were not hers but a joke pair that the group had been given. Not surprisingly The Sun's headline was “Mis-undie-stood”!
John Baldessari, Wrong
My last example is a self-portrait by foremost conceptual artist John Baldessari's titled “Wrong” (Baldessari, 1967). In the 1960s Baldessari started incorporating text in his photographs in order to “break the certain no-no's and taboos" of art (Baldessari, Interview with Nicole David, 2004).
He produced one of his best known pictures of himself standing in front of his house and directly in front of a palm tree that appears to be growing out of his head. At a simple level Baldessari is challenging one of the photographs rule of thumb ie don't photograph people with objects sticking out of their head. According to established rules the photograph would aesthetically be wrong but Baldessari is asking the question “is this correct?” without necessarily alluding to or determining the answer.
There is no anchorage here to help the viewer or guide his understanding; instead Baldessari, is using the irony of the title to challenge the traditional views of what is “good” and “bad” art. This is atypical of conceptual artist where the asking of the question is seen as more important than the answer. The photograph here, without the title, would not be correct however the title gives the photograph context hence the message is in the convergence of the photograph and title.
In the 1960s and 70s conceptual artists started to question established views on art. Duane Michal's, “there are things here not seen”, Victor Burgin's, “What does possession mean to you?” and Marther Rosler, “the bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems” were all examples of artists trying to make people think beyond what is seen in the photograph. Magritte's iconic “This is not a pipe” was an early example that influenced Baldessari. All are using photography to question the universal rules and asking the viewer to think beyond the obvious and “out of the box”. As Victor Burgin remarked in Thinking Photography:
One thing conceptual art has done apart from underlining the central importance of theory is to make the photograph an important tool of practice
We have seen that text can be used to anchor and synthesise our reading of the photograph. We have also witnessed, in the popular media, how text can also be used to convey different relayed meaning whilst limiting and constraining our political or social thinking. In the final Baldessari example I have also shown that the combination of text and photograph can be used creatively to challenge traditional ideas in a thought provoking manner.
Inevitably, although we can determine certain trends eg photojournalism tends to over simplify, we must continue to assess each photograph and its text independently and on its own merits. In conclusion I believe that there is no single answer and must agree with Barthes who said
it is only when the study of each structure [photograph and text] has been exhausted that it will be possible to understand the manner in which they complement one another (Barthes, 1977, p. 16)
John Baldessari, Wrong Series Exhibition, Los
Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967
John Baldessari, Interview with John Baldessari by Nicole Davis, Artnet, 12 April 2004, http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/FEATURES/davis/davis12-7-04.asp, accessed 14 November 2009
Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, Hammersmith, London, 1977
Brassai,Camera in Paris, London, The Focal Press, 1949
Victor Burgin, Thinking Photography, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1988
WJT Mitchell, Picture Theory, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994,
Martin Parr, Common Sense, Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport, 1999
Clive Scott, The Spoken Image, Photography and Language, Reaktion Books, London, 1999