By MICHAEL PERKINS
WITHOUT ANY CONCRETE EVIDENCE, I’m willing to bet that the most common name for a photograph, globally, is the simple word “untitled”. And I’m pretty okay with that, truly. Titles are an attempt to identify, classify, or qualify the image to which it’s attached. And I wonder, in the majority of cases, if that’s even important.
One of the first reasons to title or caption photos was to train the first generation of photo observers how to decipher the contents of a picture, or, in the merely journalistic, record-making sense, to anchor the image to crucial content. The first pictures of the Great Pyramids originally needed the context, for most people, of telling you what you were seeing, where it could be found, a little history, etc. Then, for about a century, photos printed in the emerging print media used verbiage as a guide to the picture-as-illustration. The image only existed to make the content more comprehensible or concise.
But now, as photographs become more of a purely visual experience, not tied to a specific explanation or reference point in the viewer’s eye, do titles and captions add to their impact? If a photo is meant to engage the senses on a truly instinctual level, do they, like a verbal narrative, have to be “about” anything at all? Certainly many images are created to tell an A-to-B-C linear story, but, unless they are in service of a story, do we really need words to tell us what we are seeing, or what it ought to be named, or what it has set out to accomplish? Does a title render anything valuable to a photograph?
Either an image has impact, that is, makes a connection with its audiences, or it does not. Spinning sentences about how it was taken, what it’s supposed to show, what you should think about it….all these can be said to be excuses for the picture not having effectively made that connection. And yet, so many photo sharing sites are rife with what can only be termed explanations of pictures, when, in a visual medium, that job should fall to the photograph alone.
Museums (often the worst possible people to entrust art to) are famous for captioning their exhibits into submission, with weary essays of what you’re seeing and what you are supposed think about it tugging many soaring pictures earthward. Some of the most talented curators in the world, learned people with an eye for excellence, often choose images that are wonderfully compelling and then litter them with captions so ponderously pretentious that the viewer is tempted to think he is not intelligent enough to like the images without being “educated”. This subverts what makes photographs eloquent, because it tells us not to trust what we feel, but rather what the prevailing expert consensus is. It’s nonsense. And it’s wrong.
So call your image “Abstruse #7” or “Bellicose Eclipse” or just plain “untitled”, but don’t allow yourself to try to show in words what the photos didn’t show emotionally. Be a photographer or be a clever writer, but be one of those things all the way. And if you don’t want to explain anything, don’t. A photograph isn’t justified because of its reference to anything else. Like all art, it just is. Trust your vision. Show the lily…just don’t gild it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST APPEALING FEATURE OF EVERY NEW ART is that, for a while, everyone participating in it is an amateur. Because a new art has no history, it has no history-makers….no professionals, no celebrated artistes, no one who is doing it better. Everyone is, briefly, in the same “how-do-you-work-this-thing?” boat.
Of course, eventually, some ornery cuss or another begins to figure out how to progress from stumblebum to star, and then everyone’s off to the races. Photography, like other infant arts, began as a tinkerer’s toy, sprouting an occasional outlier genius here and there, until the pool was fairly crowded with People Trying To Make Their Mark. And one of those first mark-makers was not yet out of short pants when his pictures began to be the embodiment of the phrase “and a little child shall lead them.”
His name was Jacques Henri Lartigue, and, whatever else formed his strong visual sense, it certainly wasn’t the nobility of poverty, born, as he was, in 1894 in France to upper-class wealth and the privilege that went with it. His photographic muse thus contained none of those inspiring Lean, Hungry Years or Hard-won Real World Experiences that we associate with mature art; the kid was just born with an instinctually strong knack for composition, and what he chose to compose just happened to be the activities of the Rich and Famous….in other words, everyone he hung out with.
Lartigue’s social set was the class every other social set in France aspired to; the people who seasoned at the Rive Gauche, the people who competed in lawn tennis tournaments, the country’s first race car drivers and aviators. Armed with a simple gift camera, and taught processing by his father, Jacques began snapping the world around him at age seven, maintaining journals that contextualized the images, bookmarking his family’s gilded role in the newborn twentieth century.
Gifted with an eye for photographic narrative, Lartigue nevertheless segued into painting, where he spent virtually his entire adult life. In fact, it was not until a friend showed some of Jacques’ photos to John Szarkowski, director of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art, that Lartigue had his first formal photographic exhibition, in 1963, when he was sixty-nine.The show led to international recognition of his untutored yet undeniable talent, as well as a few prize portrait commissions and a second social career with the same elite one-percenters with whom he had rubbed elbows as a boy. One of his final collections, Diary Of A Century, was published in cooperation with Richard Avedon in 1978. He died a late-blooming “overnight success” at ninety-two.
What began for Jacques Henri Lartigue as family snapshots became one of the most important chronicles of a vanished world, and thus the best kind of photojournalism (or sociology, depending on your college major). For shooters, this boy of privilege remains the romantic ideal of the talented amateur.