The Conundrum of Photographic Titles

The first school of thought is strongly against it. The image should speak for itself and there is no need to add any distractions in terms of a title or brief description. It is up to the viewer to see, experience and interpret the image. Based on heated conversations online, I suspect that most photographers subscribe to this notion. 

I don’t share this opinion. Here’s why. 

My entire photographic career is based on one important pillar. Photography is a form of conversation between the photographer and viewer. And as such it is required that both sides participate in this exchange or experience. 

This notion of a conversation has always guided my work, even if I don’t think about it. It goes even deeper. As early as my observation process I am already hunting for a visual narrative. I am not interested in documenting things although, given the minimal intervention to my images (no adding or deleting any elements, minimal post-processing), they could all be characterized as document-style photographs. 

This visual narrative is the starting point of the conversation. It is of prime importance in my work. Adding titles to the imagery enhances this process by providing the audience with a hint, an invitation, a sort of a mystery. For example, some of my titles are not directly linked to the image – the viewer is required to go deeper into the image and find the connection between the title and the image. Notice that I am not taking away the entire experience. Most of my work has some underlying abstract, making the combination of title and visuals one cohesive but highly tempting, mysterious summons. Most of my images are “unfinished photographs” from a narrative perspective.  

But there is another layer to this issue. After years of experimentation and mixing genres I now approach photography as a performance art. When I decide to share my image online, not only do I start a conversation, but it becomes a presentation – almost a stage act. Therefore, the way I present my images, context, frame, even time… becomes a part of the image and yes, I am a sort of conductor. 

Of course, it always starts with a strong image. That’s a proviso. You can spend a huge amount of money building the set but if the play is just written and acted mechanically, it won’t work. The same here. 

Last but not least, the entire process extends my photographic process well beyond the capture stage. When I teach my workshops, I dedicate a generous amount of time to what I call “Reviewing and presenting your image.” This is a valuable period when you spend a lot of time with your image – evaluating, experiencing and eventually deciding if you should share the image and in what form. For me it is like a second art – as if I was taking the image again – this time on a much deeper more personal level. I am not afraid to share this stage with my viewer. This is where the title comes in. I could spend weeks viewing an image and developing narratives around it in my imagination. But view it as an invitation to a highly personal experience between you and me. Yes, it is me who sends the invitation, but it is up to you to accept it so we can experience the image together. We both write the narrative. We become creator and audience, as one. 

Confounded
Liberation
Encounter
Evanescence
A seperation
Pieces of my memories
Broken Promises
Suffering of the mind

2020 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

17 thoughts on “The Conundrum of Photographic Titles

  1. In terms of publishing photos online, I feel that the photo is not finished until it has suggested its title to me. It’s a process I can’t force. But I tend to follow a different strategy depending on where I’m publishing. When I was posting on Flickr, I tended to use very tangential titles, and while they were not random, the connection to the visual probably escaped most people. But that was the whole point – the connotations that might spring up in other people’s minds in my opinion added to the possibilities of interpretation. I also set myself a rule, rarely broken, that the title had to be one word. On my website galleries I tend to be more literal, but very rarely descriptive.

    Descriptive or clichéd titles (like “Encounter”, “Reflection”, “Glance” etc) bore me to tears and degrade the photograph. But that’s just one opinion amongst billions 🙂

  2. photography for me is not about thinking or conceptualizing. I feel afterthoughts and descriptions of images is just that… projection, conceptualizing, fabrication…Never underestimate the viewer’s process.

  3. A great article Olaf. Being someone who usually adds a title, I tend to agree with you. But I do dislike sloppy use of titles. This is when the photographer uses a title to try and correct a poor composition, it happens a lot. What the photographer is doing is admitting that the elements are not organised in any cohesive way so you have no idea what you are meant to be looking at. He’s adding a title to try and clear up the mess.

    Keep well, John

    1. Hello John,

      I agree with you 100%. I see this all the time. What’s even worse, some people write long statements, which accompany poorly done imagery. I am doing my best not to fall into such a trap 🙂

      It is always great to hear from you. All the best,

      Olaf

  4. Hello Olaf. This is one hell of a thought-provoking post! From my point of view, I agree with both sides. A detailed title almost indicates a “snapshot” photo. This is fine if that’s the intent, depending on the audience, publication, purpose, etc. No title makes the observer think and develop their own interpretation. I personally like what you mention about assigning a brief title to a photograph which does not indicate where it is, who is there, etc. Perhaps it is an emotion, an aberration, a thought, or whatever comes to mind at that time . . . This will definitely not be a snapshot. As an aside, this is the first post by any photographer which has provoked me to give so much thought and discussion. Looking forward to more. Stay safe Olaf and Kasia!
    Rick Ogrodzinski . . . Rideau Lakes, ON

    1. Hello Rick,

      Thank you for your kind words. You truly encourage me to write and share more 🙂 Thank you for that. Even though I share my stand it doesn’t mean that I am against the other approach – not at all. Thank you so much for participating in this important conversation. Hope to hear from you soon.

      Warm Regards,

      Olaf

  5. Completely agree, Olaf. I understand purists, as adding a layer of meaning, or poetry, could “dignify” a so-and-so image. But all of us know that a good image speaks by itself, and deepening its meaning it can only be good, I think.

    In my opinion, the issue is if this conversation must be free or guided. If the work belongs to the artist or to the audience. For instance, your powerful second shot about the seagull. I love it. For me, Liberation works, but in the past, without title, it works terrific, too. Which suits best? And how to choose?

    Glad to see you on the blog again, warm regards!

    1. It is wonderful to hear from you my friend. I always enjoy reading your perspective. I trust you and your family are doing well. Cheers from all of us.

  6. Olaf, very well said. I am one of the photographers who agrees completely with you. I always title my images as I feel they are not complete without one. The subject matter, style, post production techniques, and title all go into the complete work of art. The title serves to give the viewer a nudge towards thinking perhaps a bit more deeply about what the photographer is trying to say or achieve. Without this nudge, the photo can be technically excellent but artistically void to the viewer.

  7. Dear Olaf, thank you for sharing this impressive statement, methodology and imagination to relate an image with an untold story. To be honest, when you presented your best shots from 2019 in the blog, I made notes about each image, what I saw in it, what I was imagening and seeing beyond the image. It was such a nice exercise for me to see and think in two worlds, trying to establish a connection between the image and what I was seeing in it. It makes photography even richer, more thoughtful and more challenging. Hope to meet you again soon. All the best, Dirk

    1. Wow! You made my day with your note about taking notes based on my imagery. You are one of the most thoughtful people I have ever met and I cannot wait to get together again. I hope Dirk that you projects are going well. Let’s stay in touch. As always, thank you for commenting!

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