Sometimes, one of the most challenging aspects of photography is not taking or processing an image, but naming it. This shouldn’t be the case – in my day job, I’m a Communications Consultant, words are my trade. And yet there are times when I struggle to find an appropriate title. But how important is a title and is one even necessary?
Ansel Adams, as adept at sound bites as he was at photography, said “a true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words”. Although Adams wasn’t advocating not titling images, there are valid arguments for not doing so. Namely, art is subjective and a title may focus attention on one aspect of an image to the detriment of the image as a whole. A title may also dominate or subvert an image, limiting the viewer’s capacity for personal interpretation and participation. Presenting an image without the constraints of a title opens up the image to the widest possible interpretation and personal interaction.
Despite these arguments, the vast majority of artists title their work. This approach provides benefits to both artist and viewer. For the viewer, a title can provide a layer of meaning, context or information about the image that may not be immediately obvious and that might be helpful. For the artist, a title guides the viewer about how the artist wants their image to be seen and the ideas they want to convey. It’s a substitute for a conversation between artist and viewer about the work. On a purely practical level, a title identifies an image, which is particularly useful for exhibiting, buying or selling images.
Deciding whether or not to title your work is probably an easy decision and perhaps one that you haven’t even considered. Less straightforward is deciding on a naming convention and individual titles. Titles say a lot about how we want the world to view both our images and us as artists and your approach will depend on factors such as the subject matter and style of your images, the atmosphere you want to create, the market you’re targeting, the brand you want to reinforce, and your own personal and cultural references.
Whatever approach you adopt, it’s important that your titles are sustainable and intelligible. Your titling convention may become a strong part of your brand so there’s no point devising an erudite or clever title for one image if you can’t sustain it for all your images or even for one portfolio. And, whilst pictures speak an international language, words and phrases that are understood clearly in one cultural or geography, may be meaningless in another or worse, unintelligible when run through Google Translate.
That’s not to say that titles can’t be thought-provoking or raise curiosity, but they should never compensate for what is lacking in an image. The emphasis must be on your image to show your vision rather than your title to tell it. I like to think of a title as a gentle, guiding hand for the viewer rather than a strong arm. Perhaps Ansel Adams was right: “a true photograph need not be explained”.
Michael Kenna, ‘Thirty One Snow Fences, Bihoro, Hokkaido, Japan, 2016