Take a look at Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse during the New York VE Day parade at the end of World War II, or Ansel Adam’s landscape of the Golden Gate in California before there was a bridge there. These are images made decades ago, and yet if we were to approach these photographs and view them for the first time without knowing anything about who made them or what point in time and place they are portraying we would likely still be able to appreciate the technical mastery of the images, grasp some semblance of the intention of the photographer, and would probably understand the general meaning of the scene. We may even being able to relate to the people involved or empathize with the mood the images invoke.
The reason for that is that these are photographs composed by masters of the medium. In complete control of their art, there is no distracting information within these photographs – no ambiguity of message. Both images contain all the elements of well-made photographs with all the pieces functioning in harmony. Composition, timing, technical quality, vision, emotional impact…it’s all there. Do we really need to know why the sailor and the nurse are kissing to appreciate that image? As a history buff I’ll grant you that it is certainly interesting to know the back story, but no caption is required for this photograph to “work”. Similarly, the openness and awe that Adams conveys in his image of the Golden Gate silently translates directly to us if we will allow it to. If we give it the time, how can we feel anything but appreciation for the natural beauty and the vast scale that Adams opens our eyes to? Both artists succeed because they tap into the simplicity of universal themes, despite also serving our more rational side by creating spaces in our minds where we can meet their intentions, understand the image and place it in our own visual experience as “ours.”
In the past I have presented some of my photographs without captions hoping to make the point to my audience that the image is all that matters. It was actually a reaction to my own tendency to spend only a few seconds viewing an image and then immediately looking for the title or caption. I suppose by that habit I was trying to give the photo meaning and make some sense of it before really looking at what’s in front of my eyes. Perhaps I’ve been trained by internet mass image consumption channels like Flickr and Facebook to want more than just the image (or simply more images) and have developed an attention deficit disorder when it comes to viewing art. But in the world of art, we celebrate the way things look, and that takes time. We enjoy reproducing the world in a certain way and invite viewers to partake of that perception. We want our audience to slow down and appreciate looking as much as we have. At our best we also hope to draw the audience into a feeling or a thought, beyond the simple pleasure of seeing. I had assumed by removing captions I could remove the crutch of our tendency to apply the logical side of the brain to the less objective experience of viewing a photograph. But honestly, I missed the presence of captions too – for some reason regardless of the strength of an image I found I still want it to have at least some title or caption – some context, however vague from which to begin my comprehension. Pragmatically, it also makes referring to an image much easier!
So despite my decision to keep titles or captions as part of my presentation, I continue to aim towards the ideal of wordless expression. For a photo to stand on its own it really must be well made on every level, and so removing words becomes a sort of barometer as to whether an image is strong or not. If it works without a caption, it probably works as a photograph. But beyond that, by keeping this ideal in front of me I am encouraged to work differently, to think harder when making an image and to look closer. Seeking to make a photograph that stands on its own helps me to keep a very important thing in mind; every aspect within the frame either contributes or detracts from the final piece - nothing in the picture is neutral. We are building images with the bricks we find scattered around the world, and we should try to build something that stands on its own.