An Exercise in Photo-Blog Formatting

My last seven posts were actually an exercise in photo-blog formatting. Namely, they tried to show how the online presentation of a photograph might affect the viewing experience. As a whole, they also serve to ask if photographers, especially street photographers, should be compelled to follow a given style for presenting their work on the internet.

Each of the seven posts featured a black and white image of the street photography genre; however, each was different in the way it presented the image. One difference was the amount of contextual information accompanying each photograph, from significant in Post 1 (a week ago) to practically nil in Post 7 (yesterday).

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Overview

  • In Post 1 there is a title, a caption, and extended information through a digression of sorts (hyperlinks to ‘relevant’ material).
  • Post 2 has a title, a caption, and text which is a personal reflection.
  • Post 3 contains a title but no caption; in its place are some specs about the image.
  • Post 4 is untitled but has a caption.
  • Post 5 has a title functioning as an attempted ‘punchline’.
  • Post 6 contains a simple title.
  • Post 7 has neither a title nor any text (except in the categories and tags).

> Click here to see all the posts on one page (in reverse order, i.e., from 7 to 1).

 

Making Connections

This exercise explores how the photographer (me) finalizes the creative process. However, it might as well be about how the viewer (you) connects–or not–to the photographs, notwithstanding any judgement of the images on their own.

Decorative Text or Naked Image

Recently when posting a photograph I have been inclined to include some information about it under the pretext of providing context or guidance. This is in the form of a title, caption, or block of text.

However, it has dawned on me that attempting to supply context or guidance may actually be a mistake because the accompanying text could prevent the photograph from ‘speaking for itself’. With context, it would appear less likely for that image to invite the viewer to speculate, reflect, or conjure questions (i.e., engage with the image) as a creative work should. On another level, that urge to add context or guidance may in fact reveal the photographer’s unconscious judgement that their image is bland and requires a crutch.

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For if a photograph was aesthetically strong, adding text (at least extraneous text) would be unecessary and, in fact, could detract from the image.

There is also the undesired effect of ‘too much context’ (as in Post 1–possibly). This is the result of over-associating the image with something else. (Yet the contrary position might be that even this kind of viewing experience can have value and artistic potential for people of a certain nature–ardent fans of Umberto Eco might approve.)

Furthermore, one might argue that the ultimate example of ‘guidance’ is the punchline approach (such as in Post 5 or in Hiding Hydra, above), which results in what some may call a contrived presentation that makes the viewing experience somewhat fake or unwholesome. (The counter argument to this is that the punchline is integral to the viewing experience, and this makes it legitimate in addition to being ‘amusing’ or ‘clever’).

7 copyAt the other extreme is an ideal: the naked image, with no accompanying information (such as in Post 7). Instead it invites the viewer to explore, interpret, and muse on the image in any way they wish. In other words, the image speaks for itself (or at least attempts to). But the obvious question is whether this is enough.

This apparent dichotomy (or rather, evident continuum) regarding text and guidance may be applicable to the visual arts as a whole, but it has particular relevance in street photography where truth and candidness are supposedly key components of the medium.

Questions

Thus the catalyst for this exercise came about; because while making blog posts (combining text and street photographs) I began to wonder to what extent this non-visual component enhanced–or interfered with–the viewing experience. I found myself asking:

  • If a photograph was truthful, wouldn’t text be unnecessary?
  • Is it justifiable to ‘improve’ a satisfactory–or even ‘good’–photograph with some added context, such as a caption, reflection, or punchline?
  • Are street-photography bloggers compelled to follow by example the style of the uncontextualized photographs by Henri-Cartier Bresson (and other highly regarded master photographers) when presenting their work, even on the internet platform?
  • Assuming that ideally a photograph should speak for itself, is there an acceptable margin for adding context or guidance in the digital era, where headings (titles), captions, categories, and tags (text) are prominent attributes of an image on a properly designed web page?

 

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Untitled
Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson (Alicante, Spain, 1933)
(Source: The RedList)

 

Answer(s)?

The collective response may be simple enough: just take the middle path, i.e., provide relevant information if you so desire, but keep it minimal in scope.

Yet maybe it depends on the purpose of the photograph, too. (A good, brief departure on the purpose of photographs is here). Perhaps, then, adding a punchline or some deeper context/digression may have merit if it is truly fitting and purposeful. Or, to stretch it a bit, maybe photographers of any genre should be free to choose any style to present their photographs (contextualized or not)–for art’s sake, as it were. On the other hand, it could be that by definition street photography should not include decorative text–in alignment with the principles of truth and candidness–unless, of course, text is integral to a photographer’s unique syle of expression as an artist, e.g., combining verse or a quotation with an image.

Over to You

Here are some questions to consider.

  • Did you sense different viewing experiences when looking at Posts 1-7 ? Do you have a preference for any of the formats?
  • When looking at photographs on blogs here on WordPress do you think that a title and text (or a certain style of title and text) appearing with an image produces a positive or negative viewing experience?
  • If you have a photo-blog, do you follow a certain rationale regarding text when you post photographs?

These questions are especially directed at enthusiasts of street photography, but they can apply to photographers of any genre. Your thoughts are welcome in the comment box below.

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9 thoughts on “An Exercise in Photo-Blog Formatting

  1. Excellent discussion and interesting subject!
    As for your questions (without being myself a street photographer): I feel somewhat less engaged as we move from photo 1 to 7. I believe the viewers need a little bit of context, as photography doesn’t occur in a vacuum, it occurs in the real world. I see, of course, the benefits of leaving the viewer with some degrees of freedom. For a viewer who is a professional photographer himself, a post like #7 is all he needs. But for the average viewer, some context is useful and helps to anchor her viewing experience. Even the photo of Henri Cartier bresson that you showed comes with some context. Personally, I always look for a caption that tells where the photo was taken and when. WordPress readers probably don’t have the time or the patience to go beyond photo +caption. If you were to have your photos in an exhibition, more context would likely be required. And yet, i agree that too much context kills the viewing experience. My photo-blog is less about photo quality and more about giving context, personal memories and reflection. So the photography is just an starting point, an excuse -if you will- to write about a subject that interests me. And then again, I Don’t consider myself a street photographer! Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks very much for your comment. You make good points that photography doesn’t occur in a vacuum and that it can just as easily be a starting point for a discussion or exploration of ideas rather than for the sake of it, as your blog aptly shows. Good point also about time and patience; now with such inundation of information and media (blogging is only one medium of many that incoporate them), there is less focus for time/patience for looking at pictures than before. And yes, that balance between context and image might be a tricky one to achieve. Thanks again.

  2. A very constructive post Angel! Personally i dont like to add too much information with a photograph and let the viewer interpret the photo. However if its part of series or part of some kind of project, then i believe some content is needed.
    Having said that, if i see someone posted only one image with nothing to go with it – its gotta be a strong single image to draw my attention… Otherwise there is Instagram where we flick through images with hardly any context provided (with exceptions of course ) . For ex; i love how David Alan Harvey shares his images where he provides a poetic approach and jots down few lines about when and why a certain photo was taken and how he felt at that moment or Josh White ( @jtinseoul ) does similar thing in his blog.
    Great post Angel! thanks for sharing

    • Thanks, Yuri, for your thoughts and introducing those names to me. I’ve just looked them up–very interesting and I will explore more. So it appears some context, either as supporting facts or creative prose/verse does have a place. What you say about an image standing on its own–that it must be very strong to do so–certainly makes sense. This would imply then, as an answer to one of my questions, that it is justifiable to add a bit of text to ‘help’ an image that is not a very strong one. Thanks again.

  3. Hi there, here’s my 2 cents as an aspiring photographer (“ambitious but rubbish” could be a way to synthetise me as a photographer, so I don’t know how much of a help I could be).
    Personally, I think that providing additional info is useful, but not always. From your sample of photos, I think that number 2 wouldn’t have stayed in my mind as firmly as it does now, had it not been for the description. I’ve read it and immediately my mind went to a similar experience I had (two street boys playing cheap keyboards at Kadikoy ferry terminal). Number 2 isn’t the most striking picture of the lot, but the human context nailed it to my mind.
    In other cases, instead – when the picture really ‘speaks out’ for itself, or where a brief moment of life is captured – I think a quick caption (location, who the subject is, if known, this sort of thing) would be great. Number 4, for instance, is a great example. It doesn’t need a title, but that short caption makes it nicely for me.
    Finally, the “punchline approach”. Personally, I’m not a big fan of it. I can only wonder why – inherent lack of trust for marketers? envy at not being able to get one out of the hat, no matter what? – but I think that it works only in certain cases. Your Osaka photo is striking, and could very well do without it, for instance. Truthfully, I remember only one photo that had a punchline title, made by someone I used to follow on Flickr. It was a very ordinary photo, a group of black kids boarding a bus in South London, Canada Water if memory doesn’t deceive me. One of them is looking back – we can only see his head turned – and another one is clearly looking at him, for his eyes are showing an emotion (recognition, surprise, alarm? I can’t really say). The title was “I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me to see me looking back at you”, which is the bridge of a Massive Attack song. That punchline was just spot on, and it worked for me as I knew the song. But would it have worked for someone else? Don’t think so.

    • Thanks for your feedback; it’s much appreciated. A bit of additional info to accompany the photograph, especially from a caption, makes sense, then. Ditto for the occasional personal reflection… It’s interesting to hear your opinion about the punchline approach: In only special cases, or with only certain people, it might work, as you say. I would like to see some good examples of its usage (I can’t seem to recall any now). But I am beginning to think that there is something amiss when the appeal of a photograph is due more because of a clever caption rather than the image itself… Thanks again.

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