How do you title your pictures?

Do you need to tell people what your photograph is about? As ever it all depends on circumstances – what does your audience need to make the most of your images?

Photo by Norman Dodds

A recent conversation on Facebook about a picture revolved around what title the photographer should have given it. Norman Dodds, the photographer, called it “Skaters” after some thought. Others felt calling it “Untitled” would have reflected the rather mysterious atmosphere in the image.

So what would have worked best, and how do you go about naming your pictures?

Well, it all depends on how much help you want to give your viewers. This will in turn depend on how and where you are displaying your image.

Let’s start with an image that on the face of it would seem simple to title:

The Express Building, Manchester
Express Building, Manchester

Well, that’s easy. It’s the Express Building in Manchester. Job done. But it’s also other things: a picture of George Leigh Street, an image of a quiet Sunday morning or an urban summer.

But is that all? If we were writing a book about Manchester’s architecture or the history of urban development in the North West of England, it probably would be. Same as if we were entering it (optimistically) in a competition for monochrome architecture photographs.

But when I took the picture, I waited until that person walked past the sunlit window and turned into a silhouette. There was something about the still and quiet of the street that morning, and the lone pedestrian fitted just so. Where we’re less concerned about the exact location, we might use a title such as “Solitude” or “Lonely Street“.

Even this feels a little heavy handed. However it might be justified if we wanted to telegraph our intention for the picture. It would direct attention to the person rather than the buildings, and we see the picture differently.

What if we didn’t name the image, or called it untitled or some such? We’re giving away no clues as to how the picture should be interpreted. We are leaving it up to whatever we encounter the picture in to guide the viewer. We need to ask ourselves whether we are comfortable leaving the interpretation to others in that way.

The picture doesn’t change in all this of course so the interpretation is always left open to the viewer. But we can at least influence the start point for the interpretation.

Let’s go back to Skaters. 

Photo by Norman Dodds

It first appeared in a set of pictures on Facebook, and the title served to identify the image separately from the others. It still left viewers free to place their own interpretation on the image if they chose.

Looking at it in more detail, viewers might start asking themselves what is going on in the picture. Clearly there’s a couple of people on the right apparently moving quite quickly. The blur gives that away. You can make out the skates on their feet but perhaps only because the title tells us there’s some skating going on.

Then there’s those two more sinister looking individuals on the left with the grasping hands, and the hooded appearance. They are probably just less confident skaters feeling their way round the rink, but their darker appearance and the fingers suggest something different.

The picture is divided into four sections by the rink surrounds, and the rink itself is obscured by the plastic sheeting. The four figures overlap the internal frames which suggests movement again. The movement has something of a chase about it with the two blurred figures making their escape off to the right.

So with all this going on, why call the picture “Skaters” and not something more like “Escape”, or “Fear”.

One of the joys of viewing photographs is the possibility of having to work out for yourself what the picture is about. It may well be the photographer hasn’t spotted some of the wilder interpretations of his work and thinks it’s just an interesting picture of movement on ice. But that doesn’t negate those interpretations.

Pointing the viewer firmly in the direction of one or more of those interpretations removes some of the potential for the image to engage the viewer. There might well be occasions when you might want to close down that conversation. Perhaps a camera club competition where a judge has to come to a conclusion about the image in a short period of time, and you want to give them a helping hand (or two). “Scared Skaters” for example drops a pretty heavy hint, after all.

From a practical point of view, giving the image a unique name as an identifier then enables a conversation about it.  Rather than referring to “that untitled picture”, you’re helping people pick it out as “your Skaters picture”.

Does the title have to say what the picture is about? From what we’ve seen of Skaters, not necessarily. On the face of things, the picture is in fact of some skaters. But equally, you could also say it is about fear, or escape, or pursuit, or even hidden danger. Any number of interpretations are possible. Who is to say which is “correct”? And why do we need to flag what we feel is the correct one?

More to the point why would a viewer feel the need for it to be flagged? Lack of confidence in their ability to decide how a picture makes them feel? Or lack of imagination to ask questions about what is going on in the picture? Or perhaps simply a very literal view of what a photograph is supposed to do and be.

One of the great responsibilities of a photographer is perhaps the need to encourage conversations about the nature of photographs. In the end the title is just one way of getting those conversations started.

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