Exercise 7 – Image and Text

I looked at this subject in some depth during TAoP

General view on captions and text in photo narratives: https://stevemiddlehurst.wordpress.com/2014/09/12/captions-and-other-words-in-photo-narratives/

A specific look at how Josef Koudelka used captions to emphasise his message in Wall. https://stevemiddlehurst.wordpress.com/2014/09/12/josef-koudelka-and-the-use-of-captions-in-wall/

How Philip Jones Griffiths combined captions, cutlines and essays in his highly influential book Vietnam Inc. https://stevemiddlehurst.wordpress.com/2014/09/12/philip-jones-griffiths-and-the-use-of-captions-cutlines-and-other-text-in-vietnam-inc/

How Tong Lam us use essays to expand upon his ideas in Abandoned Futures. https://stevemiddlehurst.wordpress.com/2014/09/12/tong-lam-and-the-use-of-essays-and-appropriations-in-abandoned-futures/

The course notes to Context and Narrative add two new ideas that I had not previously looked at:

Anchor: a caption that controls the meaning of the photograph, in Roland Barthes’ words the text us used to “counter the terror of uncertain signs” (1). The ability to ensure that the reader understands the right message, disregards and regards the right signs, is important to advertisers, the press, politicians and anyone else how wants the picture they present to be understood in a specific manner.

Relay: text that has equal status with the image so that they work together to develop a fuller meaning. This is less common, at least it is less common in an abbreviated form, I would cite Vietnam Inc. (2) as a book where text and photograph are equally important and share the podium.

Both these ideas are presented in essay The Rhetoric of the Image by Roland Barthes (1) which, as suggested by the course notes, I read and, as is usual; with Barthes, left me confused and tired. I have become a collector of classic Barthes phrases, my previous favourite being “proletarian ethnography”, I am now very taken with an image being “cleared utopianically of its connotations”..

I am particularly interested in the relationship between text and images and much of my work in the last two years has involved the exploration of this relationship. In many ways Invisible People, my assignment 1, was looking at how one picture can hold two or many different meanings with each meaning being released from the image through text. In my essay on seriality and neutrality I took this a step further and looked at how similar photographs of the same subject can carry different meanings depending upon the artists’ provided or discovered context.

Exhausted by Barthes I turned to an old favourite, Pictures on a Page by Harold Evans (3), to consider captions from the perspective of an editor. Evans also points out that photographs without any text do occasionally appear in journalism, sometimes because they are confirming a known event, sometimes because the subject matter is so obvious that no one can misunderstand the photograph (he gives the example that “famine causes misery”) and occasionally because the photograph makes its point purely through its composition. I think it is still fair to say that Henri Cartier-Bresson was the master of making a point solely through composition.

Evans also makes the point that the reader of a newspaper is rarely satisfied by such simple statements. Of course few papers have photographers of Cartier-Bresson’s ability working for them and we could use that as an argument for anchors in photojournalism but I also believe the art world is too quick to argue for pictures without words as being the purest form of photography. A high percentage of the photographs at the Conflict. Time. Photography. Exhibition at the Tate Modern (4) used captions, and for many of the displays those captions were fundamental to both understanding and appreciation. Evans argues that (anchor) captions do not diminish the photograph but, rather, have the ability to “enhance both emotional and cognitive values”. Conflict. Time. Photography. proved that captions can identify people and places, explain relationships, fix the time, elaborate on what is happening, confirm mood and point out elusive detail – in fact do all the things that Evans tells us captions are for.

To risk harking back to Barthes, the newspaperman also highlights that captions can “attempt to counter our irritating perversity in each drawing different, even contradictory, meanings from the same image”.

It is self apparent that a caption directs us towards a particular interpretation of an image. Changing the caption therefore changes the meaning, the idea behind my assignment 1, but I question whether this is always the case. If the image is neutral, Ruscha’s gasoline stations for example, the caption can direct meaning highly effectively. “Uninteresting gasoline station on route 66”; or Brouws’ message “Independent gasoline stations threatened by new legislation that favours the well funded, multi-national chains”; or Tabuchi’s view “Low-tech non architecture lines our roads”.

However, if the image is loaded with visual messages that trigger the viewer’s prejudices (i) then, the caption will only direct interpretation if the viewer is already receptive to the sub-editor’s viewpoint. Take for example a photograph of a completed tackle in a Premier League football match, the tackler stands over his fallen, tackled victim. The committed supporter sees either a fair tackle by “his” player and an opposition player who dived or a brutal assault on “his” player by the opposition. No caption will change those opinions.

For relays, text that holds equal status to the image, the opportunity to influence the viewer’s interpretation remains, if we believe that photographs are always read in context then it must be the case that any text associated with a photograph will influence our reading of that photograph.

Notes on Text

(i) We normally refer to these prejudices as the viewer bringing their context to the photograph.



(1) Barthes, Roland (1977) Rhetoric of the Image (published as an essay within Image Music Text, translated by Stephen Heath) London: Fontana Press

(2) Jones Griffiths, Phillip. (1971) Vietnam Inc. : First Published by Collier Books 1971, this edition published in 2001 and reprinted in 2011. London: Phaidon.

(3) Evans, Harold. (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.

(4) Baker, Simon and Mavlian, Shoair (2014) Conflict. Time. Photography. London: Tate Enterprises.

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