Street Photography 101: What’s in a name?

Should you add a name or title to your photograph or should you leave it to the viewer to interpret what your image is about and come to their own conclusions?

I’ve always had a bit of a haphazard approach to naming my images. Sometimes I do it; most times I don’t. When I do, names tend to be informative rather than to aid the viewer in interpreting or understanding the image. I think the former was often done because I didn’t see my images as being ‘worthy’ of having some arty-farty meaning associated with them. I considered my images as being more functional than artistic. With my street images however I am more and more feeling the need to help the viewer understand the intent behind the image.

There are many ways of naming or titling photographs. If you have been following this series of blog posts you will see I name my images in three parts:

  1. A title which aids in helping the viewer understand or interpret the image.
  2. A place name and date which enables people to gain more context.
  3. Technical information on the equipment and the settings used to create the image.

2. and 3. are informational and useful for people who want to understand how I go about creating my street images. This is why I am doing these blog posts so something I consider worthwhile adding. 1. is the more interesting for me however as it helps viewers to understand context and for me to impose additional layers of meaning on the image.

There is a school of thought which says people who view a piece of art should be allowed to form their own understanding of what the work is about – possibly therefore leaving the artists intent open to interpretation. This is absolutely a valid approach and naming an image ‘Untitled’, or not even bothering with that, has not done any harm to a number of famous artists. From a commercial point of view however, someone purchasing your image is probably going to see it as having more value if it has a title rather than something without one. If you want to see proof of this take a look at Ansel Adams book 400 Photographs. Everyone has not just a name but a location and a date as well. The world famous Clearing Winter Storm definitely has more impact with that name, even if the photograph is technically and artistically sensational to begin with.

The artist Clare Narty says that a good name for an artwork should:

  • Provide insight into your inspiration for the artwork.
  • Help the artwork tell its story.
  • Leave room for the viewer to bring his or her own meaning and interpretation to the artwork.
  • Be memorable and catchy.
  • Be original.
  • Should not be too cheesy.

I’ve tried to take some of these guidelines into account when naming this image (that is the bit in quotes).

“Missing”, Babbacombe, England, 2021 (Fujifilm X-Pro3, XF35mm F2, 1/1000s @ f/8.0, ISO 640)

This was a typical grab shot captured on a beach walk this summer in Devon. I saw the woman who appeared to be looking for something on the beach while her friend/partner/husband was trying to catch a nap on the concrete step. I took a couple of quick shots (luckily having preset my camera) not really knowing if I had anything worthwhile keeping. It was only when I got home and looked at the image I saw the mans head was completely hidden behind a bag. He appeared to be headless! I thought this made a good juxtaposition of the woman looking for something – maybe her partners head! Adding the title “Missing” helps the viewer understand the story even if I could not say it was exactly my inspiration for making the shot. I’m trying to add some context, even if it’s not literal – the guy clearly has a head. Okay, so this is not going to win any competition but I kinda like what I ended up with.

Titles (or names) are one thing by captions are another. Titles are generally short and succinct whereas a caption tends to be longer and are usually written to explain what is going on (if it’s not obvious). A caption might describe actualities (people, place, time etc) or maybe describes less tangible things such as feelings, emotions or thoughts of the photographer about the image or why it was made.

I think street photography, possibly above any other genre of photography, really does require some sort of contextual naming of images. Whilst it may be nice to know where and when the image was made I think it’s essential to also understand either the photographers intent or at least his or her interpretation of the image they made. This for me is why I have now started to name all my street images.

Go to previous Street Photography 101 post.

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