I have always had trouble inventing good titles for my work. My good friend and future guest blogger Rob Prout and I talked about this recently. It is easy enough when doing portraits. It seems to me that portraits are reasonably well served with the individual’s name: ‘Hortense’ or ‘Hortense and Claude’ give the observer some information but do not necessarily prejudice their viewing of the photograph unless they know the individual and don’t like them or feel that I could have done a much better job. There is also the danger that if they don’t know the subject they won’t look at all. The difficulty arises with other kinds of images. I have often used the common title of place names. Perhaps place names are functional and provide a retrieval system but such epithets as ‘Alley, Orvieto’ or worse yet ‘Alley, Orvieto #73’, or ‘Sunrise, Lake Upchuck’ do give some information to the viewer but I fear there may be some danger in this kind of information. It may answer the first question the viewer has about the image; they don’t have to look at the image they already know all what they want to know. It may allow them to move on without really looking, I mean really looking. If everything in the exhibit or book or series, whatever, is titled so they can see the entire array I have labored over without having to look at pictures, all they need do is read the titles. I fear the following conversation after a noisy reception fueled by free wine and clever dips and carrot sticks: “Did you see Skip’s exhibit at Brackenwood?” “Yeah, they were all from towns somewhere in the boonies.” “Were the any good?” “I don’t know, I didn’t see them” or “oh yeah, I guess so.” What I mean is I want titles that allow me to reference the images but that more importantly direct a critical look; that invite the viewer to examine closely, to ask questions, to engage.
I really have an aversion to the title “Untitled” or incongruously “Untitled #3”. It seems to me that if there is no title then you should not title it. However, is it that no title invites the viewer not to look at all. I don’t know.
I photograph a lot of trees that I have titled by the place where I found them, “Portland” or “Kahlotus”. Such titles are totally unsatisfying, give no relevant information, and invite neither examination nor question. Names, of course, can be used as in portraits; however, there are a couple of potential problems here. One they tend to be clinical. I spent my professional career giving scientific names to various insects, which are necessary for science, but they do not add anything to art. ‘Oak Tree 13’ may be a good way for the viewer to say, “I really like ‘Oak Tree 13’ better than ‘Pine Tree 6’”, or “why the hell did he bother to take ‘Alder 2?” Useful perhaps, but not contributory. Also, frequently I have no idea what kind of tree it is.
Rob suggested that I title work with a small, perhaps insignificant part of image. If I can force myself to admit that there are any insignificant parts to my photos, this would certainly encourage the viewer to look closely.
Jackie, Rob’s wife, an absolute master at creating art quilts, will get an idea for a series of quilts while on a walk for example. She will label the resulting work ‘Winter Walk 1’ Winter Walk 2’ etc. This seems to me to be a very reasonable approach. Each piece is given a handle and perhaps a clue to possible questions but provides very little in the way of answers. I like that.
I am proposing no answers but would welcome discussion. Am I pretentious or what?!