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?!

Harrington Basketball




This article has 10 comments

  1. Alan Frost

    Hi Skip. What an interesting topic. I am not particularly imaginative when it comes to titles for photographs. I usually end up with something rather bland, which doesn’t do much for the image or help the viewer. More recently I have not used titles but perhaps that’s just me being lazy, but if the title doesn’t add anything, why mention it in the first place. I am a member of a camera club, where an entry in a club competition has to be labelled. Often a weak title will be to the detriment of a good photograph which seems a little harsh when surely its the picture being judged not the language skills of the photographer! I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here, but in my view it should either be factual (name, location etc) or be imaginative, and really enhance or ask questions about the image, which I think can be quite a hard thing to achieve. Alan

    PS – Particularly like the image of the ‘trees’ in this post.

    1. Skip Smith

      Alan thank you for your comments. I am glad that I am not the only ‘at sea’ about titles. I am particularly interested in the idea that a weak title may detract. skip

  2. Francy

    Titles are pesky things. I tend to use the same ones over and over which leaves me with the problem of not knowing which picture a person is referring to when they say that they like (or dislike…) such and such a piece. I’ve decided that in the end, for me, it doesn’t REALLY matter. It all works out since making the image is the important part of what I do. You are a wordsmith, however, as well as a photoSmith…so it’s all very worth consideration!

    By the way, is this last photo “Susan H photographing a basketball net”? See…I did look at it!

    1. Skip Smith

      I agree, the making of the art is the most important. And yes, that is what she is photographing.

  3. John ninnemann

    Interesting issue, Skip, and one I wrestle with myself. To me, however, there is a distinct difference if one’s goal is documentary photography vs what might be called fine art photography. In the former case, a very specific and directive title might well be in order, where the letter (I agree) should promote discovery on the part of the viewer. Like you, I really dislike titles like “Seascape #96”.

  4. Don

    Skip, I believe titles on artwork serve to identify subject, location, and time (actual or metaphorical) so as to provide the viewer with some context to the image content. Artists seek to connect with viewers and titles provide entry to the piece for further examination (or so we hope). How we select which naming convention to ‘label’ our piece depends on our desire to engage the eventual viewer. Do we want to be literal or obscure, factual or imaginative?

    What becomes of the title after the work comes off the gallery wall? Is it inscribed somewhere on the piece or is it found only on the display card? I have changed the title on a particular image as it moves from show to show. When (and if) it sells, was the title a contributing factor?

    People buy Art for what the image prompts in the viewer’s emotional experience. A title may trigger a closer look, but the image content and quality of the work’s combined elements make the sale.

    1. Skip Smith

      Don, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I really like your last paragraph and just want to make sure that the title does trigger a closer look rather than a dismissal.

  5. Luba

    I don’t find that a title makes us look at photographs. They can help to guide us on some occasions. But more often than not it is the image that makes us either stop in front of it, or go by. If a viewer has happened to be accidentally in front of your work, no matter titles, they would just float by unless the image – not the title resonate with them at a deeper level; they would glance at it like “here we’ve got a tree”, and there “we’ve got a portrait”. People who are trained to look at photographs in particular are oblivious to titles (as a way of a crutch for a photograph to stand out). When I go to see a show, titles are the last thing that concerns me (if at all). I do find a write up on the body of work helpful. A lot of times it gives us an idea and understanding of where the artist is coming from: is the body of work a metaphor, or a literal representation? What moves him or her? What makes her or him to look where they look and press the shutter the moment they do? These are the clues that a write up , a statement can provide.

    Here is why I am not interested in titles. I liked the last image. Having never seen it in life, and not having a way of clicking on it to make it larger, I did not know that it was “Susan H photographing the hoop” until I read one of the comments. What I thought it was and why I liked it so much was that the woman was playing hoops, and that she was caught in a somewhat awkward moment with the ball already thrown up in the air, disappearing from view. I knew it must have been somewhere in the air, yet it was not part of the image. The metaphor struck me, it is the allusion I found interesting. So there is that anticipation frozen for eternity – would she make the shot? The ball is literally out of her hands now. I know that it was not the photographer’s intention in the first place. I still like the image for what it has already given me. Now it is even more interesting because of what I saw in it was not there in the first place. The title “Susan photographing the hoop” would have/might have taken it my first impression away from me.

    I’m clear that when I’m looking through the viewfinder, I am not constructing a crossover between the words and the image. I do find that articulating a general idea (however, general it might be) helps me (and not the viewer) to define, and hopefully refine my vision. So I do find that writing is an important part of the process. However, I no longer am concerned with the titles. I know why I have taken the image; it will either resonate with you or it won’t. If the former, you would stop and spend some time in front of it, if the later no matter how clever I am in crafting the title, you would not give it a second look, ether then perhaps thinking to yourself “She/He is clever with words”…

    I would do it for me (not out of consideration for a potential audience). Sometimes the title is simply there (not knowing anything, I would say that ” a nude in a shed ” was one of those instances), sometimes the image might start with the craftily coined phrase. And if it is not there, I would just let an image to tell the story. My imaginary hat is off to you, my dear friend.

    1. Skip Smith

      Luba, thank you for such a considered response. I thank all of you. I am delighted with all of the well reasoned and thought provoking responses.

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Please send me an email for general inquiries, friendly hello's, or to contact me for print purchase. All pieces are available. Thank you for your interest! –Skip