A common response to my earlier piece about finding or inventing titles for photographs is that a picture should "speak for itself": that it should have no need of a title. But what (if anything) does this actually mean? A picture does not stand alone. Where do we see it? What is the context? What size is it? What is the technical quality? What was the photographer's intention? Are there (to use a popular modern word) subtexts? Any of these questions may be as important as a title, or sometimes more important. For a concrete example, what does the picture below say? In accordance with what I said in the linked piece on titles, I call it Reflections in a Shoe-Shop Window, London

To tell the truth, I'm not entirely sure of its meaning myself. We are in the dread realms of semiotics. Are we looking at a sign, a symbol, a signal or a message? Let's forget semiotics, though -- no half measures -- and go for a whole otic. Is it surrealism? Is it a portrait? Is it a trenchant commentary on consumerism? Or perhaps on the alienation inherent in great cities?

Our interpretation of a picture is influenced not only by our culture, but also by our personal experience and knowledge, and by such questions as how big the picture is; whether it is a print in an expensive "Fina Art" gallery, or on Flickr; by how it is reproduced (with subtle gradations or harsh contrast and garish colours); by whether we are already familiar with the photographer's work, or at least with their work in that or another series; and by how we're feeling at the time. A picture that is mildly amusing at one time may be deeply meaningful at another time and completely worthless or even profoundly irritating at some other juncture. 

In other words, a picture does not (and cannot) "speak for itself" in any universal manner. It is always the intermediary in a transaction between the photographer and the person looking at the picture. To pretend that one's own response is the only possible or logical or legitimate reaction is feeble-minded in the extreme. I deliberately chose what I see as an ambiguous and hard-to-read picture to illustrate this article. If its meaning is immediately clear to you, well, bully for you: you know more about it than the photographer did. If you see nothing in it, I'm sorry to have wasted your time, but you haven't lost much: just move on. And if you choose to impose your own meaning on it, that's great. As I've said many times, I am much more interested in encouraging people to think than I am in persuading them to agree with me. 

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Words and picture copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017