TITLES


Picture titles are always a vexed question. What are they for? Who needs them? How do you choose them? And what would you call this?



Ideas come easily enough. A couple of sort-of-puns suggest themselves: The Order of the Boot, or The Order Of the Garter. Then there's Leg Up or Leg Over, plus lots of more or less arcane positions on the cricket field: Long Leg, Deep Leg, even Square Leg though the shape doesn't really work. What they all have in common is that they read like weak headlines in provincial newspapers. An essential requirement of humour is that it should be funny, and in photo titles (as in provincial newspapers) this is all too rare. 

Bent leg has its charm, because as far as I am aware it's not actually a cricket position, though it might be: in a sport where Silly Mid Off is a recognized term, and not even of abuse, anything is possible. The working title (the picture was only a week old as I wrote this) is however Plaster Leg in Magazine Rack, because I've always favoured simple, descriptive titles that help both me and the viewer remember what it is. I could have said "mannequin" instead of "plaster" but "plaster" is easier to remember. Likewise "rack" instead of "basket", though I think either would do.

This is why I don't like "Untitled" and "No Title". Go to an exhibition with half a dozen Untitleds in it, then try and tell someone else which ones you liked and disliked. You can try to use the photographer's name, but that relies on both you and your interlocutor having any memory of (or indeed interest in) the name. Besides, if the same photographer calls everything No Title it can be quite hard to explain exactly which of several pictures you either liked or didn't like. The absence of a distinctive title also greatly reduces the chance of remembering the picture, at least for me; but then, I think very verbally. 

Nor is there any merit in excessively vague or generic names, such as "Waiting to Leave". This could be used for a bored child, a dog straining at a leash, or a car behind a car-park barrier -- or a hundred other things. A non-memorable title is about on a par with a pseudo-clever title, which in turn is just as bad as failed humour: another "Waiting to Leave" would be the last leaf on an otherwise bare branch. Leave/leaf, geddit? This is especially important on line, where I see the title before the picture. Yes, it's possible that I'll look at your picture with the "clever" title; but it's equally likely that I won't bother, because pictures with that sort of title are rarely worth looking at. "Sunrise" at least tells me what I can expect. It might be good; it might be bad; but it won't be coy or faux-clever (unless it's a picture of someone's baby smiling).

Places, names, numbers and even dates are OK, because at least they give you a unique identifier, and they don't appear to do much commercial damage: think of Gursky's Rhein II, which also has the merit of sounding mildly amusing in German (Eins Zwei, One Two). I have to remember it that way, because otherwise I can't remember which Rhein it was: I keep thinking it's Rhein IV. I don't know why, but it doesn't matter: I just don't remember it.

Numbers and dates really need to be combined with proper words, again in the interests of memorability, and unlike verbal descriptions, dates usually diminish in utility as they gain in specificity. Red Leaf, Winter 2016 is probably more memorable than Leaf, 17/10/2016. On the other hand, a title such as Red Vine Leaf II, Mouterre-Silly, October 2016, is probably too long and almost certainly excessively detailed. 

Nor are many people likely to be interested in the precise history and details behind the picture. I shot Plaster Leg (etc)  at a vide-grenier near where I live: at Loudun for what it's worth, but how much good does it do you to know that? About as much good as knowing what camera and lens I used (Nikon Df  and 55/2.8 Micro-Nikkor), which in turn is more useful than knowing what ISO I used, what aperture and what shutter speed (can't remember and can't be bothered to look it up). 

Of course every rule, even self-imposed ones, can be broken. In such cases, always remember the first rule of rule-breaking: when you break rules, break 'em good and hard. My Secret Life of Chairs, Part I and Part II, uses humour in very long titles, but people still seem to like the pictures. And the titles, though I suppose they're more like captions: the words and the pictures are interdependent. So before you title your pictures (or neglect to title them) think of the people who will be looking at them. Then ask yourself whether you'd like them to remember what they've seen.


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Words and picture copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017