1. titles&captions
  2. placards&legends
  3. labels

The Treachery of Images (1952)

Figure 1.22
René Magritte: The Treachery of Images (1952)

1.2 Stable Relations of Words and Images

Jefferson Hunter's Image and Word: The Interaction of Twentieth-Century Photographs and Texts (1987) begins with a chapter on photographs with captions, and more recently Clive Scott may fairly be said to have written the book on titles and captions of photographs. This book, The Spoken Image: Photography and Language, begins with a characterization of photographic images as weak in their manifestation of the photographer's intentions and easily fixed and interpreted by surrounding text in the form of titles and captions. Scott traces practices and issues in various kinds of photography (documentary, journalistic, fashion) and the use of photographs in narratives, moving from the initial stable relations of title and caption to more and more experimental relations where the attempt is made to release the potential of photographs for "another kind of telling" (title of one such attempt by John Berger and Jean Mohr). With the latter works, it is impossible to specify exactly what the relation of text to image is, or which bears the main weight of meaning, so his book moves from what we are calling stable relations to unstable relations of text and image. Here we begin with noting some stable relations.


We expect exhibited and reproduced works of art to be accompanied by a word or words that are to be taken as the name of the "work". These titles generally occur immediately above the work, below it, or to side. Captions generally are found beneath figures and photographs and may be longer and of a more descriptive nature. Further, as Magritte reminds us, the title is sometimes set apart on a little brass plate. In the work to the left, however, the text on the plate is not the title of the work; it therefore is something more like a legend beneath a trophy, or, rather, it imitates a legend. Rosler very precisely refers to it with the linguistic term, metadiscourse.

Since the title is essentially the proper name of the work, it should be unique (within the artist's oeuvre, anyway) and it should be stable. Presumably the artist chose it to locate the work in some way, though artists marching under Modernist banners preferred titles describing the work (rather than what it represented) or the zero grade of titles "Untitled" (as with Cindy Sherman's works, although she does number them sequentially). Shane Cooper's variable captioner creates incongruity (and humor) by pairing images and captions from rather heterogeneous lists, which pairings change as one continues to click on the image. (random captioner)

Titles and captions can change over time even if provided by the author. Scott traces very substantial changes in his captioning of photos by the famous photojournalist Don McCullin from their early appearance in the late 1970s to their collection in 1987. MCCullin's earlier titles are very long and supply background and a narrative of the moment of taking, while the later titles draw back, are less interpretive, and leave more scope to the viewer for "personal discovery, the engagement of the imagination, the challenge to unravel what we do not understand" (88). So
Bradford boy whose leg has been mutilated in a scrap-yard accident and whose only mode of transportation is a baby's pram, 1978
Father and sons, housing estate, Bradford, 1978
and similarly
Down-and-out shouting confused political obscenities, Spitalfield market, London, 1973
Destitute men, London.
There are other changes as well that refocus from one figure to another in a photo and categorize in ways that alter our evaluation of what is depicted.

Scott shows us that there are costs involved in the fixing or anchoring of images, even journalistic ones, with titles, starting with narrowing and channeling our response. To be sure, he argues, the loosening of anchorage in the historical moment of taking the picture arises from the passage of time and a kind of quintessentialization of the moment as an image of recurrent human experience that can speak for itself (as they move, Scott says, from journalism to documentary). The refocusing and reevaluating changes, however, are not accounted for in this explanation. Scott finds these changes in the artist's own titles troubling, and he concludes that at times McCullin seems to know what his message is, and sometimes not.



Informative and appreciative placards with text specifying (or "anchoring") the image are still on the image-primary end of things. These provide (verbally) context for the work, including information about the subject represented, the date and circumstances of creation, and noteworthy features of the work. These are usually displayed next to the work they explicate and are a major part of what we expect to find in a curated exhibit. We may find them as well in a catalog of the exhibit or book devoted to the works of the artist and they are a key part of framing the work of art as art.

One of the things we generally are not told and presumably is not relevant to our appreciation of art as art is who has owned it and what they paid for it--its history as a commodity. Hans Haacke has created much discomfort and some uproar by exhibiting placards with that information next to various paintings along with other information about the owner's business holdings or those of the museum's directors. This information is a part of the story of how a particular work came to be exhibited before the public in that place and time, but it a part that our institutional conventions of High Art render invisible and unspeakable. Haacke's efforts have been rejected and censored and closed down, but he has also been invited repeatedly to develop public installations and to curate exhibits, so that some also influential people do applaud his incongruities and the opening up of Art they stimulate.

Jacqueline Hayden: Statuary I

Figure 1.23
Jacqueline Hayden: Statuary I

To see how much energy and interest can be generated from splitting of placard and image, consider the "Statuary" series by Jacqueline Hayden on www.zonezero.com; the first one of 10 is here in the margin. These pictures are presented one by one in a highlighted oval (museum lighting) against a rich dark maroon field; each comes with a little placard button that when pressed opens a window, as here, with the placard. (The picture also can be enlarged.) The placard text in each case seems utterly unaware of the modification Hayden has made to the antique torso ("Statue of Hermes: Marble Roman, Imperial Period, 1st or 2nd century A.D....") It thus enacts the obliviousness of the Western fine arts tradition to the look of bodies past the age of fifty. The images are rather small platinum prints done with great care and fine finish, and it would be quite wrong to take the exhibition as a joke mocking the aging body or the preposterous vanity of those past their physical prime. These tensions are evoked but not resolved (since images don't say anything); rather the gaze they call forth is a compassionate one seeking and finding a certain kind of beauty.


Organs of Speech

Figure 1.24
The Organs of Speech

Labelling would seem to be among the least problematic of relations: the label word, though inside the frame, is the name or (other index) of the part to which the term points by means of a pointer or the part where the label is located. At the left is a simple line drawing of a "saggital section" view of the mouth and throat directing attention to the parts that are centrally involved with speech. Line drawings appropriately scant realistic surface detail in favor of structural delineation. (Recent advances in anatomical imaging have provided a number of photographically-based alternatives to the hand-drawn "sagittal section" of the mouth. Here is one using a digitized sliced cadaver from the Visible Human Project.)

Larry Rivers: Parts of the Body: French Vocabulary Lesson III (1964)

Figure 1.25
Larry Rivers: Parts of the Body: French Vocabulary Lesson III (1964)

Another vocabulary lesson, this one very incongruent. The incongruity is not between label and image (Magritte had already done that past repeating), but between the standard format of a vocabulary diagram and its execution in this one of a series of French Vocabulary Lessons by Larry Rivers. In the standard format, the object or objects shown are all firmly outlined objects drawn in canonical recognition view. Here the figure is sketched on canvas and partially painted in, though some of the good-form symmetrical features are missing, the posture is not that of the standing nude female to be found in any number of anatomical drawings. She is not neutered, to say the least, and sits legs agape about full-sized or a little larger looking directly at us (with her one eye). And the labels: why black sprayed or painted stencil? (One is reminded of Foucault's remark about the "convent hand" script in Magritte's vocabulary travesties.) One simple and inadequate answer is that Jasper Johns was using similar lettering to put color names (RED, BLUE, YELLOW, etc.) on his paintings in ways that suggest to Philip Fisher the submergence or obliteration of signification in general(3); to Suzi Gablik, they link to Magritte's exploration of misaligned labels (137). (See for example Johns' famous False Start at Mark Hardin's artchive.) Here, however, the effect is to give the conventions of labelling, the carefully framed and directed textbook gaze, a good rough shake.

Kim Beckmann: Built World 2

Figure 1.26
Kim Beckmann: Built World 2

A final example of a labelled image gone astray: this may have started out looking like "Figure 2." with points 1-5 to be noted but it drifted into a more abstract space of words and concepts where voices, sounds, experiences, languages are all streaming into or out of a vortex along with some thoughts about space and some hard to make out pieces of things. Passing back through left to right again, the twisted configuration can be seen as a diagram of how barbs are twisted into barbed wire, which is one way to mark off a social field. This is in fact an unstable image, since what is label, what image begins to blur when the space ceases to be flat and the words appear angled toward the vanishing point vortex. This is one of Kim Beckmann's prize winning digital images at Art and Science Collaborations Digital98, where we find attached an evocative few lines of poetry and text that employs most of the words in this image.