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Documentary & portraiture photography

2.1 The gaze in portraiture 2.2 Image and text 2.3 Case studies
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Intermediate Part 1 of 3

The use of words in photographs has changed from numbers and initials scratched onto the rebate, to hand written messages adding to the narrative appearing directly on the print. How has this affected our understanding of the relationship between words and pictures? Do we separate the two, or regard the text as something integral to the final work?

My first calling to be a professional photographer occurred in a New York bookshop in the Wall Street area in 1986. I happened upon a copy of Ansel Adams’ autobiography, and opened it at a photograph he had taken of Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park, a black and white image of the face of a mountain, with a storm cloud above. In the accompanying text, he described how he felt at the time he visualized the picture, and the act of taking one of his more famous images. He also printed opposite the photograph, a letter written to his brother outlining the feelings he had at the time, and how the experience moved him. The combination of his words and pictures led me into thinking that this was something I could hope to achieve; the powerful combination of words and images could interpret my experiences and form a medium to share my vision.

Together in the book, the letter and the photograph had a significant meaning in my life, and their relationship to each other had a unique significance in that the meanings of both the photograph, and the letter were altered in a special way by appearing on the same double page spread. My luck was the moment of inspiration one feels when one discovers a path, one that I have followed for 16 years so far. The relationship between the words and the photograph was a trigger for me, perhaps uniquely, and their meaning was so derived because of my state of mind at the time. Reading the same book now (I bought it) and looking at the same pages, the feeling of inspiration felt by Adams as he describes his moment of creation, and the discovery of his calling, returns me to my moment of discovery in the bookshop, and the start of what has become a quest to examine the relationship between words and pictures.

In traditional reproduction, words and pictures had clearly defined roles in relationship to each other. This took the form of the news or magazine photo, and its caption. In other situations, for example in the context of a gallery of photographs displayed on a wall, the captions can take the form of separately mounted type placed adjacent to the relevant photograph. Notes about the ideas, themes and aspirations of the exhibition are produced on a separate sheet of paper to accompany the photographs on the walls, aiding the understanding of the visual work they compliment.

In all of these situations, the text and the photographs are complimentary; they are to be viewed as one entity, where the meanings of each are interdependent. The accompanying words can provide extra detail about the photographs, eg. the five "W"s in a press / news context - who, what, where, why, when - and explanation in photo texts, where the relationship between the words and pictures is of a more ambitious nature.

The photograph can only be defined and understood in terms of the complimentary language of words. The purely visual themes are evaluated and judged by language, our response is qualified by language, and these words define the meaning and context of the photographs in terms of individual response.

The photograph itself is an object in context, defined by the space it occupies in relationship to the viewer, and further defined in terms of the complimentary language used in its presentation. This is a relationship in a state of flux, as the caption can redefine the meaning of a photograph.

© John Frederick Anderson

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