Do you find it easy to title your photography works?
I don’t. I have been working on a project (about an imaginary planet) for more than a year now, but still didn’t find a final title. While the photographs have added up and exhibitions have been set up, the title has changed time and again and I still didn’t settle. Why is it so difficult to find a good title and how important is it?
What’s the big deal, you might think? The photographs are more important, aren’t they? Shouldn’t your photographs speak for themselves? Good photographers don’t need titles. Just give your project a name and get on with your life.
To some extent, this may be right. As a photographer, your first focus should be on the photographs. You should make your photographs in such a way that they convey the message you want to bring.
However, after all the hard work is done (coming up with a project, conceptualising it, putting in the effort to make the photographs, printing for exhibitions, etc.), you shouldn’t neglect your title. A title is more important than you might think. A title can make or break people’s appreciation for your photographs.
Title your photography to establish first contact
Ok, so you want people to appreciate your photographs. You want them to learn something, feel something or experience something while looking at your photographs. What’s the first crucial step to achieve this?
Make people see your photography.
Titles can be a great ally in this quest. A title is often the first contact between a viewer and your photography project. In a photo book store, for example, the majority of books is stacked in shelves. An effective title (together with size and physicality) might be the only way to grab someone’s attention and make them pick up your book.
Similarly, your title in a photo festival brochure or group exhibition leaflet might make people search out your part of the exhibition over others.
Even within an exhibition room, titles will be the first thing people see. Title and description of a project are often presented at the entrance. Moreover, even the tiny title next to a giant photo print might get attention first before the image is examined. I’ve seen this many times in photo exhibitions and I even notice this tendency in myself too.
Title your photography for longer viewing time
Now that you’ve grabbed people’s attention, you don’t want to disappoint them.
Your title should be aligned with your photography project in some way. Think about it like the title of a newspaper article. If the title attracts your interest and the content fits with the title, you’ll feel satisfied. If, the title takes things out of context, is overly exaggerated or even completely in conflict with the content of the article, you’ll feel betrayed.
Choose your title wisely and it will increase how much time people spent with your photography. Photographs don’t always speak for themselves. One photograph can be interpreted in many different ways. People often want an anchor for their viewing experiences. A title can be that anchor. Something to guide people’s viewing behaviour. Something to compare what they got out of the photograph with the intentions of the photographer. They can go back between title/description and the photograph(s) and it can change what they ‘see’ in the image(s) or what they learn from them.
In a world where people are bombarded with images every day and average viewing times are rapidly decreasing, a title can be a very valuable asset in your quest for people’s focused attention.
Title your photography for aesthetic appreciation
A photograph aligned with the proper title can make a very powerful package. It can even heighten people’s aesthetic appreciation for your photograph.
Aesthetic science researcher Stephen Palmer and his colleagues studied people’s aesthetic preferences in several studies. In one of their studies on spatial composition, they found that people generally prefer the object of an image to be in the centre of the frame. At least, that’s what they found for the front-facing objects. Objects that were facing towards the side were preferred off-center. An object facing the right side was preferred on the left side of the frame, and the other way around.
This is something you might have learned in photography class too. Always leave some ‘breathing space’ in the direction of where the person looks and place them off-center. See for example the portraits of Albert Camus by Henri Cartier-Bresson below.
However, photographs don’t always follow these kinds of aesthetic ‘rules’ and can still be highly effective and aesthetically pleasing. Again, a title can help you with effectively conveying your message for a heightened aesthetic experience.
Consider, for example, photographs of racehorses. Given the preferences above, you’d expect people appreciate a right-facing horse to be on the left side of the frame. However, Palmer & colleagues found that, when the title implied the idea that the horse was ahead of other objects, people preferred the horse to be on the right side.
Thus, a title can influence what spatial composition people find most aesthetically pleasing. The researchers concluded that
The aesthetic response to an image will thus be greatest when its spatial composition effectively conveys (fits) the message defined by the title it was given.
Similarly, this mechanism might explain why Giotto’s painting titled ‘The expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ works so well. Title, content and composition work together to provide a powerful message of Joachim’s expulsion. You can almost feel Joachim being pushed outside of the picture frame.
Start to title
In sum, these effects of titles on your photography can explain a) why it can be difficult or intimidating to title your photographs and b) why you should consider to properly title your photographs and projects anyway.
With a title, you can lure people in, elucidate some key aspect or atmosphere of your project or photograph, add something extra to your images and make people remember your project. Most importantly, however, it will guide people’s interpretation of your images, and therefore also how they feel about them, how they judge them and how long they spent looking at them.
So, how will you title your next photographic work?
Read more about the research by Palmer & colleagues:
Palmer, S. E., Schloss, K. B., & Sammartino, J. (2012). Hidden knowledge in aesthetic judgments. Aesthetic science: Connecting minds, brains, and experience, 189. A prior version of the chapter can be found here.
Blog post by Alec Soth on titles:
Alec Soth – The Ballad of Good and Bad Titles