The Taxonomy of a Title

This essay has been written as a pre-text to a yet to be released mixed-media series.

My images, like the images of others are shared regularly on social media. What outlet this has been has changed over time, moving from network to network like water following the path of least resistance. But regardless of specifics, the underlying requirement to include a title for each image posted as if it were a caption persevered. These snippets of text were designed to be brief, though never implied that it was for a true photo title. The options were left ambiguous to the poster, leading to a tree of options with no incorrect answer. The opportunity to represent yourself in brevity or length as you describe your day, inspiration, or anecdote was seen as a welcome contextual requirement that allowed you to reach your viewer as if you were standing next to them.

However, despite my photographs conforming to these standards, the true titles each one carries are blank; or “untitled” per the artistic community. While this would seem to imply that any titles my images do carry are falsehoods, I think it’s more important to make the distinction between captions and titles, and how they can often be seen as a single object despite their varied intent. Through this, we can also establish the meaning behind a title and its origin as it matters within modern documentarian photography.

I should note, that the style of photography I am referring to is not one that in any other circumstance would dance around. This new form of capture as defined since the 1970s and curated into the 2000s seeks to return image capture to a natural state, preserving moment and intent as the subjects exist without exposition. As a category, it crosses styles that were once previously silo’d. Street, portraiture, still life. All seen separately until within the last few years where they could come together with the intent to prove truth and the need for archiving moments of rapid change. Within this style, the need for definition of what an image title is and means becomes less of a requirement. This can be framed in the context of separating the requirements needed to be a title or caption. In a digital age where comment is desired from both the self and the viewer, the caption has superseded the title for single images and begs the question, in retrospective viewings, does the caption take the place of the title? And if so, do we find the need to title photographs diminishing as their role in influencing the viewers own answers about the piece vanishes?

This relationship of title and answer has seen a slow erosion through the same social networks I’ve shared images through. As individual photographs are placed before the viewer, there is an inability to account for what comes next and the what the story constructed through consecutive photographs will be. That is to say, without the ability to know who, or what photo will appear in a feed due to algorithmic displays based on posting frequency and assumed viewer interaction, the weight carried by claiming a specific image title is non-existant. Each piece of text, be it caption or title, only masks the true name of any given piece of art: which is “untitled”.

A rejection of naming works is a return to the earliest instances of art itself. As Ruth Bernard Yeazell writes in her article “The Art That Has No Name”,

    “For the vast majority of European paintings before the eighteenth century, the absence of a title testified not to a deliberate refusal of prevailing custom but to the default condition of artistic practice.”

As modern documentarian photography seeks a return to the fundamental understanding of image capture as a recreation of singular moments for the purposes of statement and record keeping, it understandably finds roots within early works of art that do not seek to be labeled as their subject presents the inherent title within the image itself. Yeazell continues,

    “Yet to the degree that such images originated in commissions rather than the open market—as did most Italian painting before the eighteenth century—they, too, were often designed for a particular space, where most viewers could be expected to recognize what they were seeing. The person who worshipped at the altar of a local church or chapel, the family and friends afforded access to the private quarters of a nobleman: such viewers could rely on a common culture and informal means of exchange to identify the images before them.”

This is the goal of the photographer. Presenting this as they should be, with a title to match. And while there is a clear way to title a photograph based on the instinct of either the viewer or the self (note these titles may not be identical, but may both still be correct), qualifying this has proven to be a challenge. But that's not to say impossible, and through the study of countless personal and third party photographs, I've created a system that has allowed me to take steps forward in within my (currently titled) series 20 photographs

Once, while at a gallery I heard a story of Robert Frank, in which wanting the gallery to host his images, but not having the desire to print and supply the photographs himself. He simply sent along the negatives to the curator with a note that read, "Make yourself some prints". To Frank it was not important that he be present to work with the images. Only that the images existed and could speak for themselves. It's important to note here that Frank was vehemently against titles and words surrounding works. This method and understanding that presence should not be a requirement is the backbone of this naming structure.

Segmented into three parts, the Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary, this naming structure holds true for all of my images past, present, and future. Built on language and sentence structure, there are only 6 potential combinations for a title using the 3 components. It can be stated that at any point in time this system can be referenced to apply both context, and my own clear intent behind the capture of an image regardless of if I am there to answer it myself.

I've purposefully left out graphic aids and example images as it would go against the intent of the naming structure.

The Primary, as a starting point, is the easiest to define. Always a noun, it is what the viewer's eye is first drawn to as you look at a photo. It is a fundamental component in deciphering artwork, and in our earliest art classes during grade school what would be used as an introductory question as we look to simply deconstruct an artwork before we apply any context or try to discern what the artist intended as they completed their works. The easiest way to know the primary of a photograph is to answer a question posed to yourself, "This is a photo of a ___", where the blank is a single word answer in the simplest of terms. Large hotel would become hotel, Ford F-150 would be Pickup, Truck, or even simpler, Car. It is not up to the primary to describe anything outside of what we first lay our eyes on, that falls entirely on the remaining two components.

The Secondary, sees splits in where it can take the viewer. As a component, it's most simply realized as the action the Primary takes, or the second descriptor required to differentiate it from another potentially similar image. If the photo is a portrait, we can assume the Primary is a name or similar focused descriptor. Then we determine what the subject is doing. Smiling, sad, happy. Alternately, if the Primary is less focused and instead relies on a more vague descriptor, the Secondary may then need to be another noun in order to account for the lack of information available. With this pathway, we may see then a Primary of "Woman", with the Secondary being "Dress" to further clarify the description of a subject.

The Tertiary exists as the only optional component of this structure. If the photo has been defined sufficiently from the Primary and Secondary alone, no further descriptors are needed. However, as a library of images expands the requirement for inclusion may find itself worked into the fabric of naming taxonomy. It is also the most complicated, with four potential pathways to be used depending on the use of the Secondary. If the Secondary was a verb, the Tertiary will almost certainly be an adjective. However, if the Secondary was a second noun, we see the Tertiary open up to be either a noun, verb, or adjective.

This optional step provides the most variety and choice within an image title. It can be used as a date to differentiate between the same subject at two points in time (Hotel - Abandoned, 2013 vs. Hotel - In Use, 2018) in which the building, a Hotel, was re-occupied at some point during the four year gap between images. It can also be the action of the two descriptive objects (Hotel - Window, Open), or the last descriptor required to ensure there is clarity of the image itself (Hotel - Room, Large). 

The requirements for a clear Taxonomy of names stems from the requirement to lead the viewer through a collection without direct interaction from the self. By presenting images that share no information outside of what is already visible and clearly understood by the viewer, there is an impartiality that can be applied that exists beyond "untitled" as a title. Returning to Yeazell's piece,

"Under modern circumstances of display and reproduction, in fact, Untitled, too, is a kind of title: a word that routinely accompanies the work as it circulates in the culture and that instructs us, if only by negation, how to view it."

This impartiality created through naming allows the viewer to work their way through the body of work unobstructed, something that modern photo sharing rarely allows in a truly uninhibited manner. And as documentarian photography continues to reject modernity through the falsified presentation of images and the means by which they are captured, the need for the photographer to step away is greater than ever.