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An Exploration of Truth, Part 4

With all the unknowns presented can this photograph be considered truth? And what about when captions and a title are added? From these additions we gain further information about our subject. She is a migrant mother. The image was taken in Nipomo, California in 1936. Captions add information to a photograph but can never fully re-contextualize the image. Walter Benjamin in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility,” wrote that photo magazines used captions as “signposts” to guide the viewer and because exhibitionist value has dislodged the cult value of a documentary photograph, “captions have become obligatory.” [1] Mary Price argues in, “The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space,”

Describing is necessary for photographs.

Call it captioning, call it titling, call it describing,

the act of specifying in words what the viewer

may be led to understand and to see is as necessary

to the photograph as it is to the painting. Or call it

criticism. It is the act of describing that enables the

act of seeing. [2]

Captions guide our assumptions and sometimes tell us what they should be but even captions are in themselves limited by space for how much information they can contain.

What happens then if we supplement with additional text? In the pictorial magazines we have today, such as “National Geographic,” photographs always are accompanied by words, whether it is captions or an article. Words have become necessary to the documentary photograph in order to make sure the information received by the viewer is more complete and accurate.

A discussion of the pictorial magazine leads us to the consideration of the photographic essay, another method used to give the viewer additional information. Time Life defines a photo essay as an,

Organization of a number of pictures on a single

theme so that they give a deeper, fuller, more rounded,

more intense view of their subject than any single

picture could. [3]

It is very hard within the confines of the photograph to tell a story. A story is a series of happenings, like in a film. But a photograph, unlike the many images of a film is only a single image. What a photographic essay seeks to do is to piece together a series of photographs into a narrative as is found in a movie.

All, these methods discussed above are used to re-contextualize the subject. The process of taking a photograph is one of transcription and translation. Clarke wrote, “The photographer imposes, steals, recreates the scene/seen…” [4]

What Clarke seems to be saying is that the photographer takes the subject from its original context by composing and choosing and creates a specific image. The subject has thus been decontextualized. Captions and other images are used to bring some of the necessary information back to the subject but can never put that scene back into its moment in history.

Price also argues that use establishes how a viewer sees a photograph, “…the use of a photograph determines its meaning.” [5] The space a photograph is viewed in changes how we view a photograph, whether it is a snapshot versus a professional photograph or created as journalism versus created as art. A photograph originally displayed in the context of a newspaper can later be displayed on the walls of an art museum. The photograph’s spatial context has been changed. In its original context the photograph is seen as a document recording reality as it exists but in the context of the museum the photograph becomes a work of art, the product of an artistic mind. This complicates the relationship between a viewer and the photograph for in the former context, transformation is considered misleading but in the latter, transformation is often welcomed and seen as the mark and genius of the creative hand.


[1] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility” Art and its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory. Ed. Stephen David Ross. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

[2] Price, Mary. The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

[3] Ed. Donovan, Hedley et al. Photojournalism. New York: Time Life Books, 1975

[4] Clarke, Graham. The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[5] Price, Mary. The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.


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