Pictures and Text, Text and Pictures

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I recently came across an interview with Moyra Davey in which the role of text alongside photography was discussed. “Writing holds ideas and feelings in a way that is much more stable,” Davey asserted, “whereas a photograph is ambiguous and has the ability to distort much more than a text.” Reading this, I initially found myself nodding. Yes, that’s how it works, or rather that’s the difference between text and pictures. But the more I think about it, the less certain I am that I actually agree with this statement. I’ve now arrived at a point where I think that maybe Davey’s statement is true if one takes text and pictures as separate entities. However, the moment they are made to interrelate, I don’t think sweeping statements about what text or separately pictures do can be made any longer. Instead, one would have to look at what text and pictures do together, how one informs the other in what seems to me a possibly complex relationship.

In the world of photography, this approach doesn’t appear to be very common — at least as far as I can tell. Here, photographs are almost always taken as being in the driver’s seat, with text riding shotgun (at best). I think I can understand where that approach is coming from, given that if you’re a photographer it ought to all be about the pictures. Consequently, most photographic bodies of work contain either no text or if there is text then its role is very severely limited.

In an obvious sense and at least in part also for historical reasons, the usage of text differs from one context to the next. For example, the world of photojournalism uses captions and often will have pretty intense discussions over their validity and/or veracity. Documentary photography will incorporate often very elaborate pieces of text that, however, often are produced by a different author and that usually almost lead a life of their own.

In the context of fine-art photography, text is very severely limited, to the extent that pictures might not even have titles, let alone captions. This is a very valid approach that can lead to very good results. At the same time, it’s oddly limiting. Why omit text, one might wonder, if it could elevate the work beyond what the pictures in question are able to do? This brings me back to the Davey quote, because it seems to lie at the core of why so many photographers are so hesitant to even consider using text (let’s ignore the “If I had wanted to use text, I would have become a writer” sentiment — that’s little more than an incredibly silly cop out). Text, it is widely believed, is a lot more specific (or, in Davey’s words, “stable”) than pictures, and it thus places limitations on the pictures. Over the course of the past decade, I’ve heard this expressed in a variety of ways, and I don’t think it’s true at all.

The topic gets incredibly interesting once you start looking at artists working with text and pictures. Take Sophie Calle. If you flipped through at any of her books without reading the text, you’d probably end up being completely baffled. Most of the pictures are not terribly interesting in their own right. In fact, Calle doesn’t even necessarily take them. If you were to approach the work the other way around, reading only the text and ignoring the pictures, you might end up in almost the same situation. It is only when you take everything together that the full beauty of the work unfolds. Taken together, Calle’s text and images lift each other to the heights this artist has been able to reach.

Take Jim Goldberg. If you ignore the writing, possibly because you don’t want to bother deciphering the often hard-to-read handwriting, you’ll probably end up wondering what the big deal is. What’s with all those different camera and/or film formats, and why is this all so messy? It’s only when you start reading the text while looking at the pictures that the whole unfolds, and again, the pictures work with its associated text (and vice versa) to arrive at a larger truth that neither of them have if taken on their own.

Those two artists use text alongside or, in Goldberg’s case, as added parts of the photographs. Of course, there also is the option of using text that is in the pictures. There is, for example, Lee Friedlander’s Letters from the People, which basically is the simplest possible approach to using text in pictures. The utility of this approach exhausts itself very quickly. It gets a lot more interesting when you consider Gillian Wearing’s Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say. In a sense, this marries the Friedlander and Goldberg approaches. For what it’s worth, the I’m Desperate picture amazes me every time I see it (and I’ve looked at it a lot).

These different examples point at the basic fact that the combination of text and pictures includes a very large variety of possibilities — which makes it even more baffling why photoland as a whole is so resistant to working with text. When I discuss text and pictures with students, inevitably the question arises which artists to look at. Often, a student’s response will run along the lines of “That’s not what I had in mind.” The lack of a clear role model for artists interested in working with pictures and text again points at the fact that there is no single model of how pictures and text work together. Instead, it’s up for grabs. It needs to be worked out for the particular body of work in question. That’s not a problem. That’s a great starting position to be in.

Text and pictures can be made to work together in a variety of ways, ways that might include the text being completely ambiguous and the pictures being “stable” (to use Davey’s phrase), the other way around, or any situation in between. An artist has to figure out how to make text and image work together for their particular case. This entails figuring out their individuals roles and how they will inform each other — given their underlying basic parameters.

A positive consequence of the Peckerwood Effect has been that photographers have in fact started to incorporate some form of text in many bodies of work. But often, this text exists as part of some ephemera. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it also is a very limited way of working with with very limited form of text. Whatever you want to say about text, it actually is a lot more malleable than pictures (just look at the history of poetry, not to mention the canon of literature).

It’s not the fact that I spend a lot of time writing that has me interested in text. And for sure, I don’t need to see text now becoming a fad in the world of photography (I’ll admit it would be a lot more interesting to me than plastic sandwiches or New Formalism, though). But text can be such a great tool to work along a purely visual medium. As Sophie Calle, Moyra Davey, Jim Goldberg, Gillian Wearing, and many other artists have demonstrated, the use of text can enrich photographs in a way that you simply cannot achieve otherwise. And that then is another reason why I think photographers should spend a lot of time reading (and not just looking at their colleagues’ pictures): the more you read, the more of an understanding you get how words can be used to express thoughts, ideas, and feelings, the more you learn about the undiminished power of the word.

As a final thought, photographers treating text as an afterthought (if that) when attempting to make a photobook isn’t all that different than them treating design the same way. The risk here is that you’ll end up with an essentially glorified catalog. There’s much to be said for the catalog format (in fact, this might be a future article). But if you look into the world of catalogs, you’ll find a wide variety of approaches, with the very good ones working with design and text in very conscious fashion. So there really isn’t any way around treating photobook making in what you could call a holistic fashion — unless you’re happy with sticking with a now very, very dated model of photobook making that mostly produces boring books (even if the pictures aren’t boring).