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On Photographs, the Stories They Tell,
and the Titles We Give Them

I often wonder whether the real story behind a photograph makes the image more meaningful, by giving it context; or does it stifle the imagination of the viewer by unambiguously stating what was happening when the image was made? Some images appear very clear as to what they are portraying while the back story for others, such as the photo above, are not as obvious. Of course, the flip side of that are images that seem very straight forward and unambiguous, yet turn out to be more mysterious and ambiguous than we first assume. Is it better to let the viewer decide their own "story" for the image? I suspect that, depending on the image and also on the viewer, both paths can provide a compelling viewing experience.



The title of the photo can also play into this, and either remove the ambiguity, or add new layers. This brings up the whole question of titles and whether they should be matter-of-fact records of what the image portrays, or more vague in their assertion of what the image is about. The approach to this is influenced not only by the nature of the photographic work, but also by the views of the person behind the camera. As a result, the philosophy of how photographs should be titled varies almost as much as the infinite variety of photographers and the images that they create. Some prefer the strict reporting of the event, such as "Girl with Shovel", while others opt for more loosely descriptive titles such as "Forest Scene #3", or even the purposeful non-title of "Untitled". Still others use titles to suggest things that may be occuring beyond the boundaries of the image, pose questions about emotions and the internal life, or suggest thoughts in the mind of the subject, the photographer, or even you, the viewer.

With this photo, I originally chose to preserve the ambiguity with the minimally descriptive "In the Forest". With no back story suggested by the title, the viewer may entertain their own scenarios for this image; the photograph becomes a springboard for a new train of thought, or a short story that exists only in their mind. And the title, or lack of it, can also encourage these thoughts to meander in a certain direction.

When this image was included in the series A Measure of Longing, I chose to return to one of ther original titles I had thought of: "The Archeology of Childhood". This fits in well with the mood of the rest of the series, and it also suggests ideas and themes that provide an interpretive pathway for the viewer while still being non-specific about the actual scene.

Here are a few ideas for alternate titles for this photo. Not all of them are accurate in terms of the real story behind this image. How do they influence the thoughts when considering this image, nudging them in one direction or another?

Burying the Past
Backyard Treasure Hunt
A Sound in the Distance
The New Shovel
Footsteps in the Forest
Watching the Watcher
Forest Burial
Just Before Everything Changed

Titles can suggest symbolism and metaphor, hint at larger issues and even introduce a measure of doubt, and as such they can be a powerful compliment to the purely visual experience of looking at a work of art. They provide clues to feelings or ideas that the artist may have about the image, and keys that open doors to further insights and discoveries, even if those revelations occur only with our own hearts and memories.