Musings on: naming photographs

Why is naming photographs so contentious?

I generally name my photographs. More precisely, I always name any finished images which I put anywhere public, but I don’t give the files themselves names; they’re all of the form ‘My name_date_time’, whether they’re the RAW files or the TIFFs, PSDs and JPGs which I create during my post-processing work-flow. So why is it necessary for me – and it seems the majority of other people posting images on-line – to give their images a name? Is it just pretension, or is it valuable or useful in some way?

I don’t have a definitive answer to this, of course, but the phenomenon is quite interesting. To me it seems that the act of naming an image gives it some form of solidity, an existence independent of being ‘just a photo’. It turns ‘another photo’ into ‘a work’ or ‘a defined thing’. Perhaps that’s pretension; perhaps it’s more the finishing touch to a creative process, somewhat like signing and naming a painting, which is not something I’ve heard much argument against.

From a practical perspective – and I feel this is sufficient justification by itself – it is vastly easier to talk about images if they have names. Before I started naming things, I recall having had several conversations of the following form:

“I like that one with the tree on the limestone pavement.”
“Which tree on which limestone pavement?”
“The one with the storm in the background.”
“Dark, bluish sky or is there actual lightning?”
“Neither: it’s sort of grey overall.”
“Square image, or landscape?”
“I’m not sure now.”

etc…

Starting that conversation with a memorable name saves a lot of time!

It’s practical then, but does a name change the image itself in any way; or, rather, the perception of the image on the part of the viewer? It can be argued that images should ‘speak for themselves’, and that having no name is best for that reason, that naming a photograph overlays the ideas of the photographer on the finished image. Conversely, given that the whole image is the idea of the photographer, surely this ability to add to the intent of the composition is entirely reasonable? It does change things though: a moderately good image with an especially good name, one which is pertinent to the content, or which draws the viewer’s attention to some aspect of the frame, can be made more significant than it would have been as ‘Untitled’.

I think the argument of giving each photograph a relevant name, one which adds to the image, is a strong one. As an example, I have an image I like very much, and which I shall write about in a later post, whose name is definitely important to me. In this case, the name reminds me of what I was thinking when I decided to compose the photograph. It’s called ‘Charcoal sunset’, and I named it that since I saw the scene as a post-sunset sky on which someone had painted clouds using a blunt piece of charcoal. As the creator of the image, it feels to me that conveying this thought process to viewers adds to the experience of looking at the photograph. It doesn’t matter whether they agree with this metaphorical vision or not; the point is to provoke more thought than would be present without the ‘leading’ title.

So, for me, in both practical and artistic senses, I’m in favour of titles, though I’ll caveat that with ‘at this point in time‘. A large part of the point of my writing these musings is to record how I’m thinking at this early stage of my progression in photography, and to see how that changes over time. Maybe I shall be writing the complete inverse of these opinions at some future point?

That said, I can already see myself producing a series of themed images and calling them ‘Untitled’ 1 to n… but then, that’s a name in itself, isn’t it?

I’d be interested to see your comments on this long-running debate!

What are you thinking?

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