The Fluidity of the Frame and Caption: When Keywords Become Invisible Captions and Cameras Increasingly Do What Darkrooms Once Did, How Photojournalists Approach Their Job Changes

By Srinivasan, Venkat | Nieman Reports, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Fluidity of the Frame and Caption: When Keywords Become Invisible Captions and Cameras Increasingly Do What Darkrooms Once Did, How Photojournalists Approach Their Job Changes


Srinivasan, Venkat, Nieman Reports


Consider a familiar frame: Robert Frank's "Trolley--New Orleans" photograph, which is also on the cover of the most recent edition of his book, "The Americans." In this 1955 photograph a row of passengers sit in a trolley car on Bourbon Street--a white man, white woman, two white children, a black man, and a black woman. With its frame, it is, at once, a representation of the politics of sex and race at that time.

Many things make a photograph memorable--frame, caption, context and light, to name a few. But how is a photograph's meaning derived, especially with the easy availability of tools to tweak each of those factors? This is the story of photography, technology and the aesthetics of an image in a digital age.

Captions have long been used in photojournalism to point to or break news of the event, whether it's a political uprising or war, football game, or a celebrity's wedding. Captions provide context to make sense of the visual observation. That's been the rule: A photograph must carry with it a detailed caption, even if its words do nothing more than plainly describe what the photograph shows. But a captionless or sparsely captioned photograph, removed from the original context and formed from a set of observations, comments on society--a kind of meta-news.

In his detailed analysis on his New York Times blog, Errol Morris writes that "a captionless photograph, stripped of all context, is virtually meaningless." But, as Susan Sontag observed, the caption can also be the director of emotion, most easily exploited during wars as propaganda. She described one such instance in her 2003 book, "Regarding the Pain of Others," in a reference to the Balkan war in the early 1990's. "[The] same photographs of children killed in the shelling of a village were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings," she noted.

With captions, photographs are tied to the details of the news story. With sparse captions like "Trolley--New Orleans," a photograph can speak to larger realities and draw connections--in the mind of each viewer--across time and events. Henri Cartier-Bresson felt that "to take photographs means to recognize--simultaneously and within a fraction of a second--both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one's head, one's eye, and one's heart on the same axis."

The photograph he took in 1952 of Michel Gabriel on Rue Mouffetard in Paris--of a boy smiling and looking away as he walks around the corner--exemplifies this idea. Photography, he also observed, is "a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one's own originality. It is a way of life." Cartier-Bresson spoke of prowling the streets with his camera, ready to trap life. In this photograph, a boy, perhaps 10 years old, his hair disheveled and a loosened belt around his shorts, cradling two bottles of wine (we think) portrays life with an air of triumph, glee and freedom.

Robert Capa once photographed a blond-haired kid, perhaps eight years old, sitting atop a tank in Paris just after the city's liberation in August 1944. Dressed in a small jacket and shorts, the boy sits assured, staring down at the camera from the corner of his eye, his right palm on his shin like an heir to the throne and his mouth giving a hint of scorn and a smile. His left index finger probes his nose.

In her 1977 book, "On Photography," Sontag wrote, "After the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed." Her words could just as well apply to these two images.

Images Without Words

Today, another kind of captionless photograph abounds. The reasons are understandable: a pressing need for attention-grabbing art and not enough money to hire a photojournalist or commission fresh art.

On stock photography Web sites such as iStockphoto. …

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