By Charles Pryor
The relationship between the photograph and the written word is a curious one. In photography, the artist’s voice is distilled from the image. Therefore, an unusual dynamic emerges when certain photographers choose to introduce words into their work. Some might even consider this presence gratuitous, an unsubtle distraction from the inherent message behind an image. However, this same disruption can birth a unique harmony between mediums, one that offers multiple layers of meaning and interpretation. The inclusion of words generates new and poignant questions regarding the significance of the photograph. Are the words included within the photograph? If they’re superimposed on the surface, where are they placed? Whose voices are we meant to hear in these words, and are they different from those of the artist? In considering both the conceptual and physical relationships between these mediums, the viewer is challenged to broaden their analytical scope and dig deep.
Artist Barbara Kruger meshes word and image in her work by laying aggressive text over her photos—appropriated images she finds in magazines. In “Untitled (Our Leader),” the text stands out sharply from the image. It demands our attention while complimenting the congruent boldness of the image itself. The close up of the dummy is unsettling—its gaze seems to challenge our own. The words, “Our Leader,” bolster the images’ similarities to “Big Brother” iconography, making the presentation almost terrifying. The text arouses a number of questions that confound our analysis and challenge us to think deeply. Why is the identity of “leader” applied to this dummy image? For that matter, is it an actual dummy, or merely a person dressed up as one? This “leader” is communicated as a figure empty of humanity, in spite of its humanoid appearance.
Lewis Koch adopts a unique approach in Notes from the Stone-Paved Path, where he uses text as an image in itself. He pairs a photograph taken in India alongside a physical page in a book. The page does not describe what is happening in the adjacent photo—these works were made independent of each other. Yet, the linkage of text in two separate physical manifestations forces us to consider these images as a single composition. The text on the left discusses the inherent creation implicit in the destructive nature of the goddess Kali. In the photo on the right, a young girl stands in the corner, just peeking into frame. The language on the walls, which incorporates another textual element in the composition, has faded. The mirror hanging in the center of the image has grown murky with dirt, obscuring a family’s reflection. Through the lens of the text, we are left with an impression that in spite of all the deterioration, the girl’s presence suggests that life builds from it.
Jeffrey Wolin dares to disrupt his photographs by writing text directly on the surface of the captured image. Wolin, in his series Pigeon Hill Portraits: Then and Now, goes so far as to provide context to the images by including the personal reflections of the subjects of his photos. These descriptions paradoxically color the images in a specific way while disrupting the viewer’s own analysis. With this stylistic choice, we are encouraged to read these photos in a different way than if we considered them independent of text. In “‘Junior’ Taylor, Pigeon Hill,” the context provided by the description confounds our perception of what appears as a boy of a rather lazy disposition. His dazed expression, with hands and foot loosely clasping a crooked tree, seem to draw attention to the dullness of the subject’s hometown. However, that look of boredom shifts to one of bewilderment in conjunction with text. Junior’s confusion over his identity leaves him lost and isolated. He is no longer a bored kid, but one in pain. In “Shannon Taylor, Pigeon Hill,” a portrait of the same subject is taken again, 20 years later. Here, the text contributes to the strong sense of confidence, which characterizes Shannon’s stance and expression.
The inclusion of text expands our opportunities to dissect images in meaningful ways. The two components color one another, shifting the viewer’s focus and inviting new perspectives to what might appear straightforward. More than a mere caption, the marriage of text to photograph provides an essential layer to the art itself.
Article © Charles Pryor