We Need To Print Our Photos So We Have Something To Write On

I’m a fan of Duane Michals and how he creates art by conceiving of a photograph, then writing on it to give it more depth. To change its meaning into a story he created. Like this one, titled, “This Is My Proof“.

The subject of the photo is the photographer’s sister and her husband, just married, seated on his childhood bed in Pennsylvania. None of the wording is true, but it is perfectly right for his storytelling. He said he photographed them there because he didn’t want a standard photo of them standing together.

I can relate to his thought to not make a “regular” photo. As a portrait photographer, I often seek a frame from a shoot that’s a little different from the expected photograph. Something maybe a bit unique that tells the story, pulls the photo-mask down and lets us see them as they are.

This couple’s portrait is perfectly fine. It shows their warmth and connection. It’s the “When Harry Met Sally” expected shot.

But this one has life. Their light, their magic.

You can easily see the difference. This one is art on someone’s wall at home.

The next question is who are they? It may be a wonderful photograph, but in 50, 75, 100 years, will the new owner of the print know who they are? If they don’t, will they bother to keep it, or will it head to the thrift shop of the future?

That’s why it’s important to write on our photographs. Who is in it. When was it made and what are the circumstances behind it. Words illuminate the picture. This couple’s portrait is a gift from the woman’s sister on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary. That would be good information to write on the back of the photo.

I’m inspired by a book called Talking Pictures by Ransom Riggs, a book that features snapshots from a collection of snapshots that have writing on them–words on the front or back explaining what we’re seeing in the photograph. Words illuminate the photograph, so much so. It might mean the difference of whether a photographs lasts in a family or is discarded.

It’s a fascinating trip back in time using the magical time-traveling machines that are vernacular photography. The book really shows the power of photographs with words captioning the picture, giving a glimpse into who and what we’re seeing. Its context. The story. The museum card with the title and photograph’s information.

Nowadays with hard drives and clouds full of photos that are not captioned–there really is nowhere to easily jot down the details of the photograph’s subject–most of these photos will go to the dustbin in the sky. But a print is still possible, and with an actual print we get a place to write a note. Doesn’t have to be a long note, a fully developed paragraph or even a sentence. It can just be the name of the person and why you made the photo in the first place.

Some people don’t like titles and captions on photographs, and that may be appropriate for fine art work, but having a clue who is in the photographs we pass down from generation to generation really helps make it so they stay valuable, an important part of the family’s history.

Get writing. What is the story of your photograph?

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Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “We Need To Print Our Photos So We Have Something To Write On

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  1. My grandfather left me with two dozen photo albums, full of a lifetime of photos. Every single one of the pictures is written on or captioned. Most have dates, persons, and places. It’s wonderful. I’ve done the same ever since.

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