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.com, keywords navigate the search for images. Such marketplaces give rise to photojournalism’s new caption—the keyword. Take the photograph of a blank yellow street sign along an empty highway. Instead of a single caption, it’s accompanied by about 50 keywords, including “blank,” “loneliness” and “empty.” This photo accompanied an October 2009 New York Times story by Benedict Carey about research that illustrates how absurd details and nonsense can help the brain look for patterns. This image replaced the illustrative art that would likely have been used in a previous era.
Stock images are free agents, frames without anchors. The same image can be used for multiple stories, each with a potentially different message. If a story advocates offshore drilling, a photo of an oil rig indicates hope. Switch to global warming and the identical photograph signals fear. A frame with tags finds multiple homes and varied contexts and, what the photographer found in creating the image isn’t necessarily part of any of them.
Yet the frame provides a way of seeing and defining. In an Emirates Airlines TV spot that played in India in the late 1990’s, the screen would freeze as a finger—acting as a frame—drew rectangles around items like a limousine waiting for its passenger. Their message: We take care of the details involved in traveling. Framing for a photographer can be a delicate, even accidental art. The camera sees what one wishes it to see, even with filters, darkrooms and software. As a 1976 Minolta advertisement proclaimed, “When you are the camera and the camera is you.”
Photography stands out among art forms for being both instantaneous and accessible. What is routine to a subject can often be new to the photographer, and therefore to the viewer. In the late 19th century, photography was the privilege of a few; today, images are produced by an astonishing array of instruments: the security camera at the bank, the iPhone in the hands of a teenager at a rock concert, the pinhole camera in a collector’s home, the photojournalist’s Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR transmitting home raw photographs of a dying soldier.
A camera is as much a part of an American household as the radio was in the 1940’s. In 2009 the Nobel committee recognized its proliferation when it gave the Nobel Prize in Physics to three scientists who researched the conversion of light to electric signals, investigated fiber optics, and invented semiconductor sensors, all of which are part of digital photography.
In composing a shot, photographers decide what material to leave out and what to include. Editing by selection, using composition or photo selection as deciders, or by correction, using software and darkroom techniques, are two sides of the “truth”
Photography technology is on the verge of further blurring the lines between photographing and post-processing. In August 2009 Stanford University scientists announced the development of the Frankencamera, described as the first open source camera through which users one day will be able to perform many Photoshop-like functions. The Stanford team, led by computer science professor Mark Levoy, is conducting research that could make possible the stitching together of multiple images within the camera. The fixed full frame could become a moving target.
Another moving target is lighting. Today the brightness and exposure of a digital photograph can be post-processed on a computer using widely available software. High-dynamic-range photographs—those that show a large range of lighting in a single image—are now composed of multiple images at different exposures. With their research on fine-tuning brightness and contrast while photographing, Levoy and his students are questioning the need for such post-processing.
The Frankencamera aspires to become the palm-sized memory card plus darkroom. And when that happens, the meaning of the frame, the photographer, and the editor will be redefined.
Revisiting Frank’s ‘Trolley’
Consider Frank’s frame of the trolley again. Consider also the words commonly used to describe the act of photography: shoot, take, click, capture, trap, snap, make, film, photograph, document and record. Frank’s photograph wasn’t tied to a news story nor was it descriptively captioned or labeled with keywords (trolley, New Orleans, Bourbon Street, 1955, discrimination, race, gender, black, white). It isn’t what Frank called “those god-damned stories with a beginning and an end.” By a confluence of frame and context, this photograph continues to resonate.
While this photograph isn’t news, as journalists understand it, it’s news that matters in other ways, serving as a document of record gleaned from observation and experience. “There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment,” Frank said in a 1961 issue of Aperture magazine. “Realism is not enough—there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph. It is difficult to describe this thin line where matter ends and mind begins.”
To photograph is also to meditate on the frame long after it is gone. In years past, National Geographic would dedicate a page to a photograph that its editors picked out from a bunch taken by photographers on their assignments. It would be a picture that they thought didn’t fit with the article, but shouldn’t be missed. In December 2003, they chose one by Pablo Corral Vega. The article about Argentine tango was the story of a reprieve and melancholic respite for a passionate but economically ravaged nation.
The photograph shows a dimly lit ballroom with a lone couple in the dance arena. Carlos Gavito, a tango virtuoso, stands with his hands on his side, leaning slightly toward his partner, Mariana Dragone. His nose brushes past her right cheek, as she smudges her face on his. She tilts her body as far as it would take her leaning on him, a measure of balance and trust. Her hands sway back in abandon and their eyes are shut. The editor observed that the image had a quiet intensity.
Time and again some forms of photojournalism stretch to capture an idea more than the truth. It’s part vanity and part, the essence of photojournalism. “This is the world,” such photographs seem to say. “This is the story.”
Venkat Srinivasan is a freelance journalist and amateur photographer who is working on a photo essay exploring how the flag is used in the United States. His photographs—with keywords—can be found through www.lightstalkers.org/venkat-srinivasan.