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How important is text as an adjunct to a photograph? As a photographer, how do you relate to the written word in exhibitions, books and project descriptions?

Hege Oulie, Senior Curator at the Preus Museum in Horten, and Pål Henrik Ekern, Diversity Curator, view the use of text as a means for maintaining control over the narrative.

“Texts that accompany a photo project take many different guises. They may be interviews, fragments of conversations, poems, complete descriptive texts, no more than a simple title, personal texts or fiction. Of course, the kind of text that accompanies the photos depends on the material and what – and how much – the author has to say”, says Hege Oulie.

She works with text extensively in connection with exhibitions, projects and books at the Preus Museum in Horten

Senior Curator Hege Oulie at the Preus Museum in Horten and Diversity Curator Pål Henrik Ekern.

Sets a direction

In some photo projects, the text is an integral part of the work itself, displayed on the exhibition wall right beside the photos. A text may have almost the same value as a photo. Text may also account for a larger part of a book. At other times, projects are presented with no more than a title, or a title and a brief introductory text.

“The written word helps provide a context, giving viewers an indication of direction. This helps to open up the works, allowing us to ‘read’ the photos and understand what is the photographer is saying. As a photographer, one needs to be very aware of how to use a text. It gives the viewer an idea of how a project is intended to be perceived. Photography is an open medium, and text can help set the parameters for a story told through pictures”, Pål Henrik Ekern points out.

Organises your thoughts

“Photos have many visual codes, and many photographers feel they need a text to lead the viewer in the right direction”, Ekern says.

“This is especially true when one works with series, since texts can also help organise the photographer’s thoughts, providing project structure for the photographer”, he continues.

Even though texts are often significant in providing a direction for a photography project, the two believe that text is at least as important for its utility value as a project progresses. Text offers a means to help you get closer to what you are working with, to shape the contours of your project, and to give you more specific direction.

A example of how text can be used is the book "The House my Grandfather Built" by photographer Xenia Nikolskaya.

Language is power

“Your text can be used to help you get your thoughts in order and to understand what you are doing. You can use the words to think and reflect on your own work, tying it to the visual material. Jot down thoughts and ideas so that you won’t forget them a week later. Later, you can go back and consult your notes, and review what you thought and felt. That may help you make progress when you take photos, as well as with the text you will ultimately be writing,” comments Hege Oulie.

“Words often help lift photos up, adding another dimension to their potential. Language is power. It can be used to steer a project, the photos and the viewer in many different directions.”

“Writing is a question of finding small enough words for big enough feelings.”

Hans Børli
Photographer Geir Moseid's book 'Plucked' employs large text areas, but each photo in the book is accompanied by just a single word.

What, how and why

It is also worthwhile to spend some time figuring out what function the text is intended to have.

“Text is an extra layer of communication. It is a powerful tool that can be more explicit than images. What is the text intended to do in your project? Is it supposed to be informative, engender feelings, open up possibilities, or set limits? Ask yourself what, how and why“, Ekern recommends.

He finds that text can be used to describe ‘what’ the project is about, as well as to identify and describe some key photos in a series. This exercise can give you more insight into your own photos.

‘How’ is a question about the project itself, how you made it and how you have worked with it. What sort of tools and methods you used, what technical choices you made, and what kind of intentions underlie your choices? Imagine that you are writing to someone who is unfamiliar with your project.

‘Why’ is often the hardest question,” Ekern states. “Why choose this particular project? In this context, there is latitude for discussing issues, making detailed reflections and amplifying them. What is the very essence of your work? This exercise will help you gain a deeper understanding of your own works.”

“One has to write quite a bit to see what not to write.”

Arnljot Eggen.
Concise, descriptive picture captions, stating the year beside the images in the book 'The House my Grandfather Built' by photographer Xenia Nikolskaya.

Don’t be so hard on yourself

“Don’t judge yourself so harshly when it comes to writing. Jot down your thoughts and ideas on paper, and then share them with others. Work with the text all the time, throughout the entire process. That will help you to understand yourself, your own work and your project.

“Then when you are ready to write the final text for your work, your notes will be very useful. The more you talk about a project, the clearer you see what you are actually doing”, remarks Senior Curator Hege Oulie at the Preus Museum.

A good text may have hooks related to what you see. It need not have much substance, but those few words of text can put viewers in the right mood, and provide a fitting framework for what they see.

“When a text is successful, I think you see more and dwell a bit longer on the photo. Many images require you to slow down and devote some time to viewing them. In that context, text can be an important tool for understanding and getting the viewer on track.

“Many people have no experience of reading and interpreting photographs. As a photographer, how to you reach this audience?” she asks.

Project description

Photographers are often called upon to write project descriptions when they apply for support; they must submit applications for exhibition space and to get working grants. Accordingly, many start out by defining their projects already at the outset of a project.

“A project description is a good place to start. In it, you say something about the images you already have for the project. You provide facts (when and where the photos were taken, what kind of technical process you used, the size of the photos, etc.), and you provide information about what the project is all about”, concludes Oulie.

Be mindful that:

  • Text gives the viewer a direction.
  • Text can help open up photographs.
  • Text can help close photographs.
  • Text helps facilitate structure in your work.
  • Text is used to help us remember.
  • Work with text all the time.
In her book "A Day in History", photographer Andrea Gjestvang juxtaposes short poems with her photos, in addition to providing concise, informative captions.
Each photo in Geir Moseid's book 'Plucked' is tagged with a single word.
Text and the graphic design work together in the book 'Foto Follies: How Photography Lost its Virginity on the Way to the Bank' by Duane Michals.
The library of the Preus Museum in Horten is home to thousands of photo books.
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