First published in Amateur Photographer 14 December 2019
A friend of mine has been an enthusiastic photographer for nearly 40 years. The knack of composition has always eluded him, however. In his street scenes, tarmac occupies most of the frame. Groups of friends appear without their heads. He even captures picturesque country views obscured by unrelated foreground detail.
Back in the day, I often saw him with a camera – indeed, he went through a fascinating range of exotica – a Russian twin lens reflex, a half-frame rangefinder and a Chineses Leica copy among them. Back then, I only occasionally saw his pictures – and was grateful never to have been pressed to an ‘evening with slides’.
In the past few years, however, he has been regularly posting his archival work on Facebook. What is striking is that far from showing off the sorry products of a pursuit for which he lacked aptitude, he is unveiling, little by little, an extraordinary trove of historic records.
Most of his subjects are in and around the outer London borough where he lives. But his images’ technical shortcomings are now more than made up for in the quality of his captioning. A snap of a long-forgotten pub includes the name of the landlord at the time of the picture, the names of a couple of regulars, the date of its demolition and a note of what was built in its place.
Sometimes a bus appears inadvertently in his frame. He notes how the route of the ’53′ has changed, records a personal incident experienced while queuing to board and often includes and account of how the service evolved post-privatisation.
Even the unfortunately-cropped human groups (most appear to have been taken on licensed premises), might lack their heads, but their names, occupations and subsequent life stories are there in the captions.
It would be easy to think that these rolls and rolls of film that my fiend is slowly digitising, would be even more compelling, where he more conventionally photographically competent. Actually, his pictures’ apparently random quality, allied with compelling captions, give them a unique integrity. Little by little they reveal the evolution of an otherwise undocumented everyday.
Professional photographers have recently started talking about the ‘four ‘c’s’ that should always be included in a file’s metadata – credit, contact, copyright ownership and caption. The first three can be dealt with automatically ‘in camera’. Time, skill and effort are required for the forth.
The ubiquity of digital image making and the seemingly universal human desire to capture moments means that the quantity of photographs taken is today is unprecedented. In the 1980s when my friend’s photographic odyssey began, humankind captured approximately 25 billion photos a year . Today it is more than a million million.
How many will be captioned? Perhaps fewer than 40 years ago – certainly a dramatically smaller proportion. That mattes if you want your pictures to survive your memory of their subjects. Without captions, your exposures quickly become the digital equivalent of dust.
It is possible that technology will eventually solve even this. Software that automatically recognises places and faces in digital files is already being used for surveillance.
Until that arrives in the consumer market, however, captioning is the photographic practice least changed since the era of Daguerre and Fox Talbot. A picture might well be worth 1,000 words, but it often requires a simple sentence to unlock that value. And as well as the benefits for posterity, a fresh moment of reflection on your own work, as you flesh out the metadata, might just prompt beneficial reflection on how you are documenting the world around you.