Photographs with Text

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In my teens, I started painting and writing. Pop Art, Op Art, and the beginnings of Conceptual Art were everywhere. Psychedelia either added or confused things, depending on how one addressed that series of artistic and personal choices.

Because of the artistic pre-occupation with ‘media’, it was inevitable that images and words mixed into interesting yet homogenous ways.

Consider this ‘classic’ image, appropriated from comic culture. Would it work as well without the words? I think not.

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997)

Roy Lichtenstein. 1966. Whaam! Acrylic paint, oil paint, magna. Tate Gallery.

I am not claiming too much for my own painting.

But the blend of images and words was often central to my practice. And paintings sometimes reflected my poetry.

Mick Yates. 1969. Walking with my Girl. Acrylic on Paper.

The summary point is that, from an artistic perspective, I grew up with the idea that words and images worked together. In the post Realism and Imagination, I noted the impact of captions, and how they can change the meaning of images: John Berger’s comments on Van Gogh’s Last Painting are a case in point.

I have just been reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and if ever there is a project where the prose ‘makes’ it work, this is it. Of course, this is not writing on the photograph, or even captioning the separate images (Evans work is to some extent just ‘dumped’ in the book without explanation). But the combination is what makes the book a classic.

I recall seeing Joseph Beuys work at the 60’80 exhibition in Amsterdam, at the Stedelijk, in 1982 (the same time I first saw Cindy Sherman). As an artist concerned not just with the concepts and ideas, but the nature of art itself, Beuys was always breaking boundaries – and text was often central.

Joseph Beuys (1921-1986)

Joseph Beuys. 1966. Objekt aus Eurasia, 60’80, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Mixed media.

These are just a few of a myriad of examples where artists have integrated text in paintings and installations of all kinds, particular if there is an idea (political or otherwise) that they want to be sure that the audience ‘gets’.

Photography does not have that same depth of combinatorial history; text was generally confined to captions and explanations, rather than being ‘in’ the work. Yet, as Hariman and Lucaites suggested, there needs to be a deeper sense of realism than simply showing what is there – to be more than indexical. As photographers, we need to imbue meaning if we are to stir audiences.

‘Realism requires imagination to be more than mere information, but the imagination needs realism as well’. (Hariman and Lucaites, 2016: pg. 95).

That said, signs and text of all kinds do appear prominently in photographs – for example, in the work of Walker Evans.

Walker Evans (1903-1975)

Walker Evans. 1928-30. Truck with Signs.

Whilst essential to the meaning of the photograph, the text is ‘found’ rather than ‘inserted’.

Perhaps it is not surprising, however, that the explosion in new forms of painterly and sculptural art also led to more experimentation in and on photographs.

Duane Michals (1932 – )

Duane Michals. 1974. Black is Ugly.

Michals delivers a deeply meaningful commentary in his own hand. The text adds an emotional layer to the photograph, and often explores contradictory ideas. The photograph and image work together to create a unified story. Christina Rouvalis noted:

‘For Michals, the writing was never a caption, but a way to pose questions rather than provide answers’.

In an interview with the LA Times, the interviewer, Kristina McKenna, wrote:

‘At the time Michals first began adding text to his images this stylistic innovation was tantamount to sacrilege, as photography was deep in the throes of the ideology promoted by the then-director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, who espoused a style that was essentially an extension of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the “decisive moment.”

Like Cartier-Bresson, Szarkowski was vehemently opposed to any sort of darkroom revision and believed that a good photograph was one that was shot at precisely the right moment so that it resonated with profound meaning beyond the action shown in the image. In direct opposition to that idea, Michals believes that an image functions as little more than a vague clue as to the complexity of human experience, and that a picture in fact tells us precious little.

“John Szarkowski was a real drag on photography because he was very conservative, and his idea of high-art photography was reportage of the sort Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand did – anything else, according to him, was not photography,” Michals says’.

In so many ways, Michal’s breaking of the then-prevailing photograph mould of ‘purity’ opened the artistic door.

Duane Michals. 1968. The Fallen Angel.

Michals went on to say, in that same LA Times interview

‘Photography frustrated me so much that it forced me to resort to other means, and that’s why I began writing on my prints. If I see a photograph of a woman crying I want to know why she’s crying, and language allows you to be more specific. You could stare at a picture of my father for days and still not know the first thing about the man or my relationship with him, so I write to fill in where the image fails. The writing isn’t a caption either – a caption tells you what you’re looking at, and as I said, I’m not interested in appearances. I’m really writing for myself rather than for an audience – I’m writing because I need to say what I feel out loud‘.

In later years, Michals is painting and writing on photographs, to powerful effect.

Duane Michals. 2013. Four Quarks on a Lark. Tintype with hand-applied oil paint.

Other artists appropriated images which included text, rather than added text.

Susan Hiller (1940-2019)

Susan Hiller. 1972-1976. Dedicated to the Unknown Artists.

Self describing as an anthropologist, Hiller’s collection of post cards owes much to several strands of artistic production, with its found meanings, both individually and collectively.

The anthropological instinct is alive and well in the Cambodian project, at least at the level of being wary of doing the right thing. Sadly, there are not too many ‘found objects’ that can help tell Sarath’s stories.

Karen Knorr (1954 – )

Karen Knorr. 1979-1981. From Belgravia.

I saw Knorr’s work at Rencontres D’Arles for the first time, as part of the Home Sweet Home exhibition. She grew up in a privileged background, and captured the mood of the well to do during the Thatcher years. Know interviewed her subjects, and added the most important quote to the neatly composed photograph.

As a work of collaboration, in capturing personal stories, the work is a precursor to my own work.

However, whilst Knorr is both observing and participating in those stories (many of the subjects were family or quite close acquaintances), the Cambodian work is attempting to capture realities which I have no direct knowledge of or involvement with.

Ed Ruscha (1937 – )

Ed Ruscha. 1984. The Music of the Balconies. Acrylic on canvas, Tate Gallery.

As one of the most prolific and important artists living today, it is no surprise that Ruscha has used text of all kinds. His 26 Gasoline Stations had ‘found text’ – signs within the image. But over several decades he has created layered works, using painted backgrounds and words, sometime based on photographs.

There is a kind of jarring juxtaposition in his work – what is the connection between the image and words? In fact, is there any?

The aim is to get the viewer to stop and ponder.

Paul Seawright (1965 – )

Paul Seawright. 1988. Friday 25th May 1973, from Sectarian Murder.

Seawright blended the essential, non-emotive details about an historic murder with a present day image of the scene. He is dealing with time and aftermath.

But he is also using paradox. The image viewed without the words could often be of anything, and certainly not a crime scene. This was a major stimulus to the tack i have taken with my current work.

Seawright’s intent is to encourage the thought process. Small captions might work – but having the words embedded in the image drives home his point.

Artist Keith Haring, as an ardent (hyper) activist used words that really jumped into the face of the audience.

An unmissable message.

Keith Haring (1958-1990)

Keith Haring. 1989. Ignorance = Fear/Silence = Death. Whitney Museum.

Whilst Haring was using the iconography of graffiti, and drastically simplifying it to be sure his message was received, Willie Doherty uses a more mystical approach.

Willie Doherty (1959 – )

Willie Doherty. 1992. Ulster Will Fight Ireland / Unfree Shall Never Be At Peace.

Doherty uses landscapes and urban scene, some beautiful, some not, with very simple text of few words. He is interested in the inherent contradictions and ambiguity in political conflicts in his home country. It is perhaps a political paradox on the land art / new topographic genre.

The resultant images need more unpacking than Seawright’s. Still, like Seawright, it is not surprising that multi-media plays a very important part in Doherty’s practice.

Susan Meiselas (1948 – )

Mick Yates. 2019. Susan Meiselas. 2018. From Mediations, Photographer’s Gallery.

I have written elsewhere about various aspects of Meiselas’ practice (note to self – time to write a broader review of her work).

Whilst she does not use the ‘quote on photograph’ approach in installations, her detailed and exhaustive research, sharing of myriad notes, clever use of multimedia, and other techniques which encourage audience interaction (such as the stories hanging on the map, above), demonstrate Meiselas’ commitment to use all possible communication vehicles to get ideas across.

Afterwards (Herschdorfer, 2011) was an important find as I researched Aftermath and post-conflict documentary. It was in that book that I first came across Paula Luttringer’s work.

Paula Luttringer (1955 – )

Paula Luttringer. 2000-2010. Wailing of the Walls.

She uses almost an archaeological approach – semi-abstract, traces, suggestion – often reminiscent of Sophie Ristelhueber.

In 1977, Luttringer was kidnapped and held in a secret detention center. Eventually she was released, and after her return in 1995 went back to tell the story. She did it through photographing the cells, and including short, simple and powerful testimony from the victims.

Of all the work in the book, this is closest to what I am trying to achieve in my latest WIP. If I have a critique, it is that each story seems self contained, but that is a nitpick. I believe that this is stunning work.

At another extreme, and included here to illustrate crossover, Araki’s obsessive imagery is often combined with painted text.

Nobuyoshi Araki (1940 – )

Nobuyoshi Araki. 2007. Tales of Black Ink.

Like other contemporary artists, adding marking to the photographic surface changes how we view it, and possibly what it means.

I have used such ideas in earlier montage work.

Mick Yates. 2000. Tokyo Teens. Mixed media.

However, for the Cambodian project, the artificial manipulation of the ‘surface’ trivialises the tragic and deeply personal stories, and diverts attention into unwanted areas.

Laia Abril’s troubling yet beautiful work on the tragedy of restricting women’s abortion rights is directly relevant, just as Luttringer’s is.

Laia Abril (1986 – )

Laia Abril. 2018. Marta, Abortion Stories, Photographer’s Gallery.

Personal quotes are used directly on the images. As people toured her show at the Photographer’s gallery, they invariably stopped to read. Abril’s use of found objects, and appropriation was essential to giving the audience a broad view of just what happens and what is at stake.

If I have a critique, it would be that the installation, like the book, was a  rather disparate affair. I plan to make the Unfinished Stories central to any public showing, with other materials in a clear support role.

Libuše Jarcovjáková (1952 – )

Mick Yates. 2019. Libuše Jarcovjáková. 1980s onwards. Evokativ, Rencontres D’Arles

Coming right up to date, and again from Rencontres D’Arles, I was impressed by the emotive power of Libuše Jarcovjáková’s work. Her use of space, surface, scale and writing led to a powerful sense of both documenting real history and personal intimacy.

Stepping back, I am convinced that my work needs to paradoxically combine the landscape / traces photographs with a simple quote. Captions would just get lost, and not do justice to the tragedies and pain that my friends suffered.

It should also be noted that the words that I am using are not ‘captions’. That suggests something 3rd party. The words are actual, and personal quotes. Captions can be altered – but quotes are fixed, I believe. Ofc choosing the quote is a curatorial task.

The visual interpretation of those quotes is open to exploration, hence my enthusiasm for the mini portfolio idea. Another task is to see whether different quotes might underpin more appropriate narratives for the overall story.


Header: Mick Yates. 1999. Tango Montage. Mixed Media.


ABRIL, Laia. 2018. On Abortion: And the Repercussions of Lack of Access. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.

AGEE, James & EVANS, Walker. 1941. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. 2006 Edition. London: Penguin.

ARAKI, Nobuyoshi & BAKER, Simon. 2007. Tales of Black Ink. 2014 Edition. London: Morel Books.

BERGER, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. 2008 Edition. London: Penguin.

EVANS, Walker. 2012. American Photographs: Anniversary Edition. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

DE WILDE, Edy and PETERSEN, Ad. 1982. 60-80 Attitudes Concepts Images. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum.

HARIMAN, Robert & LUCAITES, John Louis. 2016. The Public Image: Photography and Civic Spectatorship. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.

LUTTRINGER, Paula. 2011. Wailing Walls, in HERSCHDORFER, Natalie. 2011. Afterwards. London: Thames & Hudson.

MCKENNA, Kristina. 1993. Picture Imperfect : For maverick Duane Michals, a photo is worth far less than a thousand words when the questions are about the very meaning of truth. LA Times. Available at: (accessed 14/08/2019).

MEISELAS, Susan. 1997. Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MEISELAS, Susan. 2018. Mediations. Bologna: Damiani.

ROUVALIS, Christina. 2014. Duane Michals: Telling the Story of the Storyteller. Carnegie Museum of Art. Available at: (accessed 14/08/2019).

VERLICHAK, Victoria. 2013. Paula Luttringer:Archaeology of a Tragedy. Aperture. Available at: (accessed 14/08/2019).

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