The Name Game (Continued)

by Virginia Parker Staat

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.” ~L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

The candy-apple red Corvette sped by us, easily exceeding 90 miles per hour. We were just able to read the vanity license plate as it flew past: BYBYCOP. My guess is when this fellow ultimately gets pulled over for a violation, he will not be met with a generous and kind-hearted spirit.

With the 2016 RMOWP conference behind us, I continue to think about our workshop The Name Game: Writing Effective Photo Titles and Captions. (You can download a pdf of the workshop handout here.) Seeing those BYBYCOP tags reminded me of yet another simple truth about the titles we choose. Like the license plate, when we title a photo or written work, the name says as much about the author as it does about our art.

Psychologists have recently begun focusing on the titles we use to identify ourselves. As a result, a regular juror voir dire is “do you have a bumper sticker on your car and, if so, what does it say?” Why? A Colorado State University research study led by Dr. William Szlemko suggests that people with bumper stickers are more likely to be aggressive and angry people. Additionally, bumper stickers can reflect religious, political, or social dispositions that may play into a juror’s decision-making process.

Names have power. The names we give our art are similar to the words we give our characters in fiction to show rather than tell who they are. As an example, can we easily imagine the personality of the BYBYCOP owner to be someone with attitude… defiance… audacity?

In our Name Game workshop, we examined several creative and clever photograph titles. Hiroh Kikai’s portrait A Polite Young Man Who Powders His Hands offered a glimpse into Kikai’s personality. Workshop participants concluded that the clever title expanded the photo, causing us to take a second glance, this time focusing on the young man’s hands. Many were also curious about the photographer himself and why he chose such an odd name for his art. In an interview with Marc Feustel, Kikai said that he sees his captions and images intrinsically linked and that his goal is to give just enough information to set off questions in a viewer’s mind.

"All Blaze, No Saddles" © Virginia Staat
“All Blaze, No Saddles” © Virginia Staat

Let’s look at one of my photos and its title to see if the combination might expand my audience’s view. I entered the digitized photo into this year’s RMOWP contest. In an attempt to make a clever play of words with the title of the spoof western Blazing Saddles, I named the photo All Blaze, No Saddles. The photo felt humorous to me, with the horses posed like cowboys in an old western movie. A band of wild horses (led by a stallion named Cloud in Theodore Roosevelt National Park) stood hunkered together, staring out at me from prairie dog town. Each horse had a blaze from nose to forehead. I wanted the title to expand my audience’s view from the quartet of horses to the distinct pattern of each horse’s blaze.

Did my title evoke the desired effect? Probably not. The movie Blazing Saddles was released in 1974. How many in my audience would connect with the obscure reference? How many would know that the name of the facial marking on each of these horses is called a blaze? Would the title expand my audience’s view to realize that these were wild horses rather than domestic stock? Did my title, like Hiroh Kikai’s portrait, set off questions in viewers’ minds? Therein lies the dilemma when naming our art. Unless our audience can connect with our worldview, humor, wit (or lack thereof), the title does nothing to enhance the photo and, instead, may simply cause confusion.

As we contemplate naming our art, we can conclude that titles are an art form in themselves. We can use titles to expand our audience’s view, narrow the topic, shake their concept of normal, or leave them wondering. I certainly still wonder whatever happened to that guy with the BYBYCOP tags.