I’ve been thinking about captions recently. My tutor has suggested that I consider their importance, about how they can do more than simply augment the image. So of course I’m thinking about text perhaps more than the image, which may well be an overreaction, and may have become over sensitized to the accompanying assemblages of letters when looking at photographs, images – works of art.
I probably succumbed to the spell of words before that of the image and I have felt wary of the use of words, knowing their directive strength. I have always avoided giving my prints titles, perhaps foolishly considering that they should stand or fall on the foundation of their graphic strength. That I’m a student suggests that the images I’ve made have never had the depth of footings to speak for themselves. I’ve not lost the wariness of words. I’m more concerned about how to moderate their power, their influence in order to balance their effect both on me and the viewer.
The Lighthouse and the Wolverhampton Art Gallery houses Zed Nelson’s “Love Me” work, and here’s the rub. The first image I saw at the exhibition was “Miss Atom” and I read the caption that accompanied the large print and I was stopped short as much by the words as I was by this beautiful print. The caption described the work that this subject did in the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency. But I didn’t make a note of the full caption, I didn’t think to record it, maybe because I thought that it would be recorded in the exhibition data, or on the artist’s web-site. However I haven’t been able to find the actual words – whose poignancy is probably greater in their loss than if I could locate them. I wrote to the artist and he very kindly sent me the ‘Project proposal’, adding that I could use any image – some of which weren’t in the exhibition, for which I exceedingly grateful. But those few accompanying words regarding “Miss Atom’s” job description aren’t recorded there. So, the loss of the words are speaking to me perhaps more than the memory of the image…
The exhibition has images that together with the text/captions ask questions of the viewer and of society about the nature of the “beauty” industry. The words in the project proposal specifically denote the purpose of the work to:
“Love Me explores the insidious power of the global beauty industry and our collective insecurity, vanity and fear of ageing.
In a series of compelling images, Love Me negotiates the boundaries of art and documentary, reflecting a world we have created in which there are enormous social, psychological and economic rewards and penalties attached to the way we look.
Love Me, reflects on the cultural and commercial forces that drive a global obsession with youth and beauty. The project explores how a new form of globalization is taking place, where an increasingly narrow Western beauty ideal is being exported around the world like a crude universal brand.
Over a period of five years Nelson visited seventeen countries across five continents, meeting cosmetic surgeons, anorexics, beauty queens, bodybuilders, trainee models, housewives, porn stars, businessmen and soldiers.
Whilst Nelson’s subjects appear willing participants in an omnipresent culture of bodily improvement, they are also hapless victims – at the mercy of larger social forces and locked into their insatiable craving for approval.
As the subjects frailties and pretensions are exposed, so too are we the viewer: our motives for looking, for inspecting, along with uncomfortable reminders of our own vanities and insecurities.
In Love Me, Zed Nelson has produced a powerful body of work that forces every one of us to question our own place in a culture that compels us to constantly judge, and be judged, by our appearance.”
reprinted by kind permission of the artist Zed Nelson.
These words do not leave very much to the imagination, they are directing/forcing me/us/the viewer to confront issues that Nelson clearly feels needs to be aired. Challenging us to engage in a debate that he illustrates from a wide variety of perspectives.
Twin texts, those on the image and those off the image. The factual statements of what is in the container and the caption for the image, but the personalising of the image by giving the “removed” a name is important. And similarly the photograph below “Katie, age 9.” We are instructed that Katie is 9, asking the viewer basic questions, such as ‘what do we think about this?’ It isn’t the questions themselves it is the combination of image and text that direct the viewer to consider our judgements, as a society, on how we feel about a society representing itself in this/and these ways.
One further quotation from Nelson’s exhibition proposal from near the start:
“In 1920 American women were finally recognised as legitimate citizens when they were given the right to vote. In that same year the first Miss America pageant took place.”
It is presented with no attribution, almost as a truth, a statement of undeniable fact and simply steers the piece.
More of this series can be seen here on Zed Nelson’s web-site.