Creative use of text in fine art photography

by Cecilie Oedegaard

Using text as a means of providing context in order to enrich image interpretation is something I’ve seen a few examples of, first and foremost in autobiographical imagery. Being mostly involved with autobiographical projects myself this idea intrigues me and I decided to investigate it further. With this post I would therefore like to discuss the work of three photographers (two pioneers and one contemporary) all working with text in various ways and I’ll try to answer the following questions: What does text offer their projects and how does it influence the interpretation of their imagery?

Sophie Calle is a French conceptual artist (b.1953) working with photography and installation known for combining images with text in order to communicate narratives of her own and others private experience. Her work is characterized by voyeurism and surveillance. The concept of "private games" started in Paris the 70s when she decided to follow strangers around in order to reacquaint herself with the city. She followed a man around, Henri B, that she quickly lost and by chance was introduced to at some event the same evening. She saw it as a sign and decided to follow him around in Venice to where he had told her he was planning a trip. This project soon turned into a carefully constructed surveillance operation with detailed notes and photographs. Calle documented her surveillance, making notes about and evaluating her thoughts and feelings. At times she also reminded herself that though she felt like she was in love with him, it was his elusive nature to which she was drawn. It resulted in a book titled Suite Vénitienne, published in 1979.

By combing her surveillance images and notes she creates a narrative that fuses reality with fiction. The notes are written in a methodical way, they are presented typed, marked by dates and times of the day. The text offers context that further helps to construct this fictional world where her own psychological projections and emotions serve as building blocks. By revealing her state of mind through text Calle as the creator and performer becomes an integral part of the work. This allows the viewer to experience the complexities of her work in a manner that would be impossible had we seen only the images presented by themselves. There is something cold, removed and observational about the typed up text. Had the text been handwritten it would perhaps be more diaristic and personal.


During my research I found that Sophie Calle had been inspired by Duane Michals, American photographer (b. 1932) amongst others widely known for incorporating text as a key element in his work. Michals’ text is handwritten and it gives voice to his thoughts and reflections that are usually poetic, tragic, humorous or all at once. In the image A Letter From My Father one can see how text clearly offers another dimension to image interpretation, letting the viewer experience and "read" the image in an even more complex manner. By looking solely at the image there is a strong sense of complicated and intense parent-teenager relationship and perhaps failure to understand each others actions and desires. The text does however refine and heighten the experience of the image providing a greater understanding of the father-son relationship.The meaning of the text as well as its handwritten nature also reinforces the image’s autobiographical nature.


The final artist whom I would like to discuss is Magnum photographer Bieke Depoorter (b 1985). Her process of incorporating text in her most recent body of work titled As It May Be is surprising and fascinating. On her website Depoorter is described as a photographer who travels and meets people by chance that would invite her into their homes and let her capture them in various private moments. She photographs fragile and intense moments and she always captures her subjects with kindness.

For her most recent project titled As It May Be she traveled to Egypt several times since the revolution that started in 2011. She stayed overnight in the homes of Egyptian civilians and families documenting their intimacy. Every night she would ask people if she could spend the night at their home and people were willing to share their daily life, their food and even their bed with her. While working on this series (which took all together six years to complete) she became increasingly aware of her role as an outsider. That she was a visitor from the West, a woman and a photographer. At a certain point she returned to Egypt with a first draft of her book. She asked people to comment and annotate the images she had taken and the work started to turn into sort of a dialogue between her as the photographer and the subjects. Contrasting views on society, country, religion and photography arose between people who would otherwise never meet. The images are presented with the original Arabic handwritten annotations and with the English translations next to them.

Depoorter includes text in a different way than Michals and Calle but similarly to their work, it allows for a richer and more complex way of experiencing the work. With Depoorter’s work it’s almost as if her subjects gain ownership of the work by including their thoughts and opinions. It’s no longer solely a visual body of work reflecting the photographers view from the outside as could easily happen with a photojournalistic series. It’s however a complex and nuanced testament to a country and its people during a period of transition and turmoil. It’s interesting to note the role of process in Depoorter’s work. It seems that her experience and feelings of being an outsider eventually propelled the work into a new direction that eventually resulted in a much more complex body of work.