A part of me would like to name the above photo “The Diminishing Returns of Advertising.” Even if I could read whatever language is above, I am sure none of the words would sink in in any meaningful or lasting way. So in this case, each incremental advertisement only serves to diminish the effectiveness of the others. Perhaps I should call this “The Negative Returns of Advertising”.
Naming photos is not something I typically do. In fact, you just bore witness to the first name giving I’ve ever given. I want my photos to visually speak for themselves. Just like the shopkeeper adding more ads in the above photo, adding a name has the potential to create a distraction (hence the title of “untitled” in so many pieces of artwork).
The above photo does work, however. That is in large part due to the fact that my eyes cannot interpret any meaning behind the symbols. The little girl cuts through all of the noise and provides a nice focal point. If that photo was filled with English text, then it would be less visually comfortable.
While I really like my homeboy with the cig and the photo isn’t terrible, the fact that his head cuts off the Haagen-Dazs signage really takes away from it. Going back to the semantics I mentioned earlier – our brains are hard wired to find the emotion behind a facial expression and the meaning behind a recognized typeface. We like eating ice-cream because it’s creamy but more-so because it satisfies our biological need for sugar. Babies like staring at faces because their mirror neurons suggest they do so. So we’ve established that text and faces grab our attention in photos. Next up is using both to our advantage.
I think the first thing to steer clear from is text (or symbols) that mean little to you. This is a general rule in photography – just photograph things that interest you and you’re halfway there. But back to the text – the meaning should not detract from the overall feeling of the photo. The reason that the Haagen-Dazs doesn’t help Homeboy is because his head conflicts (visually) with the signage. The guy in Coney Island is nicely surrounded by text. And all of the text fits together rather cohesively. The “Coney” is a bit extreme with it’s telescoping font but it serves to highlight the horizon fairly well. The “straight ahead” does it too. This gently prods the eye into exploring other parts of the photo besides the man and child’s face.
Another quality of text that is important is whether it is hand-written or not. Coney’s text is painted on the walls by hand which gives it a warm, organic quality. Notice the texture on the walls that the man is walking past. Billboards give you no such sensation. The sterile nature of printed adverts only convey qualities decidedly unnatural (saturated colors, perfectly rounded lines, bullshit consumerism, etc.).
But sometimes saturated colors and sterile fonts are exactly what is needed. Juxtaposing a perfectly printed and perfectly crafted message with the mess and drama of the human condition can lead to interesting results. There are major artistic precedents for anti-consumerism. Don’t be afraid to follow in this tradition. Call attention to the vast disparity between the wealthy and the poor and the self-interested actions of multinationals. It adds elements of humanity to your work.
So while I tried to paint a picture above about using text in your photographs, I typically try and stay away from it if possible! And this is tough to do! Times Square is a hurricane of words and colors screaming for attention.
Happy (texty) shooting