Earlier this week I watched a short film on The Guardian’s YouTube channel about the town of Paradise, California, that was recently devastated by one of the worst wildfires on record - the film itself was pretty good, but the title was almost perfect; Paradise Lost (I say ‘almost perfect’ because, thanks to SEO, The Guardian unfortunately added ‘: the town incinerated by California's deadliest wildfire’). Notwithstanding the obvious seriousness of the situation, I have to admit that one of my immediate thoughts was, ‘That would make a great project.’ - indeed, I suspect someone’s already working on it, or has at least had the same idea.
This reminded me of how important a title is to a project, but I know from recent experience (of trying to think of a title for my in-progress British road trip project) that conjuring up a good one can be hard - they don’t always present themselves so easily, as with the film mentioned above (it’s obviously especially helpful when you can steal a title that already exists somewhere else).
A glance at my book shelf throws up a few of my favourite titles (in no particular order):
The Prospect of Immortality (Murray Ballard)
Sleeping by The Mississippi (Alec Soth)
Evidence (Larry Sultan)
Sentimental Journey (Nobuyoshi Araki)
Wonderful Days (Masahisa Fukase)
Summer Nights (Robert Adams)
Small World (Martin Parr)
Now, of course it helps that the photographs in all of these books are brilliant, and that is probably biasing me towards believing they have great titles somewhat, but the titles themselves nevertheless have some things in common - firstly, their brevity (most are just two words long), which no doubt helps with making them memorable (even in the four word titles in the above examples, the extra words are just articles), and most follow the format of ‘Adjective - Noun’. In contrast however, the best titles for novels (not my choices this time) appear to be longer - generally at least four words, but often running to six or more.
So why the difference? Alec Soth has often compared photography to poetry, and poems also seem to tend to similarly be given slightly shorter, more nebulous titles than novels, so maybe there’s something in that. Perhaps titles for photography projects likewise work best when they’re kept vague, to a degree - imparting a broad feeling that hopefully stays with the audience throughout the book/exhibition/etc, guiding their thoughts gently, without telling them too specifically what to think, and therefore risking shutting down their imagination.
In their book Successful Writing, Maxine Hairston and Michael Keene explain that a good title should serve several different functions:
Catch the reader’s interest
Reflect the tone or slant of the piece
Contain keywords that make it optimised for search engines
It’s easy to see how the first three points are important and how the above photobooks tick all three boxes, but, especially in the wider world, it’s the last point that has arguably become the most important factor (e.g. all headlines/titles on the internet). As far as I’m aware though, most photographers involved in making work for an Art audience haven’t yet brought in to this maxim, but maybe it’s only be a matter of time until we start to see project titles like, ’25 Stunning Photographs of Trump Voters That Will Melt Your Heart’.
In that spirit, using digg.com’s list of top headline phrases (measured by engagement), I’ve come up with a few alternative titles for the photobooks I listed above.
You Won’t Believe What These People Do To Try And Cheat Death
This Photographer Took A Road Trip Down The Mississippi River And The Results Will Make You Cry
People Are Freaking Out About These Weird Archive Photographs
Widowers Touching Photo Diary Will Melt Your Heart
This Japanese Photographers Book Of Cat Pictures Is Too Cute
This Is Why You Should Go Out For Nighttime Walks In The Summer
People Can’t Stop Laughing At These Photographs Of The World’s Most Famous Tourist Spots
Leave a comment below if you have a favourite photobook title, or know of any that could be improved using a more clickable title.