What’s in a Name?

White Trees, Series 2, No. 6

Lead the Way (White Trees, Series 1, No. 6)

In speaking with other photographers, I’m surprised at how often the subject of difficulty in naming a work comes up.  It seems that a lot of thought and effort goes into coming up with names, and with good reason, I suppose.  After all, names catch the eyes of viewers, and provide an opportunity to convey information about the work in a way that is separate from the visual communication of the work itself.  Certain kinds of names seem to run in themes over and over again – the insightful name, the ironic name, the funny name, etc.  Not that I’m putting down this kind of approach in any way, mind you, it’s just not how I do it.

For me, naming is pretty simple.  I generally go with the first thing that comes to me when I’m thinking about the concept, and then just add series and numbers for further additions to that concept.  For the image in this post, the concept was very white trees against very dark backgrounds – hence the name “White Trees.”  The first location at which I photographed the white trees was in Rocky Mountain National Park, so all of the images from that location are “Series 1.”  There also is a White Trees, Series 2 (images photographed at the Mount Goliath Natural Area in Colorado), and a White Trees, Series 3 may be in the works (for trees located at the Windy Ridge Bristlecone Pine Scenic Area in Colorado, which I have yet to visit).  Additional series may come as I discover more locations for this concept.

Personally, I like the simplicity of this kind of naming convention (obviously, I’m far from the only person to use it).  To me, the emphasis should be on the image itself, and the name should be just a simple, plain statement of what the image is.  There’s a certain elegance to this, and it also saves a lot of time and effort trying to come up with “just the right name” for any given image.

Of course, if you’re paying attention at all, you’ll notice that I’ve deviated from the convention for the image in this post.  In fact, I’ve done so for all of the images in the White Trees, Series 1.  There’s a couple of reasons for this.  First, this particular series is special to me, because it was the first time I was able to develop and execute a cohesive concept linking together a group of images with a common theme.  Second, I see the trees in this series as having strongly identifiable, almost uniquely anthropomorphic qualities – they seem almost human-like, the way they are situated in their environment.  In the image in this post, for example, I can’t help but see the distant tree as a leader, beckoning to a point over the horizon, to which the tree in the foreground is following.  Hence the name, “Lead the Way.”

Rarely do I like to describe my own interpretations of my own work.  I know what my work means to me, and I like to let the viewer take away whatever meaning of their own they want (in fact, I would be curious to know if my explanation here changed, either for the better or for the worse, anyone’s perceptions about the image).  I thought I would make an exception in this post, though, in the interest of exploring what’s in a name.

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  1. Rick G March 10, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

    First off, very nice work. I also shoot a lot in RMNP and know how difficult it can be to make a compelling image of these fascinating trees. It was interesting to hear your reasoning for the title of this work. I assumed it was because the featured tree was “in front” or in the foreground of the image. Your description about the leader was like pointing out a figure in the clouds- once seen, it becomes obvious.
    Brooks Jensen, via his LensWork Daily blog posts, has convinced me of the potential importance of naming an image. As an example, he mentions Dorothea Lange’s iconic FSA photograph “Migrant Mother,” and asks what effect it would have if the title had instead been “Awaiting the Returning Hero”? The answer, for me, is that it would be a completely different photograph, conjuring a different emotional response in my mind and perhaps triggering different memories from my own past. Brooks also talks about how much more emotionally engaged viewers seem to become when his work is accompanied by a descriptive essay or artist’s statement. He feels that artists who list much of their work as “Untitled” are doing themselves and their viewers a disservice. I tend to agree.

    • admin March 10, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

      Hi Rick. I think I remember reading that LensWork Daily post as well. Brooks definitely is big on text plus images, me a bit less so. It’s kind of like working in series or portfolios, which Brooks also is big on. While I (obviously) do work in some series, I’m a big believer in stand-alone images, just like while I do get creative with some names, I’m generally a big believer in the simple naming convention.

      You’re right about the “Migrant Mother” versus “Awaiting the Returning Hero,” though. I do believe it changes the interpretation of the image. For me, that’s just evidence as to how much words can “spin” the meaning of an image. Sometimes that’s appropriate, but in general I think it’s an advantage of the simple naming convention that the name stays truer to the visual communication. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Lisa Gordon March 10, 2014 at 6:07 pm #

    This is a beautiful image, and I too, like to let the viewer make their own interpretation.

    • admin March 10, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

      Yes, Lisa, I can’t tell you how many times my feelings about a work of art changed when I heard the artist’s explanation of the work. Song lyrics are the worst for that. I’ll walk around for years carrying some personally meaningful interpretation of a lyric, only to find the artist was thinking something completely different when writing the piece. Still like the songs, but never think of them in quite the same way!

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