The use of text within images.

Matt Siber

(brilliant) Image credit to

A visual way with words: The use of text within three contemporary artists photographs.


The use of text within the world of photography may often be seen as supplementary to those outside of a critical thinking environment. Yet text is as an essential a part of the medium as any other aspect, giving reason to many images that would otherwise elude understanding. Often many are so set in the understanding of the concept of photography as no more than merely the image, that they may not acknowledge the multitude of texts that in nearly every case accompany images. So where does text find its place within art photography and can it be readily classified? We could make a sweeping catch all classification of the two types of text most commonly encountered, the subjective, conceptual text, and objective text, the descriptive. To call something descriptive would be to align it with such effects as scientific labels, typological information or even news captions. In short any text that performs a purely functional use, those which point out indisputable facts or instructional details, scientific labelling or analytical statements. Care should be used when classifying items as such, for advertising rhetoric or bias in information may present as fact, that which is merely conjecture.


Conceptual text it would follow could therefore be the use of text to express an artistic narrative or ideology that the image creator seeks to portray. As is so often the case within the Art world, the lines between the two can become blurred and either ethos may borrow from the other. The purpose of both camps is the same, to inform and fill in any narrative gaps that may be only hinted at by an image. Peter Wollen (2009, p78) believes that photographs, due to their static nature ‘cannot be seen as narratives in themselves, but as elements of a narrative’, fragments of the whole. this leads to photography having a possible shortcoming when compared to cinematic media, the inability to convey explicit instructions or complex accounts in such a concise manner. The use of text is as a clarifying tool, to convey the creators intent, to add extra elements, to reanimate the story presented in a static state, though artists my use text to confuse, subvert or even distract, its nature remains, to inform of the intent they wish to place upon a piece.


There are enough elements to the relationship text shares with photography to fill several sizeable volumes so we look at three images that use text in a conceptual manner, within the artistic realm. All seeking to further the understanding of their work, yet using very different approaches. With text placed over, under and beside photographs respectively, all three artists manipulating the use of text as a technique to enhance their concept and further a viewers understanding of their message.





From the series “Written in Memory: Stories from the Holocaust”

Image #1  Jeff Wolin,

Katie Steiner, b. 1925, Farad, Hungary, 1992/94


Taken from the series Written in Memory: Stories from the Holocaust in which Wolin interviewed Holocaust survivors and wrote their stories directly onto the image. The handwritten style is intimate and personal, inviting us to get closer to the image and engage with the sitter on a one to one basis. Upon first look, before we read the text, we already have several clues as to the context we are expected to read this image. The title of both exhibition and photograph give us the historical event, the title of the photograph gives us her name, date of birth and a geographical location. We know much about this woman before we are even told the fine details of her story.

In this work the text is there to fill in the narrative gaps and convey that which a mute static picture cannot. Should the writing be removed we could only make assumptions, with the text we are given her own words and are explicitly shown answers as to her role in the events of one of the darkest moments of man.

As is always the case, the manner in which text is presented is as important as the text itself and Wolin gives careful consideration, not only here, but in all of his work. In more recent times, Wolin has moved away from the personal handwritten style and his works with Vietnam veterans from both sides contain stories of the same length as here, yet presented outside of the image as a separate printed text. This moves the work significantly, from an intimate personalised image, to something nearer a typological approach. It would be impossible to venture as to which may be a more valid approach, that is a matter for the reader to decide.

In this image choosing to place the writing in a way that creates an island of the woman at the centre, this seems to suggest that although the story may be a large part of her memory, her current environment is something that creates a safe environment from which to talk about these experiences. In several other images Wolin makes the choice to have text wrap around, and as such, emphasise elements of the background, through this simple difference the other shots have a much friendlier, almost playful feel to them. There is a technique involved in the rehabilitation of people involved in traumatic experiences, wherein they are allowed to recall the experiences in a safe environment in order to come to terms with their memories. There is an element of this within his series and it may be that Wolin felt that in telling her story, Ms Steiner came across as more isolated than other sitters. In writing text upon the photograph, Jeff Wolin has created levels to his work that would simply not be presentable within the confines of a framed image.





Image #2 Lorna Simpson

Rock/Haiku, 1999, Set of 12 famed sheets of silk-screened Japanese newsprint.





Rock/Haiku is one of two similarly presented pieces, created by Lorna Simpson in 1999, A silk screen print on twelve sheets of Japanese newspaper form both this image and night. Simpson has also used text within the boundaries of the image, but this time the photograph itself is placed over the text. An important distinction and one which splits the burden of conveying context between both image and text. Where Wolin’s work relies on text in addition to image in order to further understanding, Simpson’s uses both equally, the text in this case being Japanese newspapers, that have been used as the canvas for a silk screen print of the photograph. In the image alone we are presented with a dreamy and ambiguous landscape shot, no visual clues as to location nor date. In addition, the text as a separate element would offer little help as to the nature of the art, as non-descript as any daily print media, ambiguity lies within the mundane nature of the everyday. When the two are combined it starts to become apparent that the use of text in this image is less about narrative and more about the geographical and temporal location. It may be possible to decipher the location only through prolonged study, the multi panel format, vignette and tonality give visual nods towards the art of oriental landscape paintings, but these would be educated guesses at best. When the text is combined with the image, we are given the information we need to make sense of the puzzle.

The newspapers are contemporary, some may even have exact dates, explicitly handing the temporal location to the viewer and although many may be unable to read the content, the text is of unmistakably oriental origin. Again the use of text is to inform, though in this case it is for the purpose of classification above narrative, in much the way newspaper captions may inform. Roland Barthes (1977, p25) talks about text in scathing terms when used in such a way. Speaking about captions he states ‘The text constitutes a parasite designed to connote the image, to ‘quicken’ it with one or more second order signifieds’. Though these comments should not be dismissed totally out of hand, it is worth considering that the quickening of a photograph is not always a negative, as is the case here, serving to resolve unanswered questions at an equal level to the image. On initial viewing, the text may be seen as secondary, or presented in a different style, the image may be little more than a holiday ‘snapshot’. yet when combined and presented as they are, both create something unique and distinct.




From “The Untitled Project, 2002-2010”

Image #3 Matt Siber

Untitled #38, 2005/6.


Matt Siber has created images that attempts strip all text from the everyday scenes in his series Untitled. Car number plates, advertising and street signs all appear naked in his subtle on the all encompassing nature of modern consumer culture. We are bombarded with advertising in nearly every environment we encounter these days, in nearly every action or journey we take there are hundreds of adverts seeking our attention, Even the laptop I am currently writing this on, has a large logo broadcasting my choice to those seated opposite. Yet Siber argues that in many cases the words themselves are secondary to graphical elements:


‘My initial motivation for removing text from public spaces was to free the modern citizen from the onslaught of language that is ubiquitous in our environment. I felt this to be a noble cause until I finished editing my first piece in Photoshop and immediately became aware of the errors in my initial concept. Despite the lack of text, I was still able to interpret most messages through visual rather than literate forms of communication’ (Siber, 2005) .


Siber has touched here on the dream of many an advertising executive, to find a point where text becomes less recognisable than the company logo. Companies such as Coca-cola, Ford, Disney and Starbucks, all rely on not only logos, but also colours to create an identity that transcends text within their adverts, until it ‘becomes as superfluous as the word ‘McDonald’s’ below the famous golden M.’ (Siber, 2005).  However, can the stripping of text really prove the underlying brand identities of the everyday street furniture?  In viewing the picture we look for patterns and balance, when bereft of text, the shapes and similarities leap to the forefront in a way that would be ignored were we given the images unadulterated. The billboards to the left of the image all have a similar colour and styling, hinting towards the summery bright feel of a drinks company campaign, the two in the right of the foreground instantly recognisable as fashion photography from magazines, such is the familiarity of advertising conventions we are able to quickly ascertain the function of the images despite having no textual confirmation. Despite the initial unbalanced nature of a world without text we are able to quickly make sense and rationalise the world

we are presented with, the omnipresent advertising rhetoric has made the text defunct. Interestingly, despite Siber’s work being a comment on the negative nature of consumer influencing, his work has been courted by the advertising world as a possible new way to grab the attention of cynical consumers. An option dismissed out of hand by Siber on his website. In advertising much of the text may often be little more than opinion, conjecture or vague aspirational ideas, as such the content of text becomes little more than a way of continuing the brand identity with little actual meaning given to the words themselves. The Disney font or the colours used by various soft drinks are so ingrained in the modern cultural psyche that they would be recognisable in any language or even abstract permutations. With the act of separating the text from the image, Siber has highlighted this in an indisputable fashion.


Throughout all three artists featured here, all have major elements in common, text plays major parts within their works yet all utilise this resource in very different styles. But the potential artist should take care, every aspect should be carefully controlled, considered and crafted to ensure that its conveys the correct message. As with any ingredient the subtlest of changes can create Barthes’ punctum for a viewer in the same way as the image itself. There is no set rules as to how text should appear within art, though we have only touched on a few possible uses here, Wolin wraps text for intimacy, Simpson seeks to inform and locate whereas Siber separates to show isolation and obsolescence. One thing is a certainty though, in any use of text, its job is to inform and enhance the understanding, to give context and placing. It is often the final piece in any puzzles that may be formed from a photograph.







Wollen, P. (2009) ‘Fire And Ice’, in Wells, L (ed) The Photography Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, pp76-86.

Barthes, R. (1997) ‘The Photographic message’, in Image Music Text. London: Fontana, pp15-31.

Siber, M. (2005) ‘Visual Literacy in the public space’, Visual Communication, vol 4 no 1, pp5-20 Sage Journals Online [Online]. Available at (Accessed: 3 January 2012).