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Offline: The Ballad of Good and Bad Titles

June 30, 2011 Author: Alec Soth Tags: Photo Books Columns Alec Soth Titles

Men might think about sex every seven seconds, but I think about project titles.

There is no greater pleasure than lying on the couch, closing my eyes, and daydreaming about the perfect title. I guess this isn’t much different from teenagers dreaming up names for their rock bands. While I suppose this sounds silly, I think it is actually worthwhile. Titles are important. When I review student work, one of the first questions I ask is ‘what is the title?’ More often than not I’m met with no answer. This is remarkable. I’d have a hard time getting started on anything without having some sort of working title. This need to wrap an idea in a few, well-chosen words isn’t limited to creative projects. I’m currently working with a non-profi t organization that is putting together a large event centred on creative responses to life-threatening illnesses and death. It is going to be a great night with some legendary dancers and storytellers. But we’ve struggled to fi nd the right name for the event. For a while the working title was Dance with Death. But it started to leave a bad taste in the mouth. For some it was too corny, for others too bleak. And we weren’t sure if it was good marketing. The producer of Death of a Salesman once said the play would have had a much longer run on Broadway if ‘Death’ wasn’t in the title. Titles are important. They affect the way people read the work. Take Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The title is so urgent and unexpected. Imagine if the book was just called ‘Downtown.’ I doubt we’d think of the book in the same way. It is a shame when a great book gets a bad name. One of my favourites of the last few years was Jem Southam’s Landscape Stories. The title is generic and lifeless – just the opposite of his sensual and complicated pictures. (I much prefer the title of Southam’s latest book, The Painter’s Pool). 

Sometimes photographers get corny. David Heath’s Dialogue With Solitude is an example. But I’d rather have a corny title than a boring one. I’m a sucker for DeCarava’s Sweet Flypaper of Life. William Eggleston is the title champion. He has the trifecta with Eggleston’s Guide, The Democratic Forest and Los Alamos. I love them all in different ways. Eggleston’s Guide is a funny and playful take on the generic author title (Diane Arbus by Diane Arbus). The Democratic Forest is a good example of a title that suggests the photographic process (much better than Helen Levitt’s Ways of Seeing and Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment). Finally, Los Alamos is sly and subtle. The pictures were taken all over America, not just Los Alamos. But rather than using the generic adjective ‘American,’ Eggleston chose the name of the town where the atomic bomb was developed. 

American Photographs by Walker Evans and The Americans by Robert Frank are so iconic that it is hard for contemporary photographers to avoid using ‘American.’ As great as these books are, I don’t love the titles or the legacy they’ve created. With the exception of Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects (a great title), most of these names are a bore: 

American Surfaces, Stephen Shore 

In the American West, Richard Avedon 

American Monument, Lynn Davis 

The American Monument, Lee Friedlander 

American Musicians, Lee Friedlander 

American Music, Annie Leibovitz 

Model American, Katy Grannan 

American Cockroach, Catherine Chalmers 

American PitbullMark Joseph 

American Color, Constantine Manos 

American Bachelor, Michael Rababy 

I’m not saying we should ban ‘American,’ but I’m encouraged when photographers come up with something different. One of my favourite recent books is Tim Davis’s My Life in Politics. What a great title – and what a relief he didn’t call it American Politics. Ray’s A Laugh by Richard Billingham, Why Mister, Why by Geert van Kesteren, Yesterday’s Sandwich by Boris Mikhailov – these are titles that match the originality and excitement of the pictures inside. Great marketing? Perhaps not in the short term. But like Death of a Salesman, these titles burn into the brain over the course of time. Does anyone remember Eugene Richard’s book Americans We?  What was it about? It might as well have been called Untitled (wait, that is another Arbus book). But then consider Richard’s recent monograph, The Fat Baby. If you are like me, you can instantly recall the whole thing – the weight of the book, the images and stories, the feeling. 

I’m not suggesting that a title needs to be wordy and poetic. One of the most memorable titles is Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful. It’s so dumb that it is smart. It sticks. This brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. He offers up some good advice for those of us daydreaming about titles: The hard part of communication is often figuring out how to make sure a message doesn’t go in one ear and out the other. Stickiness means that a message makes an impact. You can’t get it out of your head. It sticks in your memory. When Winston fi lter-tip cigarettes were introduced in the spring of 1954, for example, the company came up with the slogan ‘Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.’ At the time, the ungrammatical and somehow provocative use of ‘like’ instead of ‘as’ created a minor sensation. It was the kind of phrase that people talked about, like the famous Wendy’s tag line from 1984 ‘Where’s the beef?’ … To this day, if you say to most Americans ‘Winston tastes good,’ they can finish the phrase, ‘like a cigarette should.’ That’s a classically sticky advertising line, and stickiness is a critical component in tipping. Unless you remember what I tell you, why would you ever change your behavior or buy my product or go to see my movie? 

Get more from the author, Alec Soth, here.

 

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