in-image captions

When text appears within an image, it can serve to function as a caption. In captions, words helps to indicate what Barthes terms the 'preferred meaning' of the image, often by identifying the important parts of the image. In this way, the text overtly identifies intended meaning of the image, or draws attention to its most significant part.

Barthes suggests that captions can serve two different functions. In some instances, the text may reinforce or duplicate pictorial information, and in other instances the text may add additional information that is not present within the image. David Lewis offers a more extensive list of functions. In 'symmetry', the words and image duplicate one another, reinforcing an agreed meaning, in 'enhancement' the overall aims of the words and image are the same, but one enhances the other by being more detailed or elaborate, in 'counterpoint' or 'deviation', the words and image provide slightly different meaning, and in 'contradiction' the meaning of the words and image are binary opposites.

Ryan Riegner, Typography that Talks Back, 2009

Ryan Riegner's typographic cutouts illustrate the terms 'explode' and 'erode'. The words serve as an explanation of the images, and vice versa. In 'explode', an image of an explosion is reduced to layers of coloured card. This is a significantly abstracted representation of an explosion, and therefore may not be interpreted as an explosion were it not for the caption within. In 'Erode', the caption tells us that the layers of card have not been cut, but eroded. The connotations of purposeful design are replaced with connotations of a natural, destructive and uncontrollable process.


Craig Ward, You Blow Me Away, 2009

Craig Ward's 'You Blow Me Away' depicts shattering glass. This event could be considered violent, with negative connotations of vandalism and destruction. Instead, however, the caption contained within the image explains that this is in fact a metaphor for romantic emotions. This text allows the image to communicate a positive message of love and devotion, while acknowledging that such emotions can also be dangerous.

Craig Ward, Omnivore's Delight

Another of Ward's works, 'Omnivore's Delight', anchors the preferred meaning by listing the many dishes that could be presented on a plate. The plate is represented only as a circle. A circle may have many interpretations: meaning may vary depending on context. In this case, its many possible meanings are reduced to a single meaning - 'plate' - by this list of words representing many foodstuffs.

As with many examples of 'in-image captions', the title is displayed within the image. This removes the need for a caption to appear outside of the work. The poster is thereby made completely self-reliant, and self-defining, requiring no further explanation.


Mike Campau, Stay Green Go Red, 2008.


Cheong Hoe Yi, Music, 2009.

In Cheong Hoe Yi's 'Music', a scene of mechanical objects is presented, containing three-dimensional text objects. Here, the preferred meaning of the mechanical objects is anchored by the text, which does not describe the object itself, but its purpose. These objects, the text tells us, are part of a machine which creates or emits music. Furthermore, the style of music is suggested by the substitution of a cigarette for the letter 'i'.

All of the above images link to sources.

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