I’m off to the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Texas, today to select photographs and illustrations from their vast archive for a book I recently finished writing about the General that will be published next year. Then I’ll have to perform a tricky chore that I never anticipated when I penned my first narrative history several years ago: the writing of captions.
Those little snippets that appear under graphics have to be concise bullets of information that must give precise information without conveying things I want the reader to find in the text of the book. They should be teasers, but not to the extent that they become puzzles. I enjoyed reading John Dos Passos’ Mr. Wilson’s War: From the Assassination of McKinley to the Defeat of the League of Nations, but his captions to the photographs were perplexing to the point of frustration. “The Beguiling Widow”, “The Faithful Physician”, and “Kingmaker from Vermont”, to name just a few, helped me not a jot in determining who I was looking at.
The old, good rule of writing having to do with not giving your readers too much too soon, to make them work some things out for themselves, should not apply to the writing of captions.
This goes for the labeling of personal photographs as well, if people even print, frame, or paste photographs into albums any more now that scrolling through pictures on telephones is all the rage.
There is a large, very old photograph hanging in the rogues’ gallery in my wife Karen’s and my hallway that was taken almost certainly in 1906. I know that because my father was born that year and he, surely before his first birthday, is held on the lap of his great-grandmother. If my late Aunt Georgia, my father’s sister, hadn’t taken the time to write down the identities of the thirty or so somber people in that faded, scratchy black and white photograph all those souls, long gone from this world, would be enigmas.
The lesson: provide information for people who will gaze at photos in the future and, just as important, make it useful information. If not, somebody will be looking at a picture a long time from now with the caption “Charlie. Good old Charlie, who stepped in and changed our lives” and they’ll ask, of no one who can any longer provide an answer, “Who the hell was Charlie?”