Captioning Dreams

One of the consequences of age (along with diabetes, exacerbated by too many mugs of coffee staring at the computer screen) is that most nights I wake up around 4.30 am (yes, Alex*, AM does mean in the morning.) Fortunately after a short visit to the bathroom I normally fall quickly back to sleep. But this morning, I had a little shock as I woke, struggling as often out of a dream. I realised that my dream had been a kind of dream about a dream, in which I had been captioning each of its images for my pages at Alamy.

As contributors to Alamy will already know, each image submitted needs extensive key-wording, caption and description information, and it is a time-consuming process to add these, made more tedious as the system doesn’t match up well with the more standard IPTC meta-data. Yesterday I spent around 6 hours working on a batch of images submitted last month, so it’s hardly surprising that it was still at the top of my sleeping mind.

I’m not sure that my images will in any case sell from Alamy, as probably they are the wrong kind of subject matter for its customers, and those wanting my work are more likely to look elsewhere – perhaps in specialist libraries such as Photofusion, where I also have work. Or better still; come directly to me having found what they want in the 25,000 or so images on My London Diary. I do get plenty of requests to use images from there, but too few from anyone who can afford to pay.

The simplest approach to keywording would be to make use of a controlled vocabulary, and there are hierarchical lists available for import into applications such as Adobe Lightroom, for example, the Controlled Vocabulary Keyword Catalog or CVKC. I’m not sure that their listing would be particularly appropriate to my rather limited field of work, and until the libraries I work with adopt it, I don’t think it makes much sense for me to pay the modest dollar cost but much more significant time input to make use of it. However the site does have one of the best pages of advice on captioning images I’ve come across, of course starting from the basic “Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?” but with some other very useful tips.

But, as my dream showed, things can take over our lives. I’ve met many people who have said to me that they never take photographs, as they feel it makes them into observers and they would rather take a full part in what they are doing. It’s a view I have some sympathy with, but then there are plenty of events I’d rather observe than take part in.

But there are other occasions where photography is an important part of how I take part in things. It’s also important to me in preserving my own memory and sense of what happened. In the 1960s I threw myself into various things, and was too busy to take photographs. Now I find that it’s true that if you remember what happened you weren’t really there – largely because these were exciting times and too much was happening rather than substance abuse. All I have are occasional glimpses – being in a dressing room with the great master of the tenor sax, Ben Webster, came back to me a few weeks back (my job was to get him on stage able to stand, largely accomplished by drinking my share of the whisky he would otherwise have got through on his own. If he could stand he could play. And did, beautifully. I’ve never really liked whisky since.)

It wasn’t that I didn’t have an interest in photography. But in those years you either had to be extremely rich or devote hours of your time to the darkroom to be a photographer. I was penniless and already trying to fit more than 24 hours into every day. It didn’t help that my camera was still suffering from a rusty shutter after being dropped in the lake at Versailles, making speeds above an eighth of a second problematic and those below default to B. All in all I have little photographic record of those times to jog memory, one of my great regrets.

*Alex ten Napel, a fine Dutch photographer I met in Bielsko-Biala, Poland, left checking his travel arrangements home rather late. In the car when we were going to dinner to celebrate the end of the event, late on the night before we all left, he asked me “does AM mean morning?” And found he was booked to leave in a few hours on the 4.30am train. His portraits of swimmers, taken standing with them in the pool, were one of several highlights for me of the Foto Art Festival there.

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