Read Chapter 4 ‘Something and Nothing’ in Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd edition) London: Thames & Hudson. You will find this on the student website named PH4IAP_Something and Nothing.
To what extent do you think the strategy of using objects or environments as metaphor is a useful tool in photography?
When might it fall down?
Write some reflective notes on these points in your learning log.
This strategy provides the photographer with virtually endless scope to use everyday items from the world around us and make them represent something else that is perhaps less readily available or harder to photograph (either in a person or elsewhere). So the first thing to say is that this type of metaphor has very practical use where photographing the ‘real thing’ would be difficult or dangerous. Of course this comes with a warning that it can be used lazily where better results could be had by seeking out the subject.
Because the subject matter is often banal, Cotton warns against making the assumption that the subject matter is what would otherwise be ‘without visual symbolism. In truth, there is no such thing as an unphotographed or unphotographable subject‘. The job of the viewer is to seek to find out what meaning the phorographer identified in it, knowing that there must be one.
As with Orozco’s ‘Breath on a piano’, mundane objects in combination allow us to see things in a new and perhaps subversive way – Just who was it that dare breathe on the prefectly polished piano? Who used scrap car doors in a doorway (Wentworth, 1999) and who balanced a courgette and carrot on a cheese grater (Fischili and Weiss)? This quirk is what piques the interest for me, stops me and motivates me to explore the image in more detail (Barthes’ concept of Punctum raises this phenomena in Camera Lucida). We know that any photograph is a moment in time that actually existed once (maybe constructed sculpture from the parallel art movement in the 1960’s exploring minimalism), but it wouldn’t normally look like that.
I can see how this is a tremendous tool for drawing the viewer’s attention to an attribute that the phorographer seeks to highlight. It is as though the photographer presents a riddle to be solved, ‘drawing on our natural inquisitiveness‘ (Cotton), the reward being to gain an insight into the subject. A ‘portrait’ of someone characterised by a love of food and a very large, pointy nose might unkindly have a wedge of cheese in the image instead, as a crude example.
The risk is thst cetrain aspects are accentuated by this strategy at the expense of others giving an incomplete view of the subject, or misunderstood (the puzzle too cryptic) and getting it entirely wrong. This feels more serious when we are talking about people – at least with a straightforward portrait the viewer can rely on his own senses, not just curious items thst the photographer substitutes for the original. Rather than a complex and intriguing image it may descend into stereotype and crude characature.
But for me thats the whole point. Sculpture is never the original, it is an interpretation. So is painting. Minimalism is accepted as an artistic style across mediums. Why should photography be any different, shackled in creativity by its ability to faithfully reproduce? The responsibility of the photographer therefore is to remain alert to this risk of over-simplification for an image to be persuasive and rich in meaning.
However, James Melling challenges even this with his exploration of lighting a single subject. At first sight his work resembles an early Cokin Filter catalogue, with images of the same glass house through various coloured filters and graduated filters, solarisation and other vivid colour techniques. What might be dismissed as crude and amateurish is visually engaging and exploratory, showing diversity while only changing the light that falls upon a fixed subject.