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I&P: Part 5b - Reading Task: Something and Nothing 

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Project 5.1, Absence and signs of life - Research - Reading - Research II - Exc 5.1 -
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Arnatt - Botha - Eggleston - Gaffney - Gushchin - Halliday - Heartfield - Holdsworth - Ketchun - Klepuszewska - Letinsky - Lindqvist - Lipper - Lorant - Lynch - Lyons - Macnair - Montizon - Owens - Phipps - Pickering - Pittman - Shafran - Shore - Soth - Spero - Taylor - Walker - Wall - Wilcox - Wilkhu - Wentworth -

artistic merit - metaphor - still life -

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Reading Task

Something and Nothing
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.
● 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.

I&P p.116

Cotton - Metaphor

[9Apr] First a look at Cotton's Chapter 4, which begins, "how non-human things, often quite ordinary, everyday objects, can be made extraordinary by being photographed" (p.115) and later, "All the photographs in this chapter, in subtle ways, attempt to shift our perceptions of our daily lives" (p.126).
Cotton explores her subject broadly, illustrates it neatly and characterises the work elegantly, albeit sometimes overreaching, just as the cmat.

The artists and projects or images covered, some of whom are also in Part 5 are:
Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Quiet Afternoon, 1984-5, small, domestic objects artfully arranged;
Gabriel Orazco, found sculptures, here Breath on Piano, 1993;
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, untitled, 1991, displays his work on billboards;
Richard Wentworth, Kings Cross, London, 1991, see Part 5
Jason Evans, New Scent, 2000-03, drainage
Nigel Shafran, Sewung kit..., 2002, mundane interiors;
Jennifer Bolande, Globe, 2001, globes in domestic windows
Jean-Marc Bustamante, Something is Missing, 1997, exterior manmade markings
Wim Wenders, Wall in Paris, Texas, 2001, exteriors
Anthony Hernandez, Aliso Village #3 , 2000, derelict interiors
Tracey Baran, Dewy, 2000, description
Peter Fraser, Materials , 2002 in this case, "synthetic dust"
Manfred Willman, Das Land, 1981-93, rural lifestyle
Roe Ethridge, The Pink Bow, 2001-02, found still lifes
Wolfgang Tillmans, Suit, 1997, discarded clothing
James Welling, Light Sources, 2001, "from the sun to fluorescent tubes"
Jeff Wall, Diagonal Composition no. 3, 2000, stuff
Laura Letinsky, Untitled #40, Rome, 2001, tables at the end of meals
Uta Barth, Nowhere Near, 1999, stuff
Sabine Hornig, Window with Door, 2002, that thing.

Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4 Charlotte Cotton Ch.4
Box A
1. Fischli & Weiss; 2. Orozco; 3. Gonzales-Torres; Wentwort; 5. Evans; 6. Shafran; 7. Bolande; 8. Bustamante; 9. Wenders; 10. Hernandez; 11. Baran; 12. Fraser; 13. Willman; 14. Ethridge; 15. Tillmans; 16. Welling; 17. Wall; 18. Letinsky; 19. Barth; 20. Hornig
© the artists, their agents or their estates

Now let's examine some of Cotton's descriptions that I find rather over-the-top.

On Bolande's Globe series, Cotton writes, "By means of this very simple gesture, our perception and understanding of the world are brought into consideration. Most obviously, these photographs draw our attention to the way we receive knowledge about the world from a dwarfed, simplified model. They demonstrate how partial our perspective is, framed as it is by the windows out of which, and into which, we look." (p.121).

I think I know how this series came about. All photographers who routinely carry cameras photograph things that catch their attention and sometimes coincidence aggregates these. You notice a couple of, in this case, globes in windows, photograph them next time you pass and now you are on the lookout for them. Eventually you might accumulate half-a-dozen that come together quite nicely and then you might positively seek them out as a project. I do the same with discarded toilets and badly-treated trees.
I am quite happy to accept that along the way Bolande might have said to herself, "D'you know, these make a good metaphor for ... whatever", but I think Cotton goes too far.

Here is Bolande's web page on the series — there is no explanatory text, but in an interview on the Queens Museum site she is quoted as saying,

I was walking down the street and I noticed a globe in a school [window] on Avenue B in New York. It stopped me in my tracks and I went home, got my camera and photographed it. I had this peculiar feeling—I was looking at inner space from the street, but it looked like outer space, because there was this very deep black behind it. . . . It was the early 2000s, and the word ‘global’ was being thrown around for the first time. I had this feeling that the earth was shrinking every time someone used the word ‘global’ and that through the act of witnessing these little globes in windows, I was preventing it from shrinking further. Jennifer Bolande, Harris et. al

I'm sticking to my theory.

Of Fraser's Materials, she says, "The close-up swirl of synthetic dust in the image shown here … configures as a vortex, a perfect micro-universe of waste matter and an image of the huge cosmos of dust around us" (p.127).

And of Diagonal Composition no. 3, "Wall's careful construction of a grouping of peripheral things prompts questions about our own relationship with photographs: Why are we looking at this? At what point in history and our own lives did a corner of a floor represented in a photograph become iconic, worthy of our attention? To what degree does it need to be abstracted by the seemingly innocent frame in order for us to recognize this grouping of non-subjects to be a still life?" (pp.131-2).


And see Letinsky in Part 5.

Note: [20Sep21] the following is being added, as an afterthought, to the Final submission and the boxes are being renumbered (or more accurately relettered) to accomodate this.

Cotton - Metaphor

And now to the questions posed: the efficacy of objects as metaphors in photography.

The underlying problem with photographic metaphors is that stated by Sontag, as paraphrased by LaGrange, and often quoted on this site,

photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer Sontag, On Photography, quoted in La Grange (2005) p.37

A straight, objective, representational, window of a photograph is subject to the whimsical, baggage-driven thought and associative processes of each viewer. So a white cloth, particularly if the scale is not clear, might trigger thoughts of surrender, the Klan, a heavy cold, a shroud, a ghost, a formal dining situation ... a hotel bed and from there we can flit to a holiday, an affair or serious illness.

Count de Montizon
b: 1822 Spain d: 1887
Met - Wikipedia
Box A
The Hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens,
Regent's Park, London
c. 1855
Count de Montizon
img: Wikimedia

What chance, then has a photographic metaphor of being perceived in the way the photographer intended by a sizeable proportion of the viewers? Bate (2016, pp.26-29) uses the Count de Montizon's c. 1855 image of a captive hippopotamus (fig. A1) to illustrate metaphor and refers to the zoo visitors behind the safety of the bars seeming to have "imprisoned themselves within 'civilised' culture", while the hippo is "bathing in its own reflection" with a "smug … wry smile". While it is possible to understand how Bate reaches his conclusions, even his anthropomorphic extremes, my personal, Philistine first thought was of Leonard Rossiter's fictional mother-in-law (1976).

John Heartfield
b: 1901 Berlin
d: 1968 Berlin
Site - Wikipedia

Coleman (1998, p.74) suggests that photomontage is a particularly fruitful vehicle for exploring metaphor ("reliant on the logic of dreams as much as, if not more than, on the logic of rhetoric"). Clearly, when parts of two images have been juxtaposed for a purpose, then there is a clear imperative to ascertain that purpose and a reasonable chance that the diversity of possible interpretations has been narrowed by the artist's selections. A case in point is John Heartfield (born Helmut Franz Josef Herzfeld) whose anti-Nazi photomontages still have a readily-identifiable meaning and purpose after 90 years (fig. B1).

John Heartfield Gushchin Lorant
Box B
1. John Heartfield, Adolf The Superman: Swallows Gold and spouts Junk, 1932
2. Gennady Gushchin, Renaissance Portrait, from Alternative Museum, 1898-90
3. The Ripe Pear and The Jolly Publican from Lorant's' Chamberlain and the beautiful llama and 101 more juxtapositions , 1940
© the artists, their agents or their estates
img: 1.; 2. Gustafson et al, 2014, p. 119; 3. Mark Hill
Gennady Gushchin
b: 1940 Russia
Site - Wikipedia

Another pertinent example of montage is Gennady Gushchin's' Renaissance Portrait (fig. B2). Here the 'meaning' is less immediately clear, nevertheless the lapel pin suggests a Soviet politician and the face overlay looks to have been taken from the Mona Lisa: when these are confirmed as Gorbachov (has his forehead birthmark been removed?) and La Gioconda, the imagination and interpretation kick in, but the juxtaposition has already begun to channel the thought process.

Stefan Lorant
b: 1901 Budapest
d: 1997 Rochester, Minnesota
Independent - Wikipedia

By the same tokens, image pairing can close down interpretive divergence, as exemplified by Stefan Lorant in Chamberlain & The Beautiful Llama ... (1940), an example is shown with fig. B3.

Nathan Lyons
b: 1930
d: 2016 NY
MoMA - Wikipedia

Nathan Lyons is another exponent of the diptych. Rena Silverman (2014) interviewed Lyons about his Return Your Mind To Its Upright Position exhibition (figs. C1-C3) and book and quotes him as saying, "I simply collect images that I respond to, there’s no script to what I’m doing, it’s really based on my interaction with the things that I see that intrigue me or interest me or question me" … "In metaphor, you are really taking two different elements and bringing them together to form a third".

Lyons Lyons Lyons
Box C
1. exhibition view, Nathan Lyons Return Your Mind To Its Upright Position.
2-3. Untitled, from Return Your Mind To Its Upright Position © Nathan Lyons
img:1. Bruce Silverstein; 2. OpenEdition 3. Musée

Photocollages and paired photographs make relatively stable bases for photographic metaphors. It is when a single image is displayed that individual viewers interpretations will run roughshod over the artist's intentions.

Coleman's essay, Mutant Media is principally concerned with the clouded distinction between photo-collage and photo-montage which he traces back to the Dadaists who coined the montage usage to differentiate themselves from the Surrealists who had adopted the Cubist collage. He might have concluded several pages earlier that the difference is moot, though he states, neatly, that "the distinction [the Dadaists] were seeking to establish was one of intent and effect, not one of craft; a Dada photomontage and a Surrealist photocollage share a commonality of fracture".


Bate, David. (2016) Photography, the key concepts. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Boothroyd, S. and Roberts, K. (2019) Identity and place. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Coleman, A.D. (1998) Depth of field. NY: Midmarch Arts Press.

Gustafson, D., Sidlauskas, S. & Siegel, L. (2014) Striking Resemblance. New Jersey: Rutgers University.

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic critical theory for photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press.

Lorant. S (1940) Chamberlain and the beautiful llama and 101 more juxtapositions. London: Hulton

Rossiter, L. (1976) The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin Created by David Nobbs. Producer Gareth Gwenlan. BBC1.

Silverman, R. (2014) Making Metaphors From Photos [online]. Available from https://photoc/2014/12/12/making-metaphors-from-photos/ [Accessed 11 April 2021].

Page created 09-Apr-2021 | Page updated 20-Sep-2021