We are asked to read Chapter 4 of The Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton and comment on the following statements:
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? (Course Manual Identity and Place p. 99)
First off, I have to admit that I did read this chapter by Charlotte Cotton again, having first read her book when I was doing The Art of Photography module. I still find her method of writing a little tangential. There is just too much thrown at the reader in the way of artists mentioned, (which is great to be introduced to all these photographers, make no mistake) but then she falls down on providing the meat to go with them. I find the critiques of the works rather fleeting and superficial. I would really prefer more depth than just scratching the surface.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “metaphor” as:
“A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable”, or “A thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else”. We all use metaphors in our everyday speech without even thinking about it. Life is a comparison. We are forever comparing something to something else, especially when we are referencing intangible concepts. Metaphors subtly shape the way we view the world.
Obviously using objects or environments as a metaphor can be extremely useful. The photographer doesn’t have to rely on the availability of a model(s) and can either stage the still-life or visit the environment. However, it still remains up to the viewer to ascertain the significance and meaning of the the image.
An image’s evocative power can, like speech, be described as poetic. …Factual or poetic, whatever the ambience and mood recognized, it is not due to the object as such, but is rather the consequence of a formal arrangement.
If one looks at still-lifes by Irving Penn for example, one can see how much thought has gone into the staging of the metaphors within his images. In the image above, we can see that all the elements are touching each other. The elements are very deliberately arranged: the number 64 die rests above a dice showing a 6 and a 4. Six and four add up to ten which is represented in the domino balanced on the sherry glass. Compositionally the photograph is arranged on a horizontal and vertical axis. The red liqueur in the glass correspond with the red game pieces and ace of hearts card while the black dots on the domino match the lettering on the number 64 as well as the dice and chess piece and black coffee. The two green playing cards provide a unifying vertical axis. The yellow chip is the only item that does not have a corresponding equivalent.
The detritus in the image (burnout match, stains and cigarette ash) is representative of life – the passage of time. These items add some texture to the scene of an otherwise glossy perfection.
However, uniting all the games is their expressing the duality of human life.
The various games represented in the image reflect the various stages of mastering one’s life. Chess, the ultimate game of strategy is symbolic of intellectualism. The card and dice games reference risk and chance. The domino is symbolic of the eternal search to fit in, while the yellow chip could be seen to represent the investment that is risked in life. Common to all the games is the need to think, to be one step ahead.
The image subtly points towards the questions of life – those of the luck necessary to survive in life as in a game, and those of the risks one is willing to take.
In light of this brief exploratory analysis of the image above, it is clear that to be a successful image, the still-life staging and arrangement needs to be very carefully planned and thought out. This is something that I will have to pay close attention to, because I really struggle with still-lifes.
English Oxford Living Dictionaries (n.d.) Metaphor [online] Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/metaphor [Accessed 21 June 2017]
Müller, Jürgen (2001) Some Remarks on Irving Penn’s Still Lifes [online] Inside Photography. Available at: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/1566/1/Mueller_Inside_photography_Some_remarks_on_Irving_Penns_still_lifes_2001.pdf [Accessed 21 June, 2017]
Persson, T and Rosenheim, J.L. (2017) Reflection on Irving Penn’s photographs: After-Dinner Games, New York, 1947 [online] L’Oeil de la Photographie. Available at: http://www.loeildelaphotographie.com/en/2017/05/23/article/159952559/reflection-on-irving-penns-photographs-after-dinner-games-new-york-1947/ [Accessed 21 June, 2017]
Cotton, Charlotte (2009). The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2nd edition) London: Thames & Hudson