IAP Reading Task: Something and Nothing – Objects as Metaphors


Read chapter for something in Nothing in Cotton, C. (2014) the photograph as contemporary art.

  • 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?


Right now on my photographic journey two of the ideas that interest me are the elliptical possibilities of photographs and a stripped aesthetic. Both ideas, to me, leave room for viewer contemplation and interpretation.

I acknowledge that some may find this level of abstraction pretentious but, if given enough access to the work by either linguistic or visual means, then surely the viewer will engage with the image and underlying ideas?

Using a selection of images I will attempt to illustrate how the use of metaphor offers the possibility for artistic expression.

Fresh perspective

In chapter 4 of the photograph as contemporary art Charlotte Cotton says:

Through photography, quotidian matter is given a visual charge and imaginative possibility beyond its everyday function (1:115).

The Cuban artist Abelardo Morell is a master of ‘charging’ his images either through use of size or perspective. Two such images are shown below.

Abelardo Morell. ‘Vase on the Edge of a Table’ (2002)
Abelardo Morell. ‘Dictionary’ (1994)

By showing these everyday objects in such an unusual way he invites us to contemplate the world with fresh eyes.

Land Art

Land artists use photography as a means of displaying their land sculptures – so the photograph/video is not the end in itself. Merely a way of documenting other art. An example is Robert Smithson’s wonderful sculpture ‘Spiral Jetty’ near Salt Lake City.

Recontextualising Domestic Objects

Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96) recontextualises everyday domestic objects by placing them in gallery settings or even outside into public spaces. Examples of his work are:

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Portrait of Marcel Brient). (1992)

This work is a pile of sweets in blue wrappers. It is a portrait of the artist’s close friend, Marcel Brient. Viewers are encouraged to take a sweet, then the pile is replenished. Is this a metaphor for the process of dying? Gonzalez-Torres himself died of AIDS. Amazingly the work sold for $4,562,500.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. ‘Untitled’. (1991)
Felix Gonzalez-Torres. ‘Untitled’. (1991) Installation view New York

The image of an unmade bed was made shortly after Gonzalez-Torres’ long-term partner, Ross Laycock, died from AIDS. It was shown at MoMA and on billboards in 24 locations around New York.

Biographical Representations

I discovered the work of Nigel Shafran (1964) in the CAN module. I had never encountered self-absented portrature before.

Nigel Shafran. ‘Washing-up’. (2000)

The everyday scene of course speaks as to the lives of the people whose washing-up this is.

When may the Metaphorical approach fail?

Whilst a metaphorical approach is useful as explained above there are obviously instances where ambiguity is inappropriate for example where factual accuracy is required, for example, photojournalism, official portraits etc. The metaphorical approach will also fall down if the work is too elliptical.


Cotton, C., 2004. The Photograph As Contemporary Art. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

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