Charlotte Cotton: Something and Nothing (part 1)

Penn's Skull, searching for a metaphor - Steve Middlehurst 2014

Penn’s Skull, searching for a metaphor – Steve Middlehurst 2014

In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (1) Charlotte Cotton includes a chapter that investigates the strategy of using inanimate objects or environments as a metaphor. In practice this chapter considers contemporary still life photography rather more than human altered landscapes without human presence but it acts as a general introduction to the subject of the absence and the signs of life.

Despite having used this book since starting with OCA I continue to find Cotton’s style a little disappointing. Her chapters tend to be high speed excursions though multiple practitioners, which at one level certainly puts a significant number of new names on the table for further research but leaves little room for in-depth analysis or contemplation of the wider issues that could be discussed; she is obviously a knowledgeable critic and accomplished writer but at each reading I am left wishing for more insight and less artists. This approach also challenges the student to discuss her writing without repeating the same photographer by photographer approach.

Photograph of the identity card of a soldier's sweetheart. Found amongst abandoned and destroyed tanks in Khadimiya, Baghdad. Artefact made April 2003, accessioned 18 - 27 April 2003 - Simon Norfolk

Photograph of the identity card of a soldier’s sweetheart. Found amongst abandoned and destroyed tanks in Khadimiya, Baghdad. Artefact made April 2003, accessioned 18 – 27 April 2003 – Simon Norfolk

I enjoy still life, it is fun to construct and technically challenging to photograph and there are a number of still life projects including some by photographers who specialise in that genre that appeal to me at both an aesthetic and a more philosophical level. On this list I would include Simon Norfolk’s Archaeological Treasures from the Tigris Valley (2) which records his superficial archaeological survey of the battle fields of the Iraq war in an attempt to answer why the Iraqi army “melted away before the great, expected Battle of Baghdad” (2). This survey resulted in finding the discarded weaponry and uniform items of the defenders whom, he surmised had divested themselves of their military status before “run(ning) for their lives”. Norfolk who respected that it would be inappropriate to remove these items from their context created a makeshift studio in which to photographed them. His stated intent was to preserve the appearance of these items so they could be studied at a later date but he achieves something more than that.

The very best archaeology brings us closer to the people whose traces we are viewing, perhaps the very best documentary photography does the same. In this series we are shown the trivial relics of modern human existence: tooth paste and sandals; the detritus of violent war: fragments of mortar rounds, exploded shell rounds; clothing, some overtly military, some personal and a wide variety of other artefacts. They have in common a sense of, not just broad history, but very personal histories, the exploded shells create a narrative terror, an American air raid and the resultant horrific deaths of tank crews; the discarded photograph of a sweetheart tells a story of a man whose only memento of his loved one is a cheap photocopy of her ID card and who lost this treasured object in the deserts of Iraq. Norfolk has used the genre of still life to challenge our perceptions of modern warfare; the Iraq war is still fresh in our memories but these simple photographs of intimate objects ask us to consider the human cost of high tech warfare that diminishes the risk to the attacker while indiscriminately destroying the defender, and as ever the fallen are ordinary people with mundane belongings and normal feelings that we hold in common.

Fallen North Vietnamese Soldier - Don McCullin 1968

Fallen North Vietnamese Soldier – Don McCullin 1968

I am reminded of Don McCullin’s well know image of a fallen North Vietnamese soldier and recognise in Norfolk’s work, the same underling meaning.

McCullin’s photograph takes “absence of life” in a different and far more uncomfortable direction. By collecting and photographing the discarded paraphernalia of the peasant soldier  Norfolk uses the archeological artefacts act as a metaphor for war, death and defeat.

McCullin’s image is more direct and less metaphorical. However, the display of the deceased’s possessions, serves the same purpose. We are reminded that the dead have no politics or nationality, their belongings, even the ammunition, are potentially no different than the possessions of the US soldier who killed him.

Whilst these two approaches are radically different they highlight the power of the inanimate object to signify their original owner and the wider issues of war.

This is not the forum to engage in a detailed discussion of Norfolk’s work but I do want to highlight that no work of this nature makes it into Cotton’s extensive list. I understand and respect that her agenda is to investigate contemporary art photography but much of the work she discusses appears to be so conceptual as to have no obvious purpose. I would better understand the work of Pater Fischli and David Weiss if we were asked only to focus on their humorous sculptures of found objects or even if we were to judge the visual allure of the final images. Cotton suggests that we ask ‘How did this object come to be here? And what act or chain of events brought it into focus?” (1: p.116) but the more obvious question might be: why would the answers to these questions be any more interesting than a photograph of a courgette balanced on a carrot pushed through a grater?

So, having nailed my colours to the mast and revealed my intellectual inferiority by refusing to understand conceptual still life I will bring Nigel Shafran to my defence. Cotton refers to the idea of making ordinary objects extraordinary by photographing them; a concept that Susan Sontag suggests is inherent in all photography:

“To photograph is to confer importance. There is probably no subject that cannot be beautified; moreover, these is no way to suppress the tendency inherent and all photographs to accord value to their subjects.” (9: loc.331)

It would be impossible to appreciate William Eggleston or the early work of Stephen Shore without accepting this concept; it is so much at the heart of  a wide spectrum of contemporary photography that it has become a law of photography. However, I believe that Eggleston, Shore and the aforementioned Shafran bring more to the image than a slightly off-coloured representation of some stray domestic items. Yes, there is a narrative within Fischli and Weiss’ work but it is a story about them rather than any wider, and thereby more interesting, exploration of the human condition. Self centred art has its place and appeals to many but it runs the risk of being self indulgent and introvert and in being so fails to tell us anything new.

4 January 2000 Three bean soup, cauliflower vegetable cheese. Morning coffee and croissants - Nigel Shafran

4 January 2000 Three bean soup, cauliflower vegetable cheese. Morning coffee and croissants – Nigel Shafran

Shafran has identified a wide range of subject matter that, in common with our Swiss practitioners, is photographed in the manner of still life but he often returns to an investigation of our sub-concious desire to create satisfying structures in domestic environments; he recognises that stacking the washing-up to dry is an art, that is art with a small “a”, one of life’s strange little pleasures is to create the prefect stack, something functional but aesthetically pleasing. The narrative is surprisingly strong; I have argued elsewhere that if we want to relate a narrative photography is not the first medium we would pick so it is interesting how his washing up sculptures tell us so much about his home-life and his and/or his wife’s tendencies for structure and neatness with a distinct before, now, after story line attached.

These are ideas that Shafran returns to time and again, supermarket check-outs, charity shop contents, shop displays and building supplies to mention but a few. In each case he finds unintentional sculptures but unlike Duchamp’s ready-mades these are complex edifices of the banal and often connote far deeper meanings. Structures with a purpose and an aesthetic appeal that become an art form by the act of his photography. My case for seeing Shafran’s work as complex and full of different meanings is somewhat strengthened by David Chandler’s essay in Dark Rooms; he sees the development of Shafran’s work from being “a largely incidental, spontaneous response to things and situations” to a “more sustained, repeated attention” (4) and it is this repeated attention that adds such depth to his series. Whilst we can analyse a single washing-up still life and read some of his intended narrative we are more intrigued by seeing his subjects in series. Shafran’s work is highly subjective but it remains ambiguos, as if we never quite know how he is responding to his subjects and therefore we are left a little unsure of our own response. He best sums up his approach and to some degree his intent in an interview with Charlotte Cotton

“To concern yourself with an art, the subject is lost. To concern yourself with the subject, the art is found.” (5)

Reference to Susan Bright brings some balance to the my culturally incorrect comments regarding conceptual still life. Bright argues that much of this type of work is experimental and “less successful as one-offs and needs to be seen in sequence or in series to make comparisons between them” (6: p.108); I ought to resist suggesting that this sounds slightly defensive. However, Bright points out that these experiments “push the point of the photographic object and delight in the untapped potential of the medium” (6: p.108) which we should see as a positive. She also refers to photograph’s relationship with sculpture where objects are created purely for the purpose of photographing them, Cotton having given us the aforementioned Fischli and Weiss as examples of this. Bright’s basic point is that contemporary photography (should that be conceptual contemporary photography?) has put the historical approach to still life behind it and concentrated on converting ordinary everyday objects into art objects. This seems a highly commendable objective if the object concerned has some worth, such as Walker Evans’ study of simple artisans tools (7), or the object is elevated by the photographer’s attention and the application of his skills as exemplified by Irving Penn’s still lifes of found objects (8).

Having been somewhat scathing of much of this conceptual still life it may be contradictory to add that I understand and agree with David Bate’s argument that art is “what the artist nominates as art” (10: p.87); conceptual art rejects both historical art and modern media’s focus on beautification and is more concerned with using photography “as a means to to recognise the existence of its activities and manifestations” (10: p.87). This is fine, my issue lies in the analysis of this art to discover complex meanings that go beyond it just being an art form.

All of this fails to directly answer the question set by the course note as to whether the strategy of using objects as a metaphor is effective? It is self apparent that objects make great metaphors, in fact much of the history of still life is within the context of vanitas and momento mori which is the epitome of the metaphorical language in art.

The second question is far more interesting: when might it fall down? Susan Sontag wrote “In photographing dwarfs, you don’t get majesty and beauty. You get dwarfs” (9: loc.343) and whilst she was talking about the search for beauty at the time we might adapt this idea to the search for metaphors. – In photographing kitchen utensils, you don’t get metaphors that reveal the meaning of life. You get kitchen utensils.” And, therein lies the risk.



(1) Cotton, Charlotte ( 2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames and Hudson

(3) Shafran, Nigel (2004) Edited Photographs 1992 – 2004. Brighton: Photoworks and Steidl

(4) Shafran, Nigel (2016) Dark Rooms. London: MACK

(6) Bright, Susan (2011) Art Photography Now (revised and expanded edition 2011). London: Thames and Hudson.

(7) Campany, David (2014) Walker Evans: The Magazine Work. Göttingen: Steidl

(8) Penn, Irving. (2001) Still Life. Boston: Bulfinch Press.

(9) Sontag, Susan (1971) On Photography: Kindle version of the 1978 Penguin edition. London: Penguin Books

(10) Bate, David (2015) Art Photography. London: Tate Publishing


(2) Norfolk, Simon (ND) Archaeological Treasures from the Tigris Valley (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.9.16) –

(5) Shafran, Nigel  (ND) Interview with Charlotte Cotton (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.9.16) –

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