White Vanitas – Colour – 1/60 at f/14 , ISO 100
Symbolism has been used throughout the history of both commercial and art photography. In art many symbols have been carried forward from religious painting, especially from the vanitas movement which flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. During my research for assignment 4 I looked at the types of symbolism used by these Dutch painters and how photographers such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Roger Fenton brought that tradition into photography with it later becoming the basis for a lot of Irving Penn’s work and how vanitas symbols are regularly found in the work of contemporary still life photographers including conceptual artists such as Mat Collishaw. Many of the symbols used by contemporary artists have their roots in traditional religious, and especially Christian, art for the simple reason that they are readily understood by both religious and non religious audiences or because they have become so universal they have transcended their original religious meaning and become a common secular symbol so, for example, the Archangel Michael who was historically depicted holding scales as the warrior-guardian of righteousness and justice becomes Lady Justice on the top of the Old Bailey.
Advertising, and therefore commercial photography, is hugely dependent upon symbolism either by using commonly recognised symbols such as the sun to suggest health, vigour or goodness when advertising orange juice or breakfast cereals, shields, gates and castles for insurance and for security services or roses for valentine day products. All these uses of visual symbols rely on the concept of semiotics, which in simple terms is a sign that stands for something else *(1). The idea of semiotics was first described by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, who explained that it involves a sign, word or object, the signifier and a concept, idea or thought that is to be communicated, the signified. Semiotics is a broad and complex subject that will no doubt be a subject for in-depth study at a later date but at its heart our ability to communicate an idea through the use of a symbol relies upon either, an obvious association between that thought and the symbol, or a common acceptance of the meaning of the signifier. There are many symbols that have instantly recognised meanings in Western society, a dove or an olive branch for peace, a red cross for medical care or a dollar sign for money or wealth (even in countries that use the pound or the euro). However, these symbols can be interpreted differently by different societies and cultures so a red cross might evoke a negative response in the Middle East where it is associated with the crusades.
In effect we all carry a mental register of codes that allow us to interpret these signs to understand their intended meaning, and although these codes might vary between cultures, we are often sophisticated enough to combine the code with its context to identify alternate meanings. These codes are constantly evolving, partly because the advertising industry sets out to design and introduce new signifier / signified relationships through the use of symbols in the shape of logos or by the repeated use of specific images in close association with a product.
Through this process we not only decode MacDonalds and everything it stands for from a large yellow “M” we come to associate meerkats with a consumer choice portal or, for those of a certain age, tigers with petrol. Once such strong brand identities are established the most sophisticated advertising can move beyond advertising a dull and unexciting product such as home insurance and provide short entertaining mini-dramas that become an end in themselves but subtly promote the product by making the audience feel connected or just good about the family story in a series of gravy adverts, the students obsessed with the speed of their internet connection or the lives of Russian meerkats.
At a more sophisticated level charities are especially prone to leverage preconceptions and, arguably, prejudices, to attract our donations. A black child with a fly on their face is code for suffering, illness and deprivation even though many healthy children all over the world will have a fly land on their face in the course of a day, try visiting the Australian bush in summer, and using dogs and cats in an advert for an animal charity at Christmas is more effective that the same advert used in mid-summer because it is coded as “a dog is not just for Christmas”, “people are acting badly during the season of goodwill”.
Photographers can draw on all these sources and code their images to communicate a message by appropriating established signifiers or inventing new ones that leverage established ideas. In some of my test pieces for assignment 4 I tried to use contemporary items as modern day vanitas symbols. This led me to use lipstick and stiletto heals to signify the vanity of the fashion industry but I mixed in traditional vanitas symbols such as plentiful fruit and watches in an attempt to suggest to the audience that all of the items in a still life needed to be interpreted in the context of vanitas.
This exercise suggests that we avoid clichés but the de-coding system we carry in our heads is reliant on our ability to instantly recognise and interpret symbolism in art or advertising. As a result there is a very thin line between a symbol being able to communicate the idea intended and it becoming a cliché. In practise a cliché is just a matter of timing, so the 1914 Lord Kitchener “Wants You” recruitment poster or “Keep Calm and Carry On” only became clichéd when they became over copied.
Avoiding plants, charts, upward pointing arrows and other common ideas:
- I might try to photograph the wall in a house where parents have marked off their children’s height over time. The more dilapidated the wall the better, indicating that it has been left undecorated as a family treasure. This could provide a underlying message of love and nurture and sense of time passing.
- On a similar theme a heap of, obviously discarded shoes of varying sizes might work.
- Without wishing to appear obsessed with the subject all the traditional vanitas symbols work here, over-laden tables and so forth but, if I was planning to work on this subject again I would build on Mat Collishaw‘s ideas with his studies of American junk food. The concept of over sized portions and what we throw away offers powerful imagery.
- Skips behind supermarkets and, a subject dear to my heart, all the food we dump in land fills that used to be fed to pigs because we have allowed government to over legislate to stop pork products being fed to pigs and cow products being fed to cows. As ever, we introduce new, sweeping, ill thought through laws instead of policing existing and sensible regulations.
- I would look to go beyond symbols of crime and look for images of social situations that inevitably nurture crime. Disproportionate unemployment in areas with large populations of ethnic minorities could provide interesting subjects.
- The other angle might be crime waiting to happen such as open windows, keys in locks or visible purses in handbags.
- A wealth of religious symbolism comes to mind and although this might verge on being clichéd it would rely on the image being strong enough to lift itself above the cliché. A lone monk walking towards an abbey or a simple altar in an empty church, someone praying alone in a church. Something with an Eleanor Rigby feel from Yellow Submarine might work so that loneliness was linked to silence. Note the use of a Beatles’ film as a source of symbolism.
- Nearly any rural landscape with a pond if it is photographed with a long exposure so the surface is misty and perfectly smooth. Even a fisherman by a river might work.
- Probably a cliché but my first instinct would be to look for a juxtaposition of unnecessary wealth and extreme poverty. I spent many years in Asia and the images that still leap into my mind are slums next to Chinese graveyards where the dead were “living” in marble mausoleums and the living languished in huts made from flattened oil cans and packing cases.
- If, it was to be a project, I would probably focus on rural poverty which is over-shadowed by the more obvious urban equivalent. The regular car boot sale in Aldershot would provide plenty of opportunities.
(1) Moriarty, Sandra. An Interpretive Study of Visual Cues in Advertising. http://spot.colorado.edu/~moriarts/viscueing.html
Chandler, David. Semiotics for Beginners. http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/sem01.html