Tag Archives: Symbolism

Exercise 42 Illustration by Symbols

White Vanitas - Colour - 1/60 at f/14 , ISO 100

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.

Growth

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.

Excess

  • 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.

Crime

  • 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.

Silence

  • 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.

Poverty

  • 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.

Sources

Internet

(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

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Symbolism Used in 16th to 19th Century Still Life

Fig. 01 Pipe from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Pipe from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

The following list of symbols and their meanings are included here as a useful reference as I work towards assignment 4. I have collected these meanings from a variety of sources which are listed below. Many symbols have complex meanings and, in some cases, opposing meanings depending on their context; in such cases I have generally used the meaning that makes most sense to me or have referenced the context in which they should be interpreted.

This list is not exhaustive nor is it intended as part of a study of 400 years of European still life, it is at best superficial and incomplete. I want to use some of this symbolism in my compositions for assignment 4 and having spend a lot of time tracking down this information I wanted to collect it together in one, easily referenced place. Continue reading

Still Life, Symbolism and Vanitas

Fig. 01 Watch from the series My Dad's Stuff - 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Fob Watch from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Assignment 4 “Applying Lighting Techniques” initially appeared to offer a wide choice of subject and approach and I was considering the merits of building a series of photographs in the landscape, this led me to Edward Weston. However, my tutor had also suggested that II looked at Iriving Penn and this began to pull me further from Weston’s nudes in the landscape and towards Weston and Penn’s still lifes.

The more I looked at the photographs in Penn’s book Still Life *(11) the more I became interested in still life as a genre and, given Penn’s background in the fashion industry and his still life style, there is a natural progression from assignment 3 to 4 and this in itself is appealing.

Still life, as a photographic genre, makes its entrance nearly simultaneously with the “invention” of the medium. Liz Wells tells us, in Photography A Critical Introduction *(1), that Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre both announced the process for making and fixing a photographic image in 1839 and it is notable that many of those earliest photographs are forms of still life. In 1839 Daguerre photographed Shells and Fossils *(2) and Fox Talbot sent a “Table Set for Tea” to his friend, the Italian naturalist, Antonio Bertoloni *(3).

There are no doubt many reasons for the genre’s early entry onto the stage, not least of which was the restrictions of the new technology calling for long exposures and still subjects, but it is also relevant that Henry Fox Talbot was a frustrated artist who referred to his invention as the “art of photogenic drawing” and who named the first photographically illustrated book “The Pencil of Nature”. According to Graham Clarke *(4) The Pencil of Nature “both predicted and set the terms of reference for the way photography was to viewed for much of the nineteenth century”. Fox Talbot saw photography in the context of painting, describing his techniques using the language of the existing visual arts and thought as a painter. From the outset Fox Talbot was in no doubt that photography was an art and that he was drawing “without any aid whatsoever from the artist’s pencil”.

So, from the outset, the new artists were thinking in the language of painters and as well as assuming the most obvious techniques such as compositional rules and lighting they started to use the same types of subjects and, perhaps most importantly, the same symbolism. In “The Open Door” 1844 Fox Talbot carefully constructs a scene containing positioned objects, even the “set” is manipulated to provide the effect he was seeking, the half open door, the backlit window, the twigs symmetrically crossed in the bottom corner. The photograph is as constructed as a painting, it is far from casual, far from capturing a chance moment.

Many of the early photographers were painters and many had enjoyed a formal education that would have included gaining an understanding of the great painters so it is not surprising that when they took up photography they came to the medium heavily laden with the baggage of fine art. Roger Fenton, who had studied painting before qualifying as a lawyer, made his name photographing great places and great people before turning to still life in the late 1850s. Still Life with Ivory Tankard and Fruit (1860) *(5) is one of his most famous works and as well as displaying his mastery of both technique and composition it reveals his roots as a fine artist by borrowing symbolism from the much earlier work of the Dutch artists. He includes the religious symbols of a chalice and bread, but the chalice is on its side suggesting consumption, there are grapes in the background suggesting Bacchanalian pleasures, over-ripe fruits suggesting that life is fleeting and the two ripe peaches have been associated with buttocks and the pleasures of the flesh.

This type of symbolism could be traced directly to the Dutch painters of the 17th century *(9) who used still life to communicate a religious, moral message in a style of painting known as “vanitas” from the quotation in the book of Ecclesiastes “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. The message of these paintings is not complex; live a better life, spurn the pleasures of the flesh in this life and focus your attention on the next. Their audience was offered repetitive symbols in paintings that, on face value, celebrated the wealth of a trading nation that was punching well above its weight in the 17th century with compositions built around an abundance of fruit, flowers, wine, imported goods and the fruits of the sea but often included snuffed candles, timepieces, books, musical instruments and human skulls.

The symbolism would have been understood by the wealthy residents of Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the the 1600s. Over-ripe fruit spoke of the brevity of life and if mixed with citrus suggested the sweet and sour nature of existence. Flowers symbolised the fragility of life, everything beautiful is short lived, beauty is transient, it decays. Skulls, more obviously, signified impending death whilst clocks and snuffed candles said “time flies”. Oysters, thought to be an aphrodisiac, represented sexual pleasures, an idea that could be underlined by the careful positioning of a knife. Books and musical instruments, expensive luxuries at the time, symbolised worldly pursuits. (A more comprehensive list of symbols can be found here)

The overall message was saying we are living in a rich and successful country with the fruits of the earth coming to our door but don’t get carried away as life is short, all these earthly pleasures are short-lived, focus your attention on the hereafter. The Gospel of Matthew 6:18-21 was at the heart of their thinking: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The obvious irony being that only the very rich could afford to commission such works of art.

The work of the vanitas painters, their predecessors and those that were influenced by them, can be viewed at another level all together *(10). In their day these were highly sought after pieces of art attracting the wealthiest patrons and some of the most accomplished artists of the time worked extensively in this field. The still lifes that have been preserved represent the work of highly skilled master technicians who were creating objects of great beauty. The Dutch prized flowers and wanted accurate and skilful renditions to brighten up dark winter evenings, the aristocrats wanted paintings that expressed the wealth of their country estates, the merchants wanted to show off their ability to import the rarest plants, fruits and objects from across the world. Many still lifes have no hidden message other than the artists’ delight in form, colour and texture and, more prosaically, market forces.

Photographers not only adopted the genre they often adopted the symbolism and we can see the same symbols repeated by Roger Fenton in the 1860s, Edward Weston in the 1920s and 30s, Irving Penn in the 50s and 60s right up to Ori Gersht in recent years. This lineage is intriguing and we can see a clear connection between Caravaggio’s “A Basket of Fruit” *(6) painted around 1599 and Ori Gersht’s Pomegranate *(7) in 2006, despite there being over 400 years between the two.

This connection is exciting and continues to be exploited by contemporary photographers but we are not restricted to the symbolism of the 16th and 17th centuries or the interpretations of the 19th century. Mat Collinshaw, a British photographer born in Nottingham in 1966, whose work spans many genres published a small set of still life images in 1994 entitled “Natura Morte” *(8) which are feasts of American junk food and speak simultaneously of wealth and waste, gluttony and over-abundance. Collinshaw communicates a strong message using the broad style of the Dutch Vanitas painters but using his own set of symbols. We readily understand his message because we recognise the Macdonald’s fries and the chicken nuggets and this in itself makes it easier to understand how effectively the 17th and 18th century artists communicated their message using symbols that were as quickly recognised and read by their audience.

Sources

Books

(1) Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge.

(4) Clarke, Graham. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(5) McCabe, Eamonn. (2008) The Making of Great Photographs: Approaches and Techniques of the Masters. Cincinnati: David and Charles.

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

Internet

(2) The Metropolitan Museum of Art – A Table Set for Tea –  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/36.37.36

(3) The Metropolitan Museum of Art – William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) and the Invention of Photography – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm

(6) The Bridgeman Art Library – Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio “A Basket of Fruit” – http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-GB/asset/737485/caravaggio-michelangelo-merisi-da-1571-1610/basket-of-fruit-by-michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio-oil-on-canvas-1594-1598?context=%25searchContext%25

(7) Museum of Fine Arts Boston – Ori Gersht Exhibition – http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/ori-gersht

(8) Collinshaw Mat (1994) Natura Morte – http://www.matcollishaw.com/art/archive/natura-morte/

(9) Metropolitan Museum – Still Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600 – 1800 – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/hd_nstl.htm

(10) The National gallery of Art – Still Life Painting – https://www.nga.gov/kids/DTP6stillife.pdf

Rodriguez, Levin. The Berkemeyer Project – http://levinrodriguez.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/symbolic-meaning-of-objects-used-in.html

Phelps, D G. the Art of D.G.Phelps – http://www.easy-oil-painting-techniques.org/still-life-symbolism.html