Dialogue Between Artist and Viewer

Examples of relay in contemporary photographic practice include Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself and Sophy Rickett’s Objects in the Field where clashes of understanding or interpretation work together to create a perhaps incomplete but nonetheless enriching dialogue between artist and viewer.Look these pieces up online. Investigate the rationale behind the pieces and see if you can find any critical responses to them. Write down your own responses in your learning log.

I want to find the ‘clashes’ referred to above and to see how they affect the artist/viewer dialog.  Sophie Calle is a French conceptual artist who uses personally significant events from her own life.  She also manufactures events to observe, such as inviting a series of individuals to sleep in her bed and documenting them asleep, eating breakfast she has prepared for them and watching them dress.

calle4    calle

Fig 1                                                                                         Fig 2

Calle presented the work with handwritten captions which described an interaction between her and the subject rather than a description of the content.  This is a refinement of relay, adding a further layer to the information and inviting imaginative embellishment by the viewer.  This helps to create the dialogue referred to previously; her work provokes questions which cannot fully be answered.  The partial nature of the information we receive means that the gaps tend to be filled by us the viewers, and our comprehension will differ markedly from that of the author.

Calle explores this further in her series “Take Care of Yourself”, the final sentiment expressed to her by a boyfriend at the conclusion of their relationship.  He chose to inform her of his decision by text, which Calle considered mean-spirited and cowardly.  Nevertheless she decided to make use of the experience, and the events which led up to it, in a multimedia installation.  She copied the text message to 107 other women and made photographs illustrating their responses.  So what is the nature of the dialogue between the artist and the viewer?  Not a literal dialogue, but an experiential one, where we are allowed to imagine the way Calle felt about the affair, to vicariously partake of the responders suggested reprisals and possibly commiserate with the her.

The happenings which Calle uses in her work are features of life in general.  They are not responses to cataclysmic events unique to her experience, but what makes her work compelling is the way she chooses to execute them as art.  Where she fabricates themes they are of quotidian episodes, distinguished more for their blandness than their exceptionality, but her work expresses the nature of her experience rather than the events themselves.

Sophie Ricketts “Objects in the Field”

This series arose as a result of Ricketts’ appointment as Associate Artist at Cambridge University Institute of Astronomy.  She learned about the work of a retired faculty member which involved the use of large format film to record observations from an advanced telescope in the early 1990’s.  She became interested in actually printing the negatives and contextualising the work with text and personal recollections.

Ricketts re-purposed the negatives to her own ends; it had never been intended to print them, never mind produce art from them.  She had no control over the contents of the film, but unlimited control of the content of the work.

Using her own experiences and some amusing wordplay (she begins her text with a childhood optometry appointment – to do her ‘fields’) she overlays meaning to the large monochrome prints, noting that even at the moment of exposure, the heavenly bodies, like her childhood, were long gone.

And so it goes on, drawing clever analogies and references, obscure to various degrees, weaving connections between two discrete narratives which would otherwise have remained utterly remote from each other.

Photography plays a walk-on part here.  The images themselves are unremarkable to the non-astronomer and their purpose is simply to act as a vector for Rickett’s personal narrative.  For me this is bagatelle creativity; it’s possible to make something out of anything if you can fabricate a sufficiently convincing framework.

A Postmodern Approach?

A story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end – in that order, otherwise it’s not a proper story and it cannot effectively drive a narrative.  This is certainly one view, one held by most authors until recent times.  But the postmodern approach sees the narrative arc discarded in favour of a more fluid strategy, one in which the reader, or viewer or listener, is expected to contribute to their own understanding of the work.

Written text is combined with images in inventive and sometimes obscure ways.  The end of the story may appear at the beginning.  Participants in the story may present different perspectives for our consideration.  Allegory is mixed with document,  Uncertainty is pressed into service, allowing the work to unfold within the observer who becomes not just a receiver but a collaborator.

Using Audio in Image Based Projects

In a previous life I worked as a film/tv sound mixer, latterly on a news crew producing political content as well as topical material.  All the meaning was in the sound.  Without audio there was no story because the video was incapable of delivering coherent meaning alone. The picture mainly supported the sound but could not be used alone.

Audio and the written word are powerful information carriers;  they convey far more literal detail than can the image.  My feeling about the still picture and sound/text combination is that the latter detracts from the former.  It’s a different matter when we consider moving images and sound as in cinema.  Here the two sensory streams are complementary and when produced well result in a work which is more than the sum of its parts.

List of Illustrations:

Fig 1 Sophie Calle Turns Life Into Art. http://www.thedailybeast.com/sophie-calle-turns-life-into-art (accessed August 9, 2017).

Fig 2 :  2017. MANUAL DE SUPERVIVENCIA PARA ARTISTAS INQUIETOS. Times Online. http://artistasinquietos.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/exposicion-sophie-calle.html (accessed August 9, 2017).

Images, Text, and how they interact

Cut out some pictures from a newspaper and write your own captions.

• How do the words you put next to the image contextualise/re-contextualise it?

• How many meanings can you give to the same picture?

Try the same exercise for both anchoring and relaying. Blog about it.


I chose to “cut” images from online sources rather than from physical newspapers.  I had a quick look through today’s offerings on the news stand and decided that more illustrative content would be available from the web. 


Yorkshire Dam Attack – The market town of Pickering was flooded following the terrorist attack on the Barnsley reservoir (Fig 1)


The real caption referred to events in a known flood risk area and had nothing to do with a terrorist attack. But the above caption anchors the meaning of the image by telling us what it is and also directs the viewer to consider it in a particular context, that of terrorism, providing relay.  Relay adds information, anchor confirms what is already visible.  In the process of anchoring, the text fixes the process of signification and limits the polysemic possibilities of the image.  Barthes explains relay thus:

“[in relay]… text and image stand in a complementary relationship; the words , in the same way as the images, are fragments of a more general syntagm and the unity of the message is realized at a higher level, that the of the story, the anecdote, the diegesis…” 

Barthes 1977

I had to look those two up, of course…  A syntagmatic relationship is one where signs occur in sequence or parallel and operate together to create meaning.  [my emphasis]  –  And diegesis…..  refers to the information related by the narrator  

In previous writing on this subject I invented for myself an Ambiguity Index  which places any image on a scale somewhere between “could be absolutely anything” and “no mistaking what that’s all about”.  I have since discovered that this is an aspect of the polysemic nature of photographs.  In the above illustration the contents are fairly unambiguous; it’s definitely a flood, the bridge suggests it came from a river overtopping its banks, it’s in the UK, it is very disruptive but not catastrophic.  Let’s try something which offers more leeway…


Met to take £33m cut in operational funding over 3 years  (Fig 2) 

Here the image ‘anchors’ itself – there is only one of these signs and most UK viewers would know what it signifies.  It’s not about a yard, nor is it anything to do with Scotland, but the text within the image signifies a very specific entity.  Seeing this image we expect to learn about either the activities of the Metropolitan Police or about matters which are of concern to them, such as cuts.  Although the contents of the image are unique, the context can vary considerably.  The image is used extensively as shorthand for crime, London, police, investigation, justice, detection and to a certain extent for authority, power, competence, incompetence etc.  The caption relays information and contextualises the image.  Taken together, they may prompt the viewer to consider the efficiency of the Met and whether such funding reductions are justified, but in a semiotic sense they work together to both channel the meaning, narrowing the possibilities, and at the same time to expand on the meaning by offering more information.  The original caption read: GP Manish Shah has been charged with 118 sex assaults against patients.


Three brothers victims of Grenfell fire (Fig 3)



Three defendants in Harrods bomb trial (Fig 4)

The images above (Figs 3 & 4) are from the same file.  I noticed when appropriating it that the mouse-over popup title read _97166537_976musketeers-brighter.jpg and I wondered why it would need to identified with the word “brighter”.  It was published originally by Times Online and may also have appeared in print.  Why brighter?  The word appears nowhere in the accompanying text; I wonder if an editorial decision was made to change the appearance of the men?

I altered it myself to see what would happen with a different caption and it does read differently, the darker appearance seeming to support the kind of prejudicial views about guys with dark skin one might expect from some news groups.  There is anchor and relay here, in contradictory stories, but each equally credible.  The original caption read:  “Naweed Ali, Khobaib Hussain and Mohibur Rahman were sentenced at the Old Bailey  – Three would-be jihadists who dubbed themselves the Three Musketeers have been jailed for life for plotting an attack on a police or military target.”


Pilot dismissed for being intoxicated in flight (Fig 5)

The image and text above may provoke some indignant responses – lives at risk, position of trust, airline safety and so on; and she’s smiling, for heaven’s sake.  A single word changes the whole meaning of the diegesis; the choice of the term intoxicated rather than drunk implies a clinically transgressive judgement, much more serious – after all many of us just get ‘a bit drunk’ occasionally.  That one word bounces around the cockpit, jarring against the other signs  of precision, accuracy, high technology and order.  In fact Yvonne Kershaw has just retired after 45 years blameless years on the flight deck.



Barthes, R. (1977). Rhetoric of the Image. Image, Music, Text, 32–51. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004


List of Illustrations:

Fig 1 –   Getty Images:   Times Online. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/uk-flooding-how-a-yorkshire-flood-blackspot-worked-with-nature-to-stay-dry-a6794286.html (accessed August 9, 2017).

Fig 2 –Getty Images: Times Online. http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/836674/GP-Doctor-Manish-Shah-charged-118-sex-assaults-patients-Met-Police (accessed August 9, 2017).

Figs 3 & 4 – West Midlands Police file image:  2017. ‘Three Musketeer’ jihadis get life sentences for UK terror plot – BBC News. Times Online. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40810970 (accessed August 9, 2017).

Fig 5 – Lauren Hurley/PA 2017. UK’s first woman to captain jumbo jet retires after final flight – BelfastTelegraph.co.uk. Times Online. http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/uk/uks-first-woman-to-captain-jumbo-jet-retires-after-final-flight-35994593.html (accessed August 9, 2017).