Object and Environment as Metaphor

The first thing which springs to mind when considering this question is the ‘urban bus shelter’ shot, which I have come to think is something of a student trope – every blog should have at least one rendition of this evocative object.  But when I looked for examples to use for review on this blog I was surprised to find very few on Google image search.  I had been harboring the notion that these pictures were prolific, but perhaps that’s not the case.  Perhaps the idea that they are commonplace has itself become a trope!  The vandalised bus shelter stands in for a familiar representation of urban decay;  it is shorthand for neglect and is readily recognised by most people.

But in order for the object or environment to function as a metaphor it must not be too literal.  It helps if it is shown almost in isolation, without interference from competitors for attention.  A distillation of the idea, a picture which embodies the essence of the message without laboriously spelling out every syllable.  There should be room available for the individual viewer to exercise some imaginative hops of their own however, so that they can have a sense of ownership of the connections.

There must be some familiarity with the metaphor for it to function effectively – it must be within the experience of the viewer.  If I am unfamiliar with the characteristically unpleasant smell of, say, an exotic fruit I am unlikely to grasp the significance of its inclusion in a deodorant commercial.  This is where object metaphor can easily fail, where the link becomes just too tenuous to work properly, so it can be a fine balance between obscurity and familiarity. Another risk is over-use.  Some object metaphors have become hopelessly clichéd, like the Cadbury’s flake and its phallic associations.  This can be difficult to get away from – I am amused by the Melanie Safka quote, “If it’s longer than it’s wide, it’s phallic”

Photographers are hampered by the literalness of the camera function.  It returns a very close approximation of what is put before it,  so when it comes to photographing a feeling, for example, the painter is at a considerable advantage in having at his disposal the endlessly malleable qualities of paint. However the photographer can draw on the equally expressive vector of the metaphor by selecting objects which in isolation may appear to have no bearing on the emotion, but when seen in a particular context convey powerful meaning.

The photographic metaphor acts like a catalyst in generating meaning.  It does not form part of the final product but is instrumental in its manufacture.

Reflection point – the eloquent object

Reflection point
• Where does that leave the photographer? As storyteller or history writer?
• Do you tend towards fact or fiction?
• How could you blend your approach?
• Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality?
Make some notes on these questions in your learning log.


Here we are invited to consider the work of William Eggleston, particularly his photographs of Memphis in the late sixties and early seventies.  He has concentrated on the evidence of existence rather than the individuals themselves.  Without the overbearing presence of a person, whom we are by nature compelled to study, the artifact is allowed its own life.  The viewer is invited to study the thing itself without the requirement to consider the relationship between thing and owner.

Sometimes this exposes certain absurdities, odd characteristics, which are simply not see when paired with a person.  The photograph of the child’s tricycle, for example, is given an oddly majestic feel by the use of low viewpoint. All kinds of meanings and ‘narratives’ may be inferred by the imaginative beholder, none of which need have any basis in fact.  The options are open.

It’s not too fanciful to wonder whether the objects have a life of their own – a frequent theme of the Disney animation.  There’s certainly an object voice, one which speaks of its interactions and experiences in the human world.  Is this the storytelling capacity of the object-image?  It could equally be an example of historical record.  Perhaps it depends, as it so often seems to, on the disposition of the viewer.

One possibility of ‘blending the approach’ might be to adopt the very means Eggleston employs – to extract the object from its usual context and to ‘oddify’ it, show an uncommon aspect or detail which gives a sense of unfamiliarity.

I’ve thought about the ‘departure point’ question before;  I often try to introduce some intrigue to my work, obviously with varying degrees of success.  In looking at other people’s work I am sometimes struck by the way they have revealed an aspect of something, a person or perhaps a place, which I would not have seen myself if I had been looking over their shoulder.  They have shown me something new in the familiar.


Large scale projects like Soth’s and Shore’s

The scale referred to must relate to the extent of the journeying undertaken by the photographer, the better to expose himself to as much variation within his chosen area as possible.

There are other influences at work here.  Immersion in the way of life of the inhabitants surely will affect the way the photographer views his chosen subjects.  Perhaps if he is sympathetic to their circumstances the work will appear well disposed to them.

I wonder if it is necessary for a photographer to connect with his subjects in order to produce informed work.  I somehow doubt this, although I think that the more one puts into the work, the more the viewer will get out of it – but probably not the same as was put in.

I had the opportunity to do a similar project recently but I didn’t act on it – I was too preoccupied with the demands of travel itself. Whilst travelling the French and Iberian coast I met many individuals who were engaged on similar journeys; each had their own quite distinct raison, each a quite profound purpose.

They were generally balancing their responsibilities and resources with an urge to move and more often than not the urge was getting the upper hand.  I still feel it would have been an interesting project, about people who live full time aboard small sailing boats (they are all small to live on no matter how long they are).


These guys pitched up in the middle of the night in the berth next to ours.  They had sailed non-stop from Sweden in a 23′ boat.  They were both ex-Swedish army and had been discharged on medical grounds, having served in Kosovo.  They were heading for St Marten.  I later learned via Facebook that they had arrived safe and sound.

The project I missed doing would have been a curious mixture of insider/outsider;  I could have no way of being involved in their lives before or after meeting but at the same time we were sharing many day-to-day experiences.

It’s said that long term projects give the photographer the opportunity to get right under the skin of the subject but I wonder how this assertion would stand up to comparative scrutiny?  Would a ‘panel of experts’ be able to say whether a series had been produced in a week or a year if they knew nothing of the photographer?  I think the long term aspect of a project satisfies the photographer more than the viewer but if the viewer is aware of the effort and commitment involved, this may imbue the series with greater authenticity – in their eyes.