Part 5: Research Point 1 – Metaphor and Photography

We are asked to read Chapter 4 ‘Something and Nothing’ of Charlotte Cotton’s  The Photograph as Contemporary Art and then to consider the following:

To what extent do you think the strategy of using objects or environments as metaphor is a useful tool in photography? When might it fall down?

– IaP Coursebook p.99

There is not a single mention of Metaphor  in Chapter 4 of Cotton, so I decided to do a bit of clarifying research. I found this online:

‘A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison.

Here are the basics:

metaphor states that one thing is another thing

It equates those two things not because they actually are the same, but for the sake of comparison or symbolism

If you take a metaphor literally, it will probably sound very strange (are there actually any sheep, black or otherwise, in your family?)

Metaphors are used in poetry, literature, and anytime someone wants to add some color to their language’

– Alice E.M. Underwood, Grammarly Blog

While I’m not really sure whether a classical rhetorical figure that is primarily concerned with written or spoken language can be applied directly to photographs without some bending and twisting,  to return to Magritte and that pipe that is not a pipe, and the first of Underwood’s statements (‘a metaphor states that one thing is another thing’) every photograph could be seen as a metaphor. What you see is a photograph, not the object portrayed. This just takes us back to discussions of indexicality (the seeming ability of the object photographed to have made its own image) and ontology (what photographs are); but it does not move us any further forward than that.

Then, with a bit more thought, you could take most of the work considered in Cotton’s chapter as the photographer taking a thing (a collection of objects found complete or assembled over the course of the photographer’s day or some action carried out by them) and saying simply ‘This is art!’ or even better ‘This is my art!’ The metaphorical content answers the standard question ‘Why did you photograph that?’ or ‘What is that a photograph of?’

As such, any photograph that is not presented as a documentary record  (another metaphor of course) could be acting out the post-Duchampian  dialogue described by Grayson Perry in Playing to the gallery (2014) – ‘this is art, because I – as an artist – say it is’. Each photograph becomes Post-Modernism in action. Bam! Ka-Pow! (as Roy Lichtenstein might have said).

Traditionally, figures of speech are primarily concerned with the rhetorical use of language, with the creation of specific meaning for an audience. The most obvious way to perform this sort of linguistic task with a photograph is through the titling. The contrast between the words and what is depicted can be used in a way that is productive of a meaning.

As a title,  ‘Quiet Afternoon’ does nothing to tell you what  is literally depicted  (a courgette a carrot and a grater balanced  on a green tablecloth. against a green background) in Fischli and Weiss’ photograph depicted on page 115 of Cotton’s book; it does describe the circumstances that led to its production. As such you can easily imagine the scene – two men, bored, passing the time by making ‘a sculpture’ from things that are to hand. The photograph is a record of their activity during this ‘Quiet Afternoon.’

(Many years ago, during our long summer vacations, my friends and I would sit in the back bar of the Queen’s Hotel in Kirkwall, making towers of our empty beer glasses. A photograph of the tower, could be titled ‘An evening with friends (1983).’ As such, it could be far more evocative than any photograph we actually did take at the time. Other people would be able to extrapolate from it what had been going on and what was depicted. I wish I had taken the time to make that picture, then. Now, in the unlikely event of finding myself in similar circumstances, I hope I would.)

The title ‘Untitled’ takes this one stage further, inviting the viewer to provide their own title and association for what it is they are looking at.  The empty bed depicted in Felix Gonzales-Torres’ 1991 untitled billboard invites your own metaphorical meaning – it becomes a picture of absence, of someone who is no longer in the bed, of the effect AIDS had on beds all over the world. Or there is the ‘Untitled’ of William Eggleston’s Memphis (and elsewhere) prompting the viewer to help in the creation of his semi-fictional 1960s American south…

This is all quite dry and cerebral – I could be over thinking things again – so, by way of an example: in May this year, I was over in Belfast for a couple of days’ work and had the evening to myself. As is my wont, I went for a walk with my camera. I passed an Orange Lodge and a park named after a Presbyterian minister. A number of gable ends had loyalist murals painted on them.

I photographed the murals in passing but knew I would probably never do anything with the pictures. They would form another layer of digital silt (a metaphor, by the way) on one of my hard drives. From time to time, I might see them in passing and then move on to something that would hold my attention for longer. If I am honest, I take a lot of photographs like that.

Then the way the light was falling on some litter in a carpark caught my eye.

There was some tangerine peel. And it was orange!

fig.1: majority – belfast

A bottle, caught by the low light, was very green standing out against the neutral grey of the compacted gravel!

fig.2: minority – belfast

I changed my angle to put them together within a single frame  getting an awkwardly balanced composition!

fig.3: power sharing – belfast

And then of course, as I add the pictures to my blog, here, I give the pictures apposite titles. I don’t anchor the text, instead I try to create a relay. Let the viewer find the links. And there you are!

I have succeeded (I think) in capturing and presenting a train of thought. Which is of course, yet another metaphor. There is also the tension between what is actually depicted – rubbish, waste, redundant packaging that has been discarded – and the still all too current (undiscarded) associations of ‘green’ and ‘orange’ in Belfast. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever done, but nor is it the worst.

You can do quite a lot with three images and some words, if only you can find some way of activating their possibilities. Rhetoric and figures of speech can be a way of doing this.

The potential weakness with all this lies in the way that any metaphor’s meaning is both historically and culturally determined. They seldom achieve either universality or constancy over time. If the metaphor’s comparison is outside the viewer’s frame of reference it may go unnoticed or possibly simply be misunderstood. I’m sure there are things in Daido Moriyama’s photographs that I do not pick up on, because I simply don’t know enough about Japanese culture at the time they were produced. Also, metaphors – like radioactive elements – tend to have a form of half-life as they decay and lose their impact with the strangeness that is an important part of their impact dissipating into cliche.

In 1991, Gonzales-Torres’ billboards may have chimed with an atmosphere of AIDS-awareness messages; now, twenty seven years later, that isn’t necessarily the first thing you think of (and Cotton, half-way between then and now already needed to make this association explicit in her book). Meanings change over time; so do associations.

In the end, a metaphor is just another possible punctum consciously placed there for the viewer to find. It may work for individuals, but is unlikely to grab and hold everyone. Over time it may lose it’s impact, becoming a dead metaphor (black sheep of the family is a nice example of this). A metaphor’s strength sis derived from its strangeness. Over time clashing ideas may cease to chime in a viewer’s head; in the end the vivid rhetorical image may lose its tang. After the passage of enough time, you might end up with the photograph just being a photograph…


‘Colin – your muscles are like bands of steel!’


Your similes will get you nowhere, Sylvia – it’s metaphors or nothing with me…

Sylvia (Later, after some research):

 Colin – your muscles are bands of steel!


‘My Darling…’


Part of  a lesson on figures of speech given by George Rendall to class 1E at Kirkwall Grammar School, c. 1977. From memory.

If I remember aright, Colin was Colin Liddle and Sylvia, Sylvia Aim.


  • Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd edition) London: Thames & Hudson
  • Underwood, A E.M (2015) Metaphor. Post On Grammarly Blog ( accessed 26/7/18

1 thought on “Part 5: Research Point 1 – Metaphor and Photography

  1. Pingback: assignment 5 – reflection | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

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