5d Metaphor

Something and Nothing
Read Chapter 4, Something and Nothing in Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd edition) London: Thames & Hudson. You will find this on the student website.
● 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?
Write some reflective notes on these points in your learning log.

I&P p.116

The underlying problem with photographic metaphors is that stated by Sontag, as paraphrased by LaGrange, and often quoted on this site,

photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer

 Sontag, On Photography, quoted in La Grange (2005) p.37

A straight, objective, representational, window of a photograph is subject to the whimsical, baggage-driven thought and associative processes of each viewer. So a white cloth, particularly if the scale is not clear, might trigger thoughts of surrender, the Klan, a heavy cold, a shroud, a ghost, a formal dining situation … a hotel bed and from there we can flit to a holiday, an affair or serious illness.

What chance, then has a photographic metaphor of being perceived in the way the photographer intended by a sizeable proportion of the viewers? Bate (2016, pp.26-29) uses the Count de Montizon’s c. 1855 image of a captive hippopotamus (fig. A1) to illustrate metaphor and refers to the zoo visitors behind the safety of the bars seeming to have “imprisoned themselves within ‘civilised’ culture”, while the hippo is “bathing in its own reflection” with a “smug … wry smile”. While it is possible to understand how Bate reaches his conclusions, even his anthropomorphic extremes, my personal, Philistine first thought was of Leonard Rossiter’s fictional mother-in-law (1976).

Coleman (1998, p.74) † suggests that photomontage is a particularly fruitful vehicle for exploring metaphor (“reliant on the logic of dreams as much as, if not more than, on the logic of rhetoric”). Clearly, when parts of two images have been juxtaposed for a purpose, then there is a clear imperative to ascertain that purpose and a reasonable chance that the diversity of possible interpretations has been narrowed by the artist’s selections. A case in point is John Heartfield (born Helmut Franz Josef Herzfeld) whose anti-Nazi photomontages still have a readily-identifiable meaning and purpose after 90 years (fig. B1).

Another pertinent example of montage is Gennady Gushchin’s’ Renaissance Portrait (fig. B2). Here the ‘meaning’ is less immediately clear, nevertheless the lapel pin suggests a Soviet politician and the face overlay looks to have been taken from the Mona Lisa: when these are confirmed as Gorbachov (has his forehead birthmark been removed?) and La Gioconda, the imagination and interpretation kick in, but the juxtaposition has already begun to channel the thought process.

By the same tokens, image pairing can close down interpretive divergence, as exemplified by Stefan Lorant in Chamberlain & The Beautiful Llama … (1940), an example is shown with fig. B3.

Nathan Lyons is another exponent of the diptych. Rena Silverman (2014) interviewed Lyons about his Return Your Mind To Its Upright Position exhibition (figs. C1-C3) and book and quotes him as saying, “I simply collect images that I respond to, there’s no script to what I’m doing, it’s really based on my interaction with the things that I see that intrigue me or interest me or question me” … “In metaphor, you are really taking two different elements and bringing them together to form a third”.

Photocollages and paired photographs make relatively stable bases for photographic metaphors. It is when a single image is displayed that individual viewers interpretations will run roughshod over the artist’s intentions.

† Coleman’s essay, Mutant Media is principally concerned with the clouded distinction between photo-collage and photo-montage which he traces back to the Dadaists who coined the montage usage to differentiate themselves from the Surrealists who had adopted the Cubist collage. He might have concluded several pages earlier that the difference is moot, though he states, neatly, that “the distinction [the Dadaists] were seeking to establish was one of intent and effect, not one of craft; a Dada photomontage and a Surrealist photocollage share a commonality of fracture”.


Bate, David. (2016) Photography, the key concepts. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Boothroyd, S. and Roberts, K. (2019) Identity and place. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Coleman, A.D. (1998) Depth of field. NY: Midmarch Arts Press.

Gustafson, D., Sidlauskas, S. & Siegel, L. (2014) Striking Resemblance. New Jersey: Rutgers University.

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic critical theory for photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press.

Lorant. S (1940) Chamberlain and the beautiful llama and 101 more juxtapositions. London: Hulton

Rossiter, L. (1976) The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin Created by David Nobbs. Producer Gareth Gwenlan. BBC1.

Silverman, R. (2014) Making Metaphors From Photos [online]. nytimes.com. Available from https://photoc/2014/12/12/making-metaphors-from-photos/ [Accessed 11 April 2021].