Research Point 1

In Chapter 4 from Charlotte Cottons book The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Cotton, 2014) she discusses the art of making images from the ordinary things in life – something and nothing.

Non-human things – often ordinary and every day – can, when photographed, become more important.  This is particularly noted when colour is intensified, scale is changed, or the environment is changed. This can be used for almost any item you can imagine; they could be concrete items such as traditional still life or ephemeral things such as snow and light.

What do you make of these types of images is what you will/ can. The practitioner/photographer has has decided that the item is important simply by photographing it. The images may be unglamorous such as in the Quiet Afternoon series by Fischer and Weiss. They may question the status of art by picturing an activity demonstrated in Gabriel Orozco’s work Breath on a Piano. Photographs made from unusual found items can suggest stories to the viewer about what might be happening. The interpretation is up to your imagination.  Nigel Shafran uses things found in daily life, such as his washing up, photographed in ambient light which tells us about the importance of the ordinary.

Images taken in series can make a commentary on culture. Architectural spaces may be used in a similar way and for this people often use deserted and partly destroyed buildings together with items that have been left behind by previous tenants. In James Welling’s work he repeatedly photographs items from slightly different angles or with slight changes implying that know something you need to look at it in multiple ways.

Still life, especially of items within the house or home, may demonstrate the considerable frailty of life. This was frequently a topic with the Dutch still life painters and they often used memento mori within their painting. It can be used to show how life changes, things falling apart, the end of eras.The idea of behind these possibilities is the use of an everyday, ordinary or unexpected object to make us think about what we are seeing and interpret it in a different way. It can be very useful if you are wanting to talk about things that are not traditionally easy to photograph or that might cause distress if handled too directly such as death, freedom, loss or change. Metaphors also have limitations in that they may not be understood without knowledge of the specific referents used or an explanatory text – which might then close down the possible interpretations. The viewers of the Dutch Old Masters were usually people who were visually literate and would have subconsciously understood the inclusion of a skull or a cross. Metaphors also are usually limited by culture. An extreme example of this might be some graffiti on a wall, which could be seen as vandalism by one person, a gang affiliation by a group of people or simply as ‘I was here’. Colour is another example of this. In Britain white is usually used to represent purity, virginity, clarity, and peace and is often used for wedding dresses, while in India, Hindu populations would traditionally use red as it indicates spirituality, protection and commitment while white is commonly worn to funerals as it symbolises  purity, and it is used to show respect to the departed.


  • Still life, in the broadest sense, can be used as a metaphor
  • Metaphors can be useful if you are describing a profound or troubling subject
  • Metaphors need to be used with care as not everyone will understand them, and text may need to be added
  • The use of unexpected conjugations of items especially with unexplained settings can make people think / invent their own stories.


Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. (Third edition) New York, New York: Thames & Hudson.



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