Category Archives: Studio Projects

Semiotics and the ‘Textbook’ Project



I attended an OCA Lecture day in Leeds at the weekend – delivered by OCA Art History & Visual Studies Tutor, Gerald Deslandes. Reflections on the day, which was devoted to the origins and development of Modernism & Postmodernism, are better suited to Contextual Studies but, as I said to Gerald as I was leaving, much of what he covered helped me to feel more confident about some of the work I’m doing in Body of Work.  I’m not sure that it was the lectures, specifically, that made me think afresh about my ‘Textbook’ project this morning, only partially I suspect, but something has led me to what feels like a better understanding of what this project is about.

In my previous post about it – here – I put it in the context of Analogue and Digital photographic processes, and that is certainly valid, but I realised this morning that it is also – more so, maybe – about Language and Signs.  The words, diagrams and images from this 1963 publication have lost, for me, their original meaning.  They do not signify what the writers intended.  For me, they signify an unintelligible, dead, language.  But, rather than approaching them like an archaeologist, seeking to decipher their original meaning, I appropriate them as unattached signifiers.  I construct something new, something whose ‘meaning’, for me, is the investigation and expression of my own creative use of digital methods, and which is an expression of the ‘ambiguity’ I discussed here.

The image above is a good example – and includes a ‘text’ based element, too.  Reading the image, as it is presented here, one might start with a formal analysis.  It is, clearly and obviously, a construction.  There is a ‘cut-out’ image in the foreground and some other ‘cut-outs’ in the background, with a slight background difference between the top third of the frame and the lower two-thirds, which together seem to suggest that this is a representation of a ‘landscape’.  the colour of the background (and the image of a polar bear in the foreground) appear to be specifically representing a ‘polar’ landscape, further confirmed by the suggestion of what appears to be snow around the boots of the two men in that foreground ‘cut-out’ image.  This foreground image seems to have been cut from an old photograph, its surface suggests the graininess of such an origin, and the dress of the two men also seems to signify the early part of the 20th century.  Each man is holding a rifle at his side, resting the butt on the floor and grasping the barrel.  They stand, slightly apart from each other, looking down at what must be a dead polar bear – and we almost certainly reach the conclusion that they shot it.  Two men, in the early part of the 20th century, shot a polar bear in a polar landscape!  They were photographed with the carcass, and I have now chosen, in the early part of the 21st century, to cut out their images from an old print of some nature!

Then we come to the other cut-outs, in the background.  There are four triangular shapes, each with a kind of bulge on the side. Three, positioned right at the back of the ‘landscape’ and to the left, are coloured light blue, with their ‘bulges’ in purple; the fourth, a little closer and larger, is coloured purple, with a black bulge.  They look as though they have been cut out from a printed source; each has a thin black outline and there are black spots printed inside each triangle.  Some also have other printed symbols – plusses and minuses, and arrows, in one case.  They have a diagrammatic look about them, though there is nothing to suggest what they might represent.  One of the blue triangles also has symbols outside its cut out shape – arrows pointing down to its left hand side and minus signs around its purple bulge.  All four of the triangles are slightly out of focus – though the arrows and minuses just identified are quite sharply defined.  Although the colours and diagrammatic qualities of these four triangles does not support such a conclusion, one might suppose that they have been placed to loosely suggest mountains in the polar landscape.  The ‘trained’ eye might read these diagrams as having some scientific significance, but there is little or nothing to explain what that might be.

Finally, within the frame of the image, there is a printed ‘caption’, which reads ‘Fig. 24. Stability of the latent image’.  The ‘content’ and the style of presentation of this text would seem to suggest that the image is either from, or we’re asked to consider that it might be from, a book, maybe an academically oriented book, given the use of ‘Fig. 24.’ and the specific nature of the language of the text.  All these symbolic elements – the foreground cut-out; the four triangle cut-outs; the ‘landscape’ background; and the caption – have been deliberately brought together for some purpose.  The ‘formal’ analysis of the image doesn’t necessarily lead to a clear conclusion and probably raises as many questions as it answers.  Contextually, presented as ‘art’, the image would probably be identified as having characteristics of the postmodern, and so the questions are about the artist and his purpose.  In any other context, the image is likely to be seen as curious and/or meaningless.  Printed large on a gallery wall, it would invite a close examination of its aesthetic qualities, which would (hopefully) lend it some ‘art-context’ credibility – the signification associated with a large, high-quality print and curatorial support.  As one of a series of images in a gallery (with supporting ‘artist statement’ and curatorial text) or, similarly, in a book of images, all based around some linking theme (perhaps all images made from the ‘Textbook’ for example) and with supporting text, it may begin to have some ‘significance’ in the analogue/digital context.

Fundamentally, though, it is a somewhat ambiguous collection of signifiers that are unlikely, without further information or context, to communicate much beyond the fact that I, the artist, chose to put them together and create this image.  Those who look at it – tutor and fellow students, for example – may be sufficiently drawn to begin speculating about my purpose/process and the origins of the individual parts of the image – but they will probably have to construct their own conclusions because there is little in the image itself to help.  Hence my own conclusion that I am appropriating these unattached signifiers and presenting them in a construction that has no significance beyond its own construct!  Interestingly, though, because I do know exactly where these individual elements of the image came from, I also know that they are not quite so unconnected as they may seem.  The triangular diagrams (which were not coloured in their original form) represent crystals of silver bromide, each with a speck of silver sulphide attached, and the sequence represents the process of formation of a ‘latent image’.  The foreground image was taken on a fatal polar expedition in 1897 but the exposed film lay in the icy environment for 33 years before being discovered and developed; that’s why it was included in a section of the book entitled ‘The Stability of the Latent Image’.  There, I’ve spoiled it now!

Textbook–starting out on another studio project

Textbook 01

I’ve had a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the apparent prominence of ‘film-based’ analogue capture of images by photographic artists – including several of those mentioned in my earlier post here.  I ‘stirred the pot’ some weeks ago, in the OCA Flickr Group, resulting in this discussion; and there have been others in that forum, including this one.  Of course, artists will work within the medium which, in terms of process and outcome, delivers work that satisfies their creative objectives – I have no concern about that, why should I.  Naturally, many of the artists whose work populates the gallery walls began their practice before digital capture was either available or affordable, and that work is already created, so would represent the pre-digital approach (though there does seem to be a strong trend toward digital print methods).  That ‘bee buzz’ has more to do with the question of why there doesn’t seem, as far as I can tell, to be some stronger indication that young, up-and-coming photographic artists are working extensively with digital capture and exploring the creative possibilities that digital methods can offer.  It’s an open question; but also one that concerns me personally, in that I work wholly with digital methods and have no intention of doing otherwise.  I do also sense a wider struggle to come to terms (understandably) with what the digital/internet age ‘means’ for ‘photography’.  I might just be missing it, but is there extensive critical discussion of the question?

So – here is a topic that interests me – and, whilst browsing a local second-hand bookshop, I came upon this publication from 1963, which might just act as a medium for some photographic ‘thinking-with’.  Much of this book reads like a foreign language, to me. (Brief pause, here, to confess that I have failed two exams in my life, one of which was Chemistry – and the other was an equally foreign language, Latin.)  Consequently, I find myself looking at it, and through it, rather like a historical artefact – something from another age.  It occurred to me that I might approach it as a subject for a studio project, seeing it as a kind of metaphor for the whole of film/analogue/traditional photographic practice.  It might be a ‘taking apart’, a ‘deconstructing’, maybe a ‘subverting’, or even a ‘glorifying’ – I even had the idea that I might, eventually, literally take it apart bit-by-bit and photograph the process.  And, without jumping too far ahead, I could envisage an ultimate outcome in book form, perhaps as a part of my final Body of Work.  So, I have begun the process and here is a selection from the images produced so far.


Textbook 03

I found the references to “photographic theory” on the book jacket interesting – the use of the word ‘coherence’ and the reference to theory as “… a good servant but a bad master …”.  We, students of Photography in 2014, are likely to read that rather differently than it would have been read 50 years ago.


Textbook 05Textbook 04

The physical characteristics of the book itself, photographed in a kind of forensic manner, reveal signs of age, mysteriously-shaped stains that suggest chemical reactions over time – rather like the chemically-based process that is its subject; odd scribbles that must have meant something to someone in the past – shades of the photographic archive.


Textbook 07

The process doesn’t have to be restricted to ‘taking photographs’; this page spread has been scanned into a PDF, which has been opened on the PC and a ‘screen-shot’ taken – thinking about the ways in which the scope of current technology compares with that of 50 years ago.


Textbook 12

But then taking that whole process even further, manipulating and re-presenting material; adding elements that both emphasise the ‘gulf’ between these approaches and ‘enhance’ the visual impression, but also applying the deliberately clumsy ‘Photoshop’ methods that I’ve used before.


Textbook 11

And/or going in a different direction by using a deliberately ‘modernist’ aesthetic to present the subject; believe it or not, I had in mind Ansel Adams & the Yosemite National Park when I made this one.

This work, plus the images of ‘Tapes’, and some work I’m doing on the Self-portraits, is beginning to move me towards a second assignment submission in the next few weeks – hopefully.

Tapes–a studio series



This short series of images was made ‘in the studio’, last week; beginning as an experiment in lighting but, perhaps, ending as a series ‘with meaning’.  The process developed something of a life of its own and went from a set of mini-tableaux still-lifes of mundane objects lying around the store to a set of images that might, I think, have potential for multiple readings.  Of course, all images have that potential, but what causes me to reflect on this set is the fact that it seemed to come out of nowhere, seemingly without me directing it (though I obviously did!).  I am reluctant to start expressing too much about my own readings but, almost as soon as I put the stripey tape under the plastic box for Tapes-1 and it rolled forward to the front, I got a sense of some human emotions such as shyness and vulnerability, but also maybe, curiosity and a degree of questioning.  I just recently re-viewed this short film of Lucas Blalock making his ‘99c store still-life’ images (Lucas Blalock), in which he says that he sometimes feels that the objects were standing in for something else that might have been in the images.  My series progressed as follows:

Tapes-2   Tapes-3

Tapes-2                                                                                                               Tapes-3

 Tapes-4  Tapes-5

Tapes-4                                                                                                              Tapes-5



What is interesting, perhaps, is the question of ‘meaning’ as created through the photographic transformation of inanimate and insignificant objects; particularly the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of this transformation.  Lighting is a significant factor here – and that was, as I’ve said, the starting point for the work.  The very first image is not lit in a simple manner.  I was initially trying to create a sense of something happening outside the frame – which does happen here, in some of the images, especially Tapes-4 for example.  And that first images poses a question, maybe, which is explored and developed through a kind of narrative as the little series develops.  In the end, it’s just six pictures of junk, and I certainly don’t want to make more of it than is appropriate, but I suppose I have to admit that I quite like them.  Allowing the experiment to take its own course has resulted in something that almost feels to have come about separate from me – like the characters in a novel taking over the narrative from the writer.

Ideally, these would be large-scale prints on a gallery wall!  Then I speculate about critical reviews.  There would be the one that said: “It is hard to understand why the gallery believes that Dickinson’s photographs of junk should be of any significance to the art world – pretty and well-printed as they might be!”  And then another that opened: “Lit like a series of dramatic stage sets, Dickinson’s images trace a surprising range of emotions and sensations, considering the prosaic subject matter, raising questions about identity, personality, relationships, maybe even gender and sexuality.” Well … in another world!

“Strawberry Fields …


… where nothing is real.”

Well, very little, anyway!  This is a section of the wall of my study, bedecked with some inspirational images by a host of brilliant, mostly young, artists working with photography, photographs, collage, still-life, digital processing, and a few other things that I don’t even understand!  They’re mainly based in North America, but there are a few European artists in there, too, and they explore the boundaries of what a digital photographic image might be – in 2014 & beyond.  It’s a selection – there are several more who might have been in there.  I’ve spent a fair bit of my time this week building up some inspirational sources – quite a few of whom I already knew from previous research but some of whom are new to me.  This was the best way I could think of to keep their work in my mind as I look to move on with my own studio projects.

For example, there is:

  • Dutch artist couple Scheltens-Abbenes who produce commissioned still-life constructs for some high-end commercial brands but who also explore personal projects using ‘cut-outs’ to create immaculately presented images that attract and confuse at the same time.  I’d love to see some of their work in large prints!  I like the way that they are prepared to leave clues about the nature of their constructs and the way they sometimes use ordinary materials – like a cardboard box.
  • New York-based artist Artie Vierkant, who certainly began studying Photography but whose work has truly moved towards the proverbial ‘cutting edge’.  His images start as digital files, which are then printed onto an aluminium composite material – dibond – which can be cut and formed to develop sculptural qualities.  Documented as photographic images ‘in situ’ on the ‘gallery wall’, that documentation becomes a separate work in its own right, changing and evolving as it is distributed  via the internet.  He is one of a group exploring what he calls ‘post internet’ art and issues such as ‘ubiquitous authorship’, ‘the collapse of physical space in networked culture’, and the ‘infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials’.  I don’t claim to understand all of it, but I admire and respect the way in which it operates in the ‘now’.
  • Daniel Gordon’s work has featured in Hotshoe and BJP of late.  He appropriates found images – usually from the internet – then cuts and forms them, in a deliberately raw manner, to create brightly coloured still-life and portrait images, which he then photographs to produce the final work. Some are delightfully simple and some are fascinatingly complex, but they all raise questions.  How does this ‘junk’ (his word!) turn into something so beautiful (my word!) and interesting?  My answer – that’s the fascination of the artistic process!
  • And many others such as Jordan Tate; Jessica Eaton; Fleur Van Dodewaard; and Delphine Burtin – to name but a few.

As planned in my last post, this was about returning to research on other artists operating in the fields of studio experimentation, still-life, digital manipulation etc – as a source of inspiration and ideas to progress my own work.  There is plenty to go at!  It is reassuring to find so many artists doing so much that is interesting – though a little daunting at the same time.  Not for the first time, I reflect that so many young photographers/artists are drawn to their studio to experiment with ideas that are essentially focused on the medium itself, and its processes.  It isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, but it must reflect a degree of unrest, uncertainty, change and challenge – which is a positive phenomenon.  There is a strong sense of ‘play’, but relatively little evidence of any attempts to create work that is designed to change anything or move anyone.  That makes me reflect on my own  images the ‘respond to events’.  I can’t quite decide whether it encourages me to explore them with greater enthusiasm or drop the idea altogether!  It certainly suggests that there are not large numbers of people out there doing something similar – or I haven’t found any, at least.