Research point – Something and Nothing; or who was Brian?

We are asked to read Chapter 4,  Something and Nothing  (Cotton C, 2014) and respond to the question:

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?

Cotton provides a number of examples of artists using effectively objects or environments as metaphors, which prove their use in photography. Some of the examples seem more like visual puns than metaphors and I find it useful to think of them this way – otherwise the literary reference is broken and confusing.

A visual metaphor uses a visual that ordinarily identifies one thing to signify another, thus making a meaningful comparison.

A visual pun is a pun involving an image or images (in addition to, or instead of text) to form a new meaning.



For example, Gabriel Orozco’s Breath on Piano, in which the imprint of the breath on the polished piano serves as a pun for the imprint of the photo itself on paper. Cotton comments that ‘we are asked to pay close attention to the nature of photographic images and the perpetual hovering between being the medium and the subject’ (ibid, p 117). Making this kind of interpretation requires a visual education, otherwise the viewer is likely to be stuck at seeing a dirty piano. This is a potential pitfall of metaphor/pun – do we need to inform or educate some viewers to enable an interpretation beyond the subject of the photograph? If so, we must achieve this without explaining the work directly, otherwise it is surely like having to explain a joke; it is no longer a joke.

Jennifer Bolande’s work Globe is presented as a metaphor for our limited and simplified interpretation of the world around us. Cotton observes that is through repetition of the theme within a series that we can understand this as a metaphor – a single photography would be less likely to register. Again there is the challenge of communication and helping our message to be received by the viewer. We habitually switch off or turn away from text that lacks clarity or involves too much effort to understand and there is no reason that it should be any different for visual arts for many viewers.

There is the problem of comprehension when it comes to metaphor and pun. Not only based on visual education but also our broader contextual experiences in cultural, social and political environments. Concluding with a humour analogy; I once had a Japanese colleague who was determined to borrow and watch my copy of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, despite my suggestion that he was unlikely to understand it with his cultural, historical and religious background. He watch the film three times and couldn’t tell me what his favourite bit was. But he did ask me, ‘who was Brian?’.

Reference [website]. Ad using visual pun or metaphor method. Available from: [accessed 24.3.17]

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd edition) London: Thames & Hudson.

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