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CAN 2 Photographing the unseen

A Lexicon of Life

A Lexicon of Life is a book about the journey towards entropy that is an integral and inescapable aspect of physical existence, and references the combination of decay and beauty expressed in traditional natures mortes.

The brief for this assignment asked us to consider what kinds of subjects might be considered un-photographable, make a list of at least seven such ideas and implement one of them. I initially understood the brief to be asking for subjects that were – as the assignment’s title seemed to suggest – unseen, which I took to mean invisible, a misinterpretation that resulted in a work which attempted to capture the subtle signs of dementia. Fortunately I submitted it for critique by other students, which revealed my mistake. That critique process (and a link to the original work) is available here.

Now understanding that the brief was actually asking us to represent a concept using metaphor, I undertook a series of exploratory shoots on subjects which included relationship breakup, Brexit, dissonance, yoga, bank holiday, mental blocks, ordinariness, and my eventual selection – ageing. For this I started by noticing that the remains of a bowl of cherries I’d bought at a roadside farm outlet a couple of days earlier made a good metaphor to represent awareness of age and mortality, so I took some photos of that. Next I decided to to go out and shoot some images that could represent physical deterioration – rundown houses, windows, fences and the like. I was conscious of the need to maintain a consistent aesthetic through the series, so aimed to keep to an overall fairly neutral colour palette with occasional bursts of colour. During the shoot I picked up a few small objects to take home and isolate against a neutral background as I’d done with the bowl of cherries, and subsequently did the same with other items I found around the flat. I shot two versions of each object – one in natural light and the other lit by a small 40w spotlight. Contact sheets for both indoor and outdoor shoots can be seen here.

When I loaded all the images onto my computer it became clear that the isolated indoor shots had the potential to make a cohesive series, while the outdoor set were much busier and had an altogether different energy, so I discarded the latter. I whittled the isolated shots down to a set that I felt conveyed what I wanted to say about my experience of ageing, finding that in each case I preferred the ones made in natural light because they looked and felt more authentic, which felt appropriate for the subjective statements I wanted them to make. I edited my selection in Lightroom and Photoshop to make the light levels and the scale of the objects consistent through the set. Then I submitted this new work for critique and received confirmation that it fitted the brief, along with some interesting observations and comments (available here) that demonstrated the ability of metaphor to evoke a theme while leaving the viewer space for personal interpretation.

I began to think about how I would submit the series at assessment. I don’t currently own a printer capable of producing high-quality prints so have been trying out various different print suppliers as I progress through the course. The only really good results I’ve had so far have been from, and they cost nearly £10 per print. For this series I tried a cheap option and the prints were terrible quality, but they did give me the benefit of seeing that a 12 x 8 inch print was too large for this particular series and prompted me to think of other options. I considered getting 6 x 4 inch prints and glueing them into a hand-made concertina-style book, and assembled a list of tools and materials I would need to buy to make it. Then I thought about the similarity between the isolated images in my series and the isolated images in a child’s alphabet book, and decided to make up a small Blurb book in that style, which would include the initial letters of the metaphorical meanings of the objects rather than the objects’ actual names. A pdf of the draft book can be found here. I also created an A2 poster (pictured right) in the style of a children’s alphabet learning aid as another potential presentation option.


I found the three case studies associated with this assignment in the course material interesting for the fact that they were so different but had in common the fact that they all described their subject indirectly. I found Peter Mansell’s series describing how a spinal cord injury has affected his life particularly powerful, especially because the way he showed us the spaces he habitually occupies (the hospital check-up bed, the space for his wheelchair in the living room) invites us to insert ourselves into these locations.

I was reading Jeffrey (2008) and Barthes (1993) as I worked on this assignment, and both these books helped to expand my awareness and understanding of the less obvious messages conveyed by an image. But the single most useful resource was Suler (2013), which clarified a lot of confusion I had (even after my first false start on the assignment) about what was meant by metaphor in photography and ways of approaching its use.

Reflection before tutor feedback

The reasons I selected these particular images were:
1. The depleted bowl of cherries represents my present stage of life.
2. The crumpled tissue reflects a general crumpling and creasing.
3. The blemishes that come with age.
4. The growing sense that time will run out at some point.
5. Reduced stamina and sexuality.
6. A general slackening of physical and emotional tension. The ellipse also represents the cycle of life and death, growth and decay.
7. The cycle of life again – me, my parents and grandparents at various stages of life.

One suggestion that came up during the critique process was to add an eighth image for visual balance. I tried out various options, including one new image, pictured right, but in line with both the feedback I received from the forum and my own gut instinct, I eventually decided not to include the additional image and to leave the set with a slightly unbalanced conclusion, which in itself conveys something of what I wanted to communicate.

It’s been a really interesting experience to place my work in front of others for critique – the first project I’ve done this for – and the experience has been extremely rewarding. I have learned that other people bring their own experience to images, do not necessarily see what I feel is self-evident in them, and see things that hadn’t even occurred to me but which are undoubtedly present – the crumpled tissue, for example, was invariably seen as a symbol of tears, grief or loss. What would I do differently if I were to start this project again now? Perhaps I might emphasise some of the positive aspects of ageing, but on the other hand the brief isn’t to present all the pros and cons of a concept. And maybe this impulse is part of a tendency to approach things in problem-solving instead of question-posing mode, which – as my tutor very interestingly pointed out this week – can be seen as the difference between design-oriented disciplines and fine art.

Reflection after tutor feedback

My tutor offered me some extremely helpful feedback, perhaps the most important of which was a warning not to let the presentation overshadow the images. As soon as I read this comment I recognised that I was trying to be, as he also suggested, “too clever by half” – an over-reaction to my relatively recent introduction to some of the creative and innovative ways other students have found to present their work.

I decided to go back to basics, and set out to find whether I could achieve an acceptable standard of print from my office printer, a Canon MG 5750 that cost less than £50 new, and spent a day trying out various settings and papers. Eventually I found a combination that printed to a standard I felt happy with and was certainly a massive improvement on the prints I’d ordered online. I had liked the way the square format of the book draft had heightened the focus on the objects, and decided to crop the new prints to the same square format. Then I laid them out and spent a day looking at them, sometimes intensely, sometimes briefly in passing. I found that they spoke to me in a way they hadn’t in the poster and book, where the accompanying alphabet muted that dialogue.

Several months later, I bought a new printer, a Canon Pro 100-S, and made new prints on that, retaining the square format.

Rework for assessment

Returning to this assignment in preparation for submission for assessment, it struck me that the pristine nature of the prints I’d prepared did not reflect the subject matter of the images. It occurred to me that printing them on pre-used fabric could remove this mismatch, so I experimented with transfer printing onto a sheet of calico I’d been using to iron on, which had areas of scorching and discoloration. I liked the way the rougher print and the texture of the fabric gave the images the look and feel of old nature morte paintings, emphasising the theme of ageing and decay that is central to the images. I decided to make a handmade rag book – a format that was fairly common in my own childhood so again would emphasise the sense of time past – and tried different ways of creating the rectangular shapes that would make up the page spreads, finding that tearing the fabric gave a much more consistent result than cutting or crimping and also avoided the feeling of newness and precision that arose with the latter two methods. Further experiments were required before I found exactly the right dimensions for the fabric strips, by which time I’d used up all my ironing calico and had to buy a new length. This didn’t of course have scorch marks, and I considered introducing some, but my first test prints showed me that the absence of these marks did not diminish the resonance between the images and the fabric, so I proceeded to make the final version of the spreads and stitch them together. The images below document the process of developing the book.

References and resources

Barthes, R. (1993) Mythologies. London: Random House.
Suler, J. (2013) ‘Conceptual Photography’, in Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche. Available at [accessed 01.06.18]
Jeffrey, I. (2008) How to Read a Photograph. London: Thames & Hudson.

CAN 2 self-assessment

I learned a lot about the power of visual metaphor through doing this assignment and even more about the polysemic nature of images and the extent to which the viewer creates their own reading. Connecting with the forums for the first time since I started the course, I also discovered the sometimes painful but always productive benefits of peer feedback, and my work for both this assignment and every subsequent one has been greatly improved by the inputs I have received from this source.

In selecting the images I used for the assignment I looked for consistency in lighting and shadow, and for resonances between the various objects resulting from their shape, colour or emotional impact. The resulting set of seven images gave a slightly lop-sided impression which seemed appropriate to the overall feeling I wanted to convey, so I left it with the trailing and slightly incongruous final image of photographs instead of balancing it up with an eighth image.

I prepared both a Blurb book and a wall poster as presentation options for this work, but was guided by my tutor away from these over-elaborate constructions and eventually settled for straightforward prints, which I cropped to a square format having used this format in the draft book I made up and liking the way this focused attention on the objects. On reviewing the assignment prior to assessment, however, I decided the images required a presentation format that resonated more strongly with their subject matter, so transfer-printed them onto calico to create a rag book, which gave them a stronger sense of nature mortes.

My self-assessment ratings for this assignment are as follows: