Research Point: ‘Insomnia'(1994) Jeff Wall

In preparation for Assignment 4 I looked at Boothroyd’s 2012 Beneath the Surface post on the OCA website. This is a very helpful entry point into thinking about the structure, content and nature of the critical essay required by this next assign,went. Writing is not new to me but I am more accustomed to technical objective writing where evidence based facts are the source of the documents I produce. Preparing a thousand word essay on a creative theme presents me with some uncertainty but also an interesting challenge.


Copyright Jeff wall

In considering Jeff Walls 1974 image ‘Insomnia’, Boothroyd demonstrates some of the tools that might be used to review, deconstruct and then assemble meaning around a single image, as well as offering a possible structure for an essay. Although short the piece provides some basic description ‘in practice’ to the concepts of denotation and connotation as well as examples of signifiers and the signified. Most importantly it does set out as sort of essay plan idea by example.

This could be summarised as:

Introduction the image and the artist, some background  and links to their range of work

Literal description –what is in the image, a literal description, describing the place, the settings, the light and colours

Interpretive description –what the elements of the image might mean, to the author and the viewer, an exploratory discourse on the the layers of meaning within the imgae

A personal link for the authorher own work in Oxford, connecting this work to the authors own practice

The works contextwhere the work sits in the genre, the influences on the artist and links to wider works,

The central theme of insomnia -literary links and how this  work might connect to contemporary society, literary reference to Shakespeare as an example of intertextuality

The scale of the work -how its sits in our culture and a short subjective summary of its meaning

Although a very simplistic review on my part  of the structure of Boothroyd’s post, I found it helpful to deconstruct what she had written as a starting point for considering how I might structure how I might write about a chosen image.

I also looked at the use of specific text in this post and used the simple but i find helpful approach of creating a word cloud from the entire work. This is a technique i use in my working life to add some additional insight, I need to share the caveat that this is a very personal approach but I find it helpful, without reading too much into the activity.


A starting point but more thought needed I think!


Boothroyd, S. (2012) Beneath the Surface found at: (Accessed February 2017)



Exercise Part 4


Rip out an advertising image from a newspaper supplement and circle and write on as many parts of the image as you can. Comment on what it is, what it says about the product and why you think it’s there. You could use this as the basis for your assignment if you feel it’s taking you somewhere interesting. Or you could adopt this method for your assignment preparation.

Come back to this exercise when you’ve reached the end of Part Four and see if you can add anything to your analysis.

In undertaking the exercise I purposefully chose a magazine and advertisement that would be unfamiliar and to which would have no direct meaning for me. I felt this would allow a more forensic analysis of the visual and symbolic elements of the advert. For this reason I used an advert from a women’s magazine.  As I leafed through a number of my wife magazines I  was reminded of a line from Williams (1987):

“Adverts are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing with a structure in which we, and those good,are interchangeable ,they are selling us ourselves”                                    pp13

The advert I settled on was at first identified because it was on heavy and glossy card within the magazine. Before I looked at the images there was a sense of increased value of the product this page was peddling.  As shown on the can below I then set about analysis of the elements within the advert.

I separated the advert into a range of specific elements:

  • Text
  • Image, composition and use of colour
  • Signifiers and Signifieds
  • Message and connotation

Whether these are the right element or to I am uncertain, but they did aid me in deconstructing this advert.


Before getting into the detailed elements described above it is worth noting that there is a balanced and quite attractive composition to this advert. It has quite a classic and simple appeal in its aesthetic. Adde with the have duty pare and high quality printing (compared to the rest of the magazine, all this suggested something of quality, something standing out from the rest of the content I the magazine. The BJP has recently been printing some of its content on high grade paper/card and this advert had the same feel.


The text was simple, balanced in the composition and the font is simple and elegant. it reminded me of the 1920’s and appeared to be the same font as used in the collectors edition of Waugh’s Jeeves and Wooster novels. It is “modernist’ in the literate sense, a pre second world war serif less font. Key words are use to communicate a message:



The message is in capitals, YOU is used twice in the buyline, WON’T and WILL, stand out in the messaging. SPF FORMULA suggests the scientific, the technical, the significance of the produce. All are textual signifiers. The signed I take from this is personalisation, quality, scientifically proven and above invisible to others. A connotation is that of youth.

Other text tools add to the messaging. The Good Housekeeping Institute seal in the top right of approval. This signifier suggests endorsement by a trusted source.. The Olay Ageless logo and the AGELESS hashtag  place the product in a particular brand space.

The text below the image of the can is in a mix of upper and lower case and has a more narrative message about the product, perhaps aimed at those less foamier with the brad. this is a strong marketing message , finished off with a second and perhaps more important buy line:

skin doesn’t have to show its age

Image, composition, use of colour

As stated in the introduction, I was struck by the simplicity but engaging nature of this add visually. The picture elements are quite aesthetically pleasing. The strong red of the can of product, photographed and printed to give a three dimensional feel, contrasting with the gray gradient background that goes from dark shades in the bottom right of the advert to the light grey tones of the top left. The two feather, white in colour linking visually to the LIGHTWEIGHT reference in the first buy line. It is a high quality , high resolution product image printed on high quality media that connotes value, classiness and something worthy of purchase perhaps?

Signifiers and Signifieds

Using the same technique that Hall (2007) uses I also separated signifies and potential signified from the core elements of the advert.

As an aside, I struggled to create a table in WordPress (this is something I  will have to learn). So I created a list in word, printed it and scanned it and inserted it as an image. Not great quality, but it worked!


This was available exercise in that it showed the range of signifieds and potential signifiers. What stood out through this approach to analysing the adverts was just how repetitive some of the signifieds are. Like a repetitive voice in the background all leading to the message, buy this to be young and no one will notice!


Message and connotationWhat is the advert trying to say?

This is a high quality product, you and others won’t notice you are wearing that will make you look younger, its is backed scientifically and endorsed by external referees with credibility.

None of the above may actually be true but I think the advert is selling as Williams(1987) suggests an alternative ‘you’ and not just a can of product!

The analysis of this one advert shows the power of symbols, both in the text and the picture elements and how both support each other in the creation of an illusion about self, that transcends the idea of a can of cream that you spray on yourself.

There is a lot to learn from this exercise but I am left with a sense that it is the text in advertising that is vital, the visual element and the image lend weight I feel, but can enhance an idea the advert is selling.  But for me it is what is written  and how it is written that the real selling takes place. I have really worked hard to avoid text in my assignments to date in an attempt to get pictures to speak for themselves. Coming out of this exercise I am going to hunt down some text free advert, if there are any. I will report back!



Cobley, P, & Jansz, L. (1997) Introducing Semiotics, Icon Books , London

Hall ,S. (2007) This Mean This -This Mean That-A users guide to semiotics Laurence King Publ., London

Williams, J. (1987)Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, Marion Boyers Publ., London



Assignment 3 Feedback and reflections


I was pleased with my feedback for this assignment, particularly given the challenges that this assignment presented to me. As stated in my peroration notes i am far more used to being behind the camera than in front of it and I arrived at a very individual take of the brief. I also learned a lot along the way, not least how it would have been helpful to have an assistant for this sort of work. 

Using my now standard review methodology, I highlight the strengths my tutor identified as ell as the limitation and the areas for further study

The full tutor feedback can be found here:  j-o-tutor-report-3

As with other assignments i set out my thoughts I response to my tutor:

Dear Matthew,

Many thanks for your feedback on assignment three, as ever it is very helpful and thought provoking. I did find this assignment a challenge but enjoyed the whole exercise, the diary writing, the thinking, the execution and the technical aspects. It was very different, particularly the diary production and this whole way of working from a self-produced text. I agree about the images of the diary on my desk, the scribbles and comments on the diary copies perhaps form a different response to the assignment.

Images of my work, writing and OCA activity on my desk are a sort of ongoing project that spans across my OCA studies to date. Spurred on by a single polaroid image I made in June 1985. That year I left a bricks and mortar university and my abiding memory of it was an empty Formica desk with a single and permanent stain from a coffee cup on its empty surface. My ongoing collection of images of my desk at home with the activity from my OCA journey has become a personal project which counters the single polaroid from my past!

The assignment also brought home the ongoing dilemma I have about whether there should be any accompanying text with an image. This has been a recurring theme through each assignment in C&N. I am still working at not including text, although some of the reflection you offered regarding the assignment and in particular, how it would appear to a viewer, could perhaps be partially resolved with some excerpts from the diary that make direct reference to things I had written that link to the texts I was reading at the time. It was these elements of writing in the dairy and the observations of my diary reviewers that led to the selection of the texts I used as masks in the self-portraits. That said I think I still prefer to avoid the use of text to make me think about how an image might speak for itself. I recognise though that I still have a way to go on making my images talk for themselves.

Your comment about using a wider context of the background is interesting. In my initial experiments, I did try some images using a 14mm (21mm full frame equivalent) lens to show much more of the context in which the image was made. Some of the images I liked but I also felt the focus on the principle subject was reduced. I think I would again perhaps use a slightly narrower wide angle to include more of the context, particularly because I was trying to say something about me, the text/mask and the environment. I think this brought home to me the balance between a creative and well thought out assignment response balanced within the time available to make the work. This is a useful reflection when thinking about future work. I do sometimes struggle with time and experimentation and to be frank, the work is a compromise to some extent between vision, intent and the ruthlessness of time.

On the date for the next assignment I think the date you have suggested are the ones for this previous assignment, as the due date for the next assignment is that date for the submission of assignment three. I’d be grateful if you could let me have a date for assignment 4, it helps me focus and manage workload and time.

On a final note, I am in the process of looking at a number of images that might form the basis of the assignment four essay. When I have narrowed this list down to two or three I will drop you a line to get your thoughts

Again, many thanks for your comments and commentary, I genuinely find them helpful.

Best wishes


PS, I really like the reference to Fahrenheit 451, I hadn’t thought of that while making the work, but I could perhaps be a character in it, I am pushed to choose which book I might consume and become but it would probably be Becker’s outsiders or Funder’s Stasiland!

Assignment 3 Submission

The semi absented portrait – hiding in plain sight

“Sharing your [book] shelf is sharing yourself – showcasing the building blocks that have crafted your knowledge, personality, and identity.”

 Knox (2012)









Context, Preparation and Execution

A full description of the preparation and planning for this assignment can be found on my blog here:

In brief though I completed a diary as suggested in the course materials. My diary was written over 21 days and was in many respects a collection of the thoughts that came into my head at the end of each day. It wasn’t a slavish account of the all the events of the day, although it did refer to things that took place during the day. The diary was then reviewed by four people I know. Each gave me their thoughts about what the diary said about me. Although my diary reviewers all made unique contributions to this task the single factor that stood out most in their review comments were my reading, my commitment to make time to read and the material that I read. This objective observation became the catalyst for this assignment.

In reading the course materials I had been struck particularly by the work of Gillian Wearing and Trish Morrissey. In different ways, they both use a wide definition of the concept of the self-portrait to explore different aspects of identity. Both artists have work that looks at family identity, or indeed multiple identities. ‘Mimmickery’ is a feature too of their exploratory approach. Morrissey takes this approach further and her: ‘Ten People in a Suitcase’ is a mix of performance and investigation. While reading Baylis’s (2016) review of this work it was her comment:

‘Morrissey works to embody the lives of the subjects she has chosen and to speak of what those connections mean to her.’

 Considering this work coincided with reading an article I found in the Guardian while researching something for a presentation at work. An article by Knox (2012) entitled: What does your bookshelf say about you? In the article Knox encourages us to take a picture of our bookshelves to share this image with others as it can say so much about who we are, but more importantly why we are the person we are. He further suggests:

“Sharing your shelf is sharing yourself – showcasing the building blocks that have crafted your knowledge, personality, and identity. “

I thought of photographing a bookshelf or collection of books as a still life and exploring this idea as an absented portrait, but I then came up with the idea of being the bookshelf, in a semi absented traditional style portrait. It was this idea upon which I developed the work for this assignment.

Technical information

All the images were made using a crop sensor camera (1.5x crop factor) and using a single prime focus 60mm lens (equating to 90mm on a full Frame camera). The images were recorded as RAW files, processed in Lightroom then converted to Jpegs, 1500 pixels on the long side and in Adobe (RGB) colour space. A second set was made ready for sending to a commercial printer as TIFF Files in sRGB colour space and the file size specified by the commercial printer. Given the brief of a portrait image I chose the 60/90mm focal length because it was reasonably fast at f2.4 and it would allow the subject to be isolated from the background in a shallow but sharp depth of field. This assignment presented some new challenges, not least that I would not be behind the camera. Initially I enlisted a family member to help but this proved problematic. My family member assistant non-photographer they were unable to get the focus correct in the shallow depth of field that I needed. Also, there were availability issues as I made the images over a week in a variety of different locations.

Being creative and using a bit of a Heath Robinson approach, I used the camera on a tripod and set up a second tripod as a stand for the book that would be in the image and the area of key focus.

This created a precise zone to focus on the achieve the sharp but shallow depth of field images I was pre visualising. I used the camera in manual focus mode and set the scene up. Then using a cable release and self-timer I set about making the images. Some were made at home; others were made in two different city locations that I happened to be in during December. I did illicit some strange looks and comments from passersby but this is becoming a feature of my OCA assignment activity!


Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I think there is some technical competence demonstrated in several the images. This is set against the backdrop of the technical challenges taking pictures of yourself creates. Even using my multiple tripod technique there are some images I am much happier about than others. I think there is a coherence to the set of images and I think I meet the brief of the assignment. There is of course room for improvement and If I did this activity again I would enlist the assistance of a competent photographer as an assistant. This would allow for far more experimentation. I felt constrained to some extent using my ‘one man’ methodology.

Quality of outcome

I believe the outcomes meets the brief of the assignment and there is some technical competence in the images submitted. I also recognize that some are stronger than others. I am far better practiced in natural light than in artificial light. The latter is an area I need to develop my skill in. I think there is reference to the work of part three of the course in my images and if nothing else the work raises some questions and issue about identity. The approach I have taken to this assignment might be interpreted as clichéd, but I think there is the kernel of an approach self-portraiture worthy of some further exploration and experimentation.

Demonstration of creativity

I have engaged with the material cited in the course around the theme of ‘putting yourself in the picture’. I have also read and researched beyond the material. This preparation supported in the production of this work. I have tried to use some of the simple tropes of formal and informal portrait images in a different manner. I have used the idea of a mask and hiding in plan site to respond to the brief in a personal manner. I think the resulting work is an ‘oblique’ form of self-portrait revealing things about self and identity. I am pleased with the outcome but recognise I am merely scratching the surface of a potential  vein of self-expression.


This was a genuinely engaging assignment to work on that made me think in different way. I also had to manage some technical as well as creative challenges to achieve the images that I visualized. I have partially managed this and feel this assignment responds to the brief but has more potential than perhaps my images at this stage present. As with all my OCA work I press on with a journey that test me but also offer insight and challenge.



Boothroyd, S. (2015) Context and Narrative, Open College of the Arts, Barnsley

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph, OUP, Oxford

Clarke, G. (1992) The Portrait in Photography – Critical Views, Reaction Press, Seattle

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames and Hudson, London

Zohar, A. (2011) The Elu[va]sive Portrait: Mimicry, Masquerade and Camouflage-Conceptual and Theoretical Notes, an Introduction, Trans Asia Photography Review, found at:;rgn=main (Accessed December 2016)

Derrida and deconstruction: some initial thoughts


The idea that language isn’t fixed and and can be malleable is on that I find ver accessible. In many years of work with children and adults with autistic spectrum disorders the flexible and at times counter intuitive nature of colloquial language is a feature of one of the principle barriers to those with autism understanding the world around them. The rules of language are not taught but rather gained through layers of successive interaction. This personal perspective on language is my starting point to trying to make sense of Derrida and the semiotic.

Also in true ‘Derridian’ style I have to challenge the statement in the course materials that reading as book takes as much effort as writing a book. Whilst I do think there is tremendous effort involved to properly read a book, i think the effort of writing a book can be all together a more herculean task!

What i think i do like about my initial reading around the work of Derrida is the challenge to a prevailing orthodoxy that sometimes says we shouldn’t challenge the ideas of the learned. The idea that scepticism and challenge are helpful in making sense of the world and that questions are perhaps the best response to a piece of writing or a piece of art and irrespective of the author or artists original intent, the reader or viewer has just as much right to their personal and unique interoperation of that work.

That said, I can see that there are common signs and symbols that lead a more common sense of underrating and interoperation. The colour read for example tends to mean danger, alert or risk and in images red has come to signify something that can be hard to define but has some universal ideas about interpretation.

I will read some more Derrida!


Exercise: Elliot Erwitt, New York, 1974

Before you read any further, look carefully at Erwitt’s image and write some notes about how the subject matter is placed within the frame. How has Erwitt structured this image? What do you think the image is ‘saying’? How does the structure contribute to this meaning?


New York, 1974: Copyright Elliot Erwitt

Magnum Agency photographer Elliot Erwitt is renowned for his humorous images of people and their dogs. There is something of the surrealist about his work and he combines a decisive moment with skilful composition and viewpoint. 




This image is no exception and there is much to glean from some analysis and reflection on the image, not least the composition that Erwitt has created. It is skilfully constructed from a low angle. There are both horizontal and vertical lines of composition creating a foreground, mid ground and distant ground which provide a depth and sense of place. This sense of horizontal planes is created through the use of focus and depth of field. There are also some vertical lines seen in the legs of the large dog and the human owner. There is also two scaled boxes one large with the legs in and one small with the small dog in. This alone creates a sense of focus and also differential power.

The image immediately present potential narratives that to me centre around the key element, the small dog  that stares out at the viewer. The small dog is the only subject iinthe image that we see in full. Although we know there is another, much bigger dog and a human in the scene we have limited information about them and we are forced to make some assumptions. It is in making assumptions we the view can construct a narrative.

There is an immediate sense of humour to the image but as I explore the image further it reveals more information. The simplest narrative is one of the family, the human and dog legs linked to the image of the small dog might suggest a family. This idea is simultaneously funny and dark. There is a strong sense of power and or the imbalance of power, the leash on the small dog is a clear signifier of differing power relations with the small do, however cute and central in the image, it is under someones control

The composition through its layers and use of relative sze emphasis this differential sense of power. As a final note the little dog is dressed up. Is this funny or is it demeaning, whose needs are being met by the dog wearing clothes, the dog with it’s own natural fur coat or its owner desire to make the dog appear in a particular way? In this there is something political too about this image. 

Erwitt looks for humour in his human/dog compositions, his framing and cropping and his ability to see the decisive moment reveal  some deeper messages about the human condition, our relationship with dogs and the absurd in the everyday.

I just love this work!!!


Erwitt, E. (2012) Dogs, teNeues, Paris

Can you think of any photographs that are not used as a means of expression communication? Some thoughts

This is very hard! Whether an image is made with artistic, commercial or personal intent it will have some meaning and be about some form of communication to someone. In thinking about the question I though about Eric Kessell’s : Dealing with the flood, the installation illustrating the there volume of images being produced in the world. How many of these images are about expression or communication. At some level all might be?


Prints and Negatives 2013-2016

I also pondered on my significant volume of images made over time. At the time I made an image I had some intention, although using this exercise as an excuse to delve into my archive of photos and negatives a random selection suggests that the original intent was may be lost!

There are of course images made automatically, speed cameras, security cameras, airport x-ray machines, Metallurgical images, engineering ultra sound images, all of the above are about capturing or revealing something, but not communicating a message or representing expression. the list could go on with  other images made for the purpose of capturing information. Do these images communicate some thing, I am unsure. They do reveal information, the the driver breaking the law or the crack in a component, but is this communication? They have a specific purpose which is not a means of expression.

I will ponder further on this though!


Dent, G. (2013) Dealing with the Flood found at: (accessed April 2016)

Pierre Beteille- Reflecting on assignment 3 feedback

© Pierre Beteille

Pierre betteille is a french photographer who produces whimsical but also thought provoking images. Although he studied fine art, he is a self taught photographer, his work has been used in advertising campaigns and his distinctive high dynamic range images , some of which involve significant post processing ( in photoshop I assume), are strangely engaging.

My tutor suggested I looked this work in the feedback to assignment three. There was a logic to this suggestion when I started to look through Beteille images, some of which were him holding books, the approach I had taken in the assignment. The significant difference being that i used the books to hide in plain site i my work where Beteille uses the book as a prop. Below is a contrast between my approach and his.

© Pierre Beteille

In this image the arts holds a copy of Camus 1947 novel ‘La Peste’ about a plague sweeping through the French Algerian city of Oran. Beteille’s facial expression and his use of rubber gloves to hold the novel, presumably to avoid catching something from it tell the view something about its content withouts necessarily being familiar with this work. Bettie encode a lot of information about the book is a single image, whilst whimsical at first glance there is far more to this image than first meets the eye.

In the image above, one of a set from assignment three I use the biook as a mask, it is the only one of the images that relates to my professional role, the other images represent my interests  and passions. I can see that the comments made by my tutor about how the images would be read by other left a lot unresolved. Yo need certain information that I haven’t provided in order to decode the image. It does make me think whether I needed to use captions. that said the Beteille images need no captions.

© Pierre Beteille

Reflecting oin Beteille, my own work and the feedback from assignment three, i think i need to look at how i can use more creative visual elements, perhaps the use of humour as a vehicle to tell a wider story. the next assignment is an essay so this will need to wait until assignment 5.

That said the Beteille images have made me thing about image content and that is before I even think about image qualities. it is worth noting that there is a real HDR quality  , almost hyper real to al the Beteille images I found. I am not sure how I feel about this. i am not really a fan of this style of picture, there is something of the unnatural about them, however i think i should do some experiment with this approach to see the impact it has on the making of meaning, which seems to be the Holy Grail I am seeking!!!


www. (Accessed March 2017)