Decoding the Vanitas

Different objects on a black background - a bone, tulip, music score, cherries & lemon

Decoding the Vanitas

In creating the Vanitas series I took some time thinking about the denotations and connotations I wanted to use. While I want the viewer to draw their own conclusions from the images the following gives some background to why I have included the elements and objects I have.

Contemplating Mortality

Stems from my own mortality and answering the question –  ‘what are your vanities?’

  • Frame: References how we frame our lives and the frames of references we use, also consideration of whether we are reframing mortality with the digital afterlife
  • Satin cloth: the flow of life with all its ups and downs, folds and wrinkles
  • Dutch doll (an obvious link to the origins of the genre) and the book: Both given to me by relatives (my Dad and my Nanny Langley) who have been dead for some years. The book refers to early Vanitas in that knowledge was regarded as temporary and a vanity
  • Cut Flowers: Both flowers represent the frailty of life, as cut flowers they will soon fade. The Tulip references historical Vanitas and the Sunflower is my favourite flower, a personal vanity
  • Boxing gloves: My amateur boxing award, the vanity of ‘success.’ Also about corporeal frailty and the mixed attitudes around women boxing
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland charm bracelet: jewellery as one of my vanities, but also a metaphor for my research work (the vanity of knowledge), Alice has featured symbolically in a number of my papers and is part of my business website
  • Music score: Music is ephemeral once played, and I play the flute badly
  • Hex Bug mouse (a cat toy): Recognition of my aging being measured in cat ownership – I will be in my seventies if my two Maine Coons live as long as some of my moggies did.
  • Pixelated shell: Speaks of the growing industry around digital afterlife (there are over 30 million Facebook accounts belonging to dead people). It also represents death and refers back to Vanitas when exotic shells were included as a symbol of wealth.
  • Egg timer: the passage of time

Feminist and Feminine

  • Frame: It is a formal and slightly ornate frame as an historical reference. The breaking of the frame is acknowledgement of the early women artists challenging the art system in their own ways
  • Cherries and Lemon: references to Clara Peeters (1580/1590 – in or around 1621), Fede Galizia (1578 – 1630), Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), and Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750)
  • Satin cloth: A reference to bridal wear or maybe virginity
  • Peony: a ‘blousy’ flower speaking of the softly feminine and acknowledging earlier Vanitas. As a flower it also has a lifecycle
  • Butterflies: Also an earlier reference but they are left blank in recognition of these women often being ignored and side-lined in historical accounts
  • My signature: Added, because I can do so without recourse to another authority. Something early women painters could not do unless they were allowed to join a Guild or were accepted into the Academy
  • Compact mirror: A reference to Vanitas symbolism (the mirror directly representing vanity) and the complex relationship between femininity, feminism and gender stereotyping

Mother Earth

  • Frame: Frames of reference with regard to the climate change debate and the challenge of changing behaviours
  • Earth: an inflatable globe showing the decline of the planet
  • Tulip: The influence of capitalism, the Tulip being a symbol of the first big economic crash
  • Plastic bottles and the tin: mass production and mass consumption
  • Flat peaches in a packet: Our increasingly distanced relationship to food , nature and our environment in the West
  • Shell: The impact we are having on the sea. Shells were once included as a demonstration of wealth and vanity they are now part of mass consumption and can be bought cheaply online for fish tanks. This is having an impact on our seas
  • Plastic cloth: In this image the backdrop is a deliberately more chaotic plastic cloth. The cloth will most likely outlive me and is also about the impact of mass production of plastics
  • Bones: Symbols of death. They are chicken bones so they also relate to mass production and humankind attitudes to other animals


Assignment 5: Making it up – Impermanence and Mortality

“The Vanitas still life painting is designed to remind the viewer that death frames our possession of the object world; indeed that our possessions are capable of outliving us, thus rendering the ownership of things illusory.” (Wynne, 2016)

Inspired by a visit to Bow Arts to see Neudecker’s Plastic Vanitas this series draws on the tradition of Vanitas still life to explore notions of impermanence and mortality.

Contemplating Impermanence is a personal journey through mortality. It echoes some of the original Vanitas symbolism combined with personal objects (detailed connotations are included in my learning log). This image includes items that were given to me by family members who have been dead for some time and now have a potency for me that sits at the intersection of life and death. The pixelated shell questions how we might be re-framing our lives and mortality given the growing industry around digital afterlife (there are now over 30 million Facebook accounts belonging to dead people).

Feminist and Feminine is a statement about the role of women in art and the relationship of women artists to still life. It contains references to some of the major female still life painters from the 16th – 18th Centuries. It also raises issues of feminism and femininity. The breaking of the frame in this image, is about flow through time, and acknowledges how these women challenged the system in their own ways. My signature is added, because I can do so without recourse to another authority. Something early women painters could not do unless they were allowed to join a Guild or were accepted into the Academy.

Mother Earth takes me to the ultimate issue of impermanence, and references the actions and impact of humankind on our planet. The influence of capitalism (the Tulip), mass production (plastics) and mass consumption (rubbish). Our increasingly distanced relationship in the West to food (flat peaches in plastic). The impact we are having on land and sea (the shell and plastics). In this image the backdrop is a deliberately more chaotic plastic cloth.


  • Mariele Neudecker for her permission to feature her images in my learning log
  • The women who broke new ground – Rachel Ruysch, Clara Peeters, Giovanna Garzoni and Fede Galizia
  • The Thames Valley Group and FB OCA Photography Level 1 Group

References and citations

Wynne, D. (2016). Women and personal property in the Victorian novel. London: Routledge.


Assignment 5: The ‘Impermanence and Mortality’ development process

Plastic Vanitas’ was very thought provoking. Having done previous assignments on fertility (assignment two), and my life (assignment three) it seemed like a natural next step to be considering death in my final assignment.

I started by creating some personal Vanitas still lives, using contemporary connotations to recreate the original style. These never became more than quick ‘sketches’ because I knew very quickly this approach was not distinctive enough. I also wanted something that looked and felt more contemporary while still using the signification of the original genre. One of the issues for me was that that the first sketches felt too cluttered so the next step was to strip everything back and using fewer referents see if I could achieve a similar signification.

I worked with Tulips because of their links to the Dutch Vanitas tradition (1600 -1800) and also because they could show the signs of decay as the petals fall. The Shell and bone, also elements of life and death, were placed sparingly on a crumpled white cloth a connotation of the peaks and troughs of life. This felt more along the lines of what I was trying to achieve and while I was happier with these results it still felt as though I hadn’t pushed it far enough.

In looking again at some of the original Vanitas paintings I started to think more about the frame, and how in some of the earlier paintings the elements deliberately flow forward, off the table and to the edge of the frame. Framing in both physical and metaphorical terms became the key to the next transition. The ‘frame’ became important in terms of it being a mechanism for containing the image; referring to different frames of reference; considering how we frame our lives (from birth to death) and so on. I had recently done a Photoshop exercise on creating the illusion of breaking through the image plane and decided this was the next step.

I wanted to see if I could create an image that made direct reference to challenging the boundary of the frame, therein representing the passage of time from birth to death and whatever lies beyond. In this I was also drawing on Schaverien’s (1999) psychoanalytic notion of the photographic frame creating a safe container for our anxieties, I wanted to break that safety and see what happened when the elements flowed out.


Before even attempting it in Photoshop I then made some physical collages using some of the elements in my sketchbook. This was particularly helpful in deciding whether they should be portrait or landscape. It also reinforced the need for the black background rather than white. I showed my sketchbook and first digital attempts to the Thames Valley Photography group and got some very helpful feedback:

  • Consider if I was moving too far from the original Vanitas inspiration
  • Perhaps make it more personal – what are my vanities?
  • Think about drawing out the feminist issues further
  • Consider making a physical collage of the photographs rather than doing it in Photoshop

This led me to thinking about producing the series of three rather than a single image. The themes arose from our group discussion and I then worked on them in my sketchbook, creating a list of possible symbols under each theme. The idea of considering individual, group and global mortality really appealed to me and while I initially waivered because of the amount of work involved for each image I decided I wanted to give it a try. The props were a mix of those I had around my home and a few that I purchase specially, including the cut flowers. I found I had chosen to do this right at the end of the Tulip season so could not access the more exotic varieties I had wanted and had to work quickly with those I did manage to find! All the props were then shot individually in natural light on a table top infinity background.

While continuing to be still lives I have tried to introduce a sense of movement, a flow through time. I wasn’t sure if I could achieve it with my Photoshop skills but I have come pretty close to what I was hoping to achieve. I may still move on to create further physical collages. Looking back it feels like the development process has a natural flow to it and the combination of research, talking to other students and experimenting feels like it paid off.


  • Mariele Neudecker for her permission to feature her images in my learning log
  • The women who broke new ground – Rachel Ruysch, Clara Peeters, Giovanna Garzoni and Fede Galizia
  • The Thames Valley Group and FB OCA Photography Level 1 Group

References and citations

Schaverien, J. (1999). The Revealing Image: Analytical Art Psychotherapy in Theory and in Practice. London: Routledge.

Wynne, D. (2016). Women and personal property in the Victorian novel. London: Routledge.



Project 2 Reading Pictures: Decoding advertising

Exercise: Select an advertising image 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. Come back to this exercise when you’ve finished Part Four and see if you can add anything to your analysis.

I got quite absorbed in this exercise and ended up using several examples rather than just one. I deliberately chose a varied set including a few that could be regarded as iconic. I also included a couple that might be thought of as breaking with the norm in terms of advertising including the Dove Real Beauty campaign and Radiance (L’Oreal) with Helen Mirren.

I looked at each in turn and started with an intuitive response, then considered their composition and structure looking at lighting in particular. I also tried to identify the signifiers and signified. The variety in the product placement was interesting, in two cases (Obsession & Radiance) there was no obvious product image included at all. Having done the short course with Karl Taylor in January the No5 ad reminded me that he said he always uses graduated lighting on his products shoots to signify luxury. The ads use a variety of gazes in terms of the models involved, they all include people, and they use a range of backgrounds from solid black to outdoor. Based on my interpretations the ads signified different things depending on the brand (not all I imagine are what the advertisers would want):

  • Dove – all women are beautiful (I have mixed views about the campaign bearing in mind it is still a commercial product)
  • No5 – success, achievement, glamour, aspirational
  • Obsession – danger, intrusive, vulnerability (I still find this ad quite disturbing even more so having read some of its backstory and realising Kate Moss was 17 at the time)
  • Calvin Klein – health and well-being, strength and flexibility, an aspirational body
  • Levis Roadwear – freedom, free spirit, following your dreams
  • Rolex – achievement, success, breaking boundaries and exploration, life changing achievements (There is an odd dissonance in that I had read the figure as Amilia Earhart but the factoid is about the sound barrier being broken in 1947)
  • Radiance – strong, empowered, visibility, self-esteem, growing old with dignity and flair

In looking back at my initial thoughts I think I was reasonably comfortable with reading the advertisements but what I did not have at that point was the language to fully express the relationships between referent systems.

Reading Williamson (1978) and Hall  (2012) highlighted different elements I was able to then apply. The aspect I found most useful from Hall was that of the linking notion or the ‘abstract concepts’ (Hall, 2012: 54) that connect signifier and signified and that this can be thought of in metaphorical terms. For example, the No5 ad with Nicole Kidman where she is placed in metaphorical relationship with the perfume associating it with beauty, glamour and success, Hall describes it in terms of a form of transference.

Having a deeper framework for analysis provided by the reading and the exercises in this section has added to the depth of my understanding. What I found particularly interesting was making comparisons across the set of advertisements to see the different techniques that have been adopted. It seems to me their core referent systems are based around the fact that however sophisticated these signs are they are ultimately designed to sell products and make money for those paying the ad agencies. This in turn ties their reading into wider economic, cultural and social systems.

The decoder of advertisements is no longer a passive colluding reader but a critical reader, revealing and effectively denying the efficacy of the process of meaning transference.(Harvey, 2011)

References and citations

Hall, S. (2012). This Means This This Means That: A user’s guide to semiotics. London: Laurence King Publishing.

Harvey, L. (2011). Class: Judith Williamson – Decoding Advertisements  Retrieved 28th February, 2016, from

Williamson, J. (1978). Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and meaning in advertising. London: Calder and Boyers.



In Search of Semiotics

So, I understand that semiotics is defined as ‘everything that can be taken as a sign’ (Eco, 1976: 7) and I understand it has what sometimes appears to be a complex set of characteristics. But frankly, I am confused about what it actually is. Is it a discipline, is it an epistemology, is it a methodology, is it a collection of methods, is it a philosophy or is it some sort of cultural studies cult?

I accept this may be as a result of my own ignorance, I may not have read the right books or papers, it is certainly possible I have not read enough of them but trying to fathom this out is not proving easy. It seems to sit within a social constructionist and interpretative paradigm but while some authors surface this others do not. I think this is partly why I felt such frustration in reading Jobey’s account of ‘Young Brooklyn Family.’

I have been trying to find critiques of semiotics and a few have surfaced but they seem to be far from the norm. Given my personality type (as explored in assignment three) it is perhaps little surprise that I was becoming increasingly sceptical about the apparent lack of a counter-narrative to semiotics, or at least some debate of its shortcomings. Although some semiotic analysts do refer to interpretation and some also acknowledge wider contextual factors not all do as I found with Jobey. It is hard sometimes to distinguish interpretations from those presented as fact.

As someone who has been involved with ethnographic research I am familiar with positivistic arguments being made against interpretative methodologies as well as having to be clear about the criteria against which the research can be judged. I have seen very little of this in the texts I have read so far around semiotics. That is not to suggest they are not there, it may just be that I have not encountered them to date.

I was pleased to find one paper that does offer a critique in a way that is coherent, comprehensible and resonated with my experience. Chandler (2002) offers various criticisms, in summary:

  1. The boundaries of semiotics seem to be ever expanding and have become so fluid it can now encompass almost every academic discipline – what Chandler refers to as the ‘imperialism’ of semiotics
  2. Semioticians are not always explicit about the limitations of their techniques
  3. There is an absence of transparency in the analysis of signs, implying they are objective realities rather than subjective interpretations
  4. Some analyses appear to have a preoccupation with classification which has a tendency to ‘downplay the affective domain’ and in doing so moves away from the subjective creating the illusion of objectivity
  5. Structural semiotics is only concerned with textual structure and in doing so negates the wider cultural context in which the text sits. In not taking account of the cultural context the impact of power structures, hierarchies and wider social constructs are ignored. As Chandler (2002) notes ‘the relationships between signifiers and their signified may be ontologically arbitrary but they are not socially arbitrary.’
  6. There is a concern that much of semiotics has become associated with a simple process of ‘decoding’. For me this has an ontological implication in that it suggests there is a single reality or truth to be uncovered if you know how to read the signs correctly

Semioticians have recognised some of these shortcomings and Chandler (2002) goes on to describe the ‘turn’ to the social and post-structuralism, which has an equal concern with both structure and process.

I am pleased I took time to think about this further and it has helped reassure me that it is not necessarily something I am missing, this is in fact a complex and contested field. In terms of responding to my initial question of ‘what is semiotics’ it may be easier to think about what it is not and here I am inclined to agree with Chandler (2002) when he states:

Semiotics is not, never has been, and seems unlikely ever to be, an academic discipline in its own right. It is now widely regarded primarily as one mode of analysis amongst others rather than a ‘science’ of cultural forms.

References and citations:

CHANDLER, D. 2002. Semiotics for Beginners. Criticisms of Semiotic Analysis [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 16th May 2016].

ECO, U. 1976. A Theory of Semiotics, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press/London: Macmillan.


Assignment Four Reflections

Title: A picture is worth a thousand words

Having looked at a number of submissions for assignment four by other OCA students I have adopted slightly amended self-assessment criteria that provide more scope for reflecting on my essay.

Demonstration of subject based knowledge and understanding

This assignment has helped develop my subject knowledge around visual analysis and really exploring some of the basics of semiotics in particular. My understanding of semiotics has increased although with that has come a questioning of some of its underlying assumptions (see my entry In Search of Semiotics). In completing this essay I also acquired insights into the work of a single photographer and gained an experiential understanding of how I might apply the process I used to my own work and other photographers going forward.

My initial concern that the image might not have been regarded as having enough content has long since been dispelled. I still regard it as a powerful image that offers a depth of meaning (some of my fellow students have also had a similar response on seeing the photograph). Taking the work of an emerging photographer about whom there is not a large established body of knowledge also allowed me to develop my own responses without being unduly influenced by the reviews of others.

I think overall I have demonstrated a grasp of the review process and an understanding of the work of Dara Scully (although I know she would not write about her own work in this academic form).

Demonstration of research skills

I enjoyed the research activity for the essay, which took a number of forms:

  • Gaining more insight into Dara Scully’s photography, her background and her body of work
  • Other relevant photographers/photographs – either similar or different approaches to representing childhood and coming of age
  • Semiotics
  • Reading photographic images – other analysis approaches
  • Psychoanalysis and object relations
  • Theories around childhood and its meaning as a concept

This took longer than I had anticipated but its breadth provided a useful sensitising framework (Bruner, 1996) from which I could develop the depth of my own reading of The Cut. On initial reading of the image I thought I would be using concepts from psychoanalysis and objects relations such as the Mirror Stage (Lacan, 1949)   or Paranoid-Schizoid position (Klein, 1986) or possibly the plait as a transitional object  (Winnicott, 1951) but as my research progressed it was the interpretation of ‘childhood innocence’ that came to the fore.

The research took a process I am familiar with involving cycles of divergent and convergent thinking until my analysis was complete. It also followed a series of iterative stages: data collection, synthesising, analysis, and conclusions.

Demonstration of critical and evaluation skills

I think I have worked through a clear process of critical review and was open to the process taking me in a direction I might not have initially anticipated. I created a framework for the essay that was intended to highlight the interpretative nature of the exercise. The structure for the essay aimed to have a logical flow:

  • Personal reasons for selecting the image
  • Background to the photographer
  • Comparisons
  • Theoretical exploration of the childhood theme
  • Conclusions including a personal reflection

Feedback from other OCA students helped refine the structure and content, although I am not sure this intended structure was evident to all. It felt particularly important to draw out intertexuality as part of the evaluation by highlighting my personal responses to the image as well as considering where it might be placed within the wider field of representing childhood (both in visual and written texts). If I understand the concept correctly this has taken more of a social semiotic approach.

During the process I came across this quote from Chandler (2002):

Semiotic analysis often shows a tendency to downplay the affective domain – though the study of connotations ought to include the sensitive exploration of highly variable and subjective emotional nuances. (Chandler, 2002)

I found this to be an important distinction for me in evaluative terms as the affective domain (i.e. my emotional response) was the foundation for selecting the image in the first place and relates closely to this being an interpretative piece of research rather than an empirical natural science experiment.


Given the complexity of some of the concepts and the depth I could have gone into in relation to the photograph I did find the 1,000-word limit quite challenging. While I am satisfied with the result I know there was more I could have drawn out and explored. That said the word limit was a useful discipline in terms of tightening my language and trying to be clear about the structure. Sharing earlier drafts with some of my fellow students was a useful way of checking how some of the concepts were received by others, and inevitability there were elements I thought I was communicating well that were not clear to others. I am grateful to everyone who spent time to read the essay and comment.

My thanks to Steve Middlehurst for sharing his self-assessment criteria for the essay.

References & citations

BRUNER, E., M 1996. My Life in an Ashram. In: PATTON, M., Q. (ed.) Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. 3 ed. London: Sage Publications.

CHANDLER, D. 2002. Semiotics for Beginners. Criticisms of Semiotic Analysis [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 16th May 2016].

KLEIN, M. 1986. Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms. In: DU GAY, P., EVANS, J. & REDMAN, P. (eds.) Identity: A Reader. London: Sage Publications.

LACAN, J. 1949. The Mirror Stage. In: DU GAY, P., EVANS, J. & REDMAN, P. (eds.) Identity: A Reader. London: Sage Publications.

WINNICOTT, D. W. 1951. Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena. In: WINNICOTT, D. (ed.) Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis. London: Tavistock.


Project 1: The Language of photography – Erwitt exercise


Writing about Erwitt

Exercise: Look carefully at Erwitt’s image, ‘New York, 1974’ make some notes about the structure and the meaning of the photograph.

I did this exercise in my sketchbook early on in Part Four of Context & Narrative, I have found that the physicality of sticking images and writing about them is helpful. For the most part I think I found the compositional elements referred to in the module text – the rule of thirds, possibly a triangular composition, leading lines and so on. The use of juxtaposition is clearly an important visual tool in creating possible confusion in the viewer. For me it took a second to spot the taller dog’s legs and realise it was not two humans standing with the small dog.

I found myself drawn to the eyes of the small dog before I could move on to reading the rest of the photograph. This might be explained by neuroscience’s view that we are hardwired to respond to faces . Now I have come back to my notes I’m not sure I see anything differently so much as having a new language to describe them, i.e., the large dog legs becoming a punctum for me.

If there is a difference it may be that I am more aware of the relationship between denotation and connotation, of what we read into photographs beyond their immediate form. With New York 1974 I now find myself wondering about different metaphors that could be applied in terms of signification – it could be saying something about power relationships, about the human animal, relationships, wealth and exploitation. A myriad of different interpretations could emerge dependent on the context from which I am reading the image.

Decoding the decoding: Liz Jobey review of a Young Brooklyn Family

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. Arbus, 1966

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. Arbus, 1966

The fictions we make about photographs are as unreliable as they are unavoidable.(Jobey, 2005)

This review for me started well with this opening statement, it highlights the interpretative nature of ‘reading’ photographs and reflected some of the critiques I have been looking at in terms of semiotics. However, from this point forward I find myself getting increasingly frustrated about what is to me an apparent melange of denotation and connotation with one sometimes being presented as the other.

Jobey starts with a mix of description and interpretation of the image. Highlighting how the viewer might imagine the lives and futures of the family in the photograph – ‘you can’t help wondering what will become of them.’ In the next few sentences it seems clear the assumption of the reviewer is that their futures are not likely to be bright. The review then moves through a series of phases:

  • Some background to the image
  • Denotation
  • Placing Arbus in context and biographical information
  • Arbus backstory
  • Different perspectives on Arbus’ wider body of work
  • Legacy
  • Denotation
  • Concluding connotation and wider social context

From my perspective the flow is not always clear and moves in and out of the image in an attempt to place both Arbus and the photograph in context. It was not so much the structure that troubled me as some of the statements, which for me blurred the lines between fact and interpretation. Statements like:

  • ‘…you can’t help wondering…’
  • ‘We pity them partly…’
  • ‘…her bland white baby…’
  • ‘They look or their marriage looks, already exhausted…’
  • ‘What is clear…’
  • ‘What is disturbing…’
  • ‘…her appearance seems absurd…’
  • ‘…its power comes from the ordinariness they dispute…’

I highlight these phrases because of their resoluteness and the sense of assuming I as the reader/viewer am complicit in these understandings. In my case there were several points where I did not make the interpretation apparently being made for me and where I felt unsubstantiated projections were being made. Only a couple of times does Jobey allude to an interpretation by saying ‘his expression suggests’ or ‘it is an extension of the impression given’. At no point does she appear to own her interpretations and place them in the first person.

I appreciate it may seem that there is an impertinence in my critique of Jobey’s essay, it is after all a comprehensive review, but going through this process has helped me in thinking about the importance of language and the recognition of the interpretative nature of semiotics. I needed to understand the source of my irritation in reading some of the passages. It has also highlighted the challenge of making personal interpretations and assuming that they can be generalised, something that other social science research methodologies have been grappling with for years in a way I haven’t yet seen to the same degree in this field.


Jobey, L. (2005). A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing , N.Y.C. 1966. In S. Howarth (Ed.), Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs (pp. 67-76). London: Tate Publishing.