Category Archives: Part 3 assignment prep

A change of plan – photography ‘en abyme’

As part of the feedback I received at the recent Thames Valley Group meeting, our tutor Jayne suggested I read Craig Owens’ essay Photography “en abyme”. This was, I realised later,  a response to my photograph of the cut-out figures shown below.


Fortunately the essay is available to download and the link is here: It is not the easiest of reads, and my summary also relies on the explanation to be found in Chapter 5 of Gelder & Westgeest’s Photography Theory in Historical Perspective.

Owens uses the image below, Bal des Quatre Saisons by Brassaï as the starting point for his argument.

Bal des Quatre Saisons by BressaÏ

At a superficial reading, it appears to be a standard image of a party scene, but as one looks at it in more detail, the viewer becomes aware that

a complex web of internal reduplications deflects attention away from that which, despite the status of photographs as imprints of the real, remain external to the image: the reality it depicts. Psychological and sociological details are thus displaces by the network of internal relationships between subject, mirror and other, which structures the image. Owens, 1978, 73

The image shows two couples and three other people. At first glance, it appears the two couples might be the same, but slowly the realisation  dawns that the pair in the mirror are sitting opposite the three people at the front of the image and are only visible in the mirror’s reflection. I had originally considered whether the mirror was in fact a window, through which one can see into another room, but this is not the case. The two couples seem to mirror each other’s positioning in a way that Desmond Morris (see refs) would find interesting, while the other people in the image are a separate but integral part of the scene. The girl on the left appears to be looking at someone outside the frame, while the woman at the back is looking directly at the photographer, albeit through the mirror. So, the photographer is part of the image, despite not being visible.

The strange duplications and reflected connections extend much further than this, but only add detail to the argument. The point is that the mirror references the analogical definition of the photograph as a mirror of reality.

Because the mirror image doubles the subjects – which is exactly what the photograph itself does – it functions as a reduced internal image of the photograph. The mirror reflects not only the subject depicted, but also the entire photograph. It tells us in a photograph what a photograph is – en abyme. Owens, 1978, 75)

In simple terms, en abyme is a term from literary theory, which refers to a small part of a text that reproduces the whole thing in miniature, in this case an internal mirror that provides an explanation for the whole scene. However, there is more to it than that. The Youtube lecture by Prof. Michael Paraskos below posits the notion that an idea mise en abyme can offer the viewer the possibility of seeing an alternative reality, one that is not imprisoned by our current cultural norms. Paraskos uses the concepts of mirrors and windows, as has been outlined in the course materials, but rather than “windows”, he explains the idea as a “looking glass”, (from Lewis Carroll) in which one can see the possibility of a different reality, unrelated to our current world, and not bound by any underlying assumptions that we take for granted. He theorises that in this zone, there is the possibility of producing new, creative art. It is a complex lecture, and I probably do not need to go into more detail than that for the purposes of this post. Where it is relevant is that the en abyme concept can be used to describe “mirrors and windows” in a different way to that suggested in our coursework.

This theory above is where I would like to place my assignment, and my idea is to use the concept mise en abyme to consider whether what we see through a mirror is reality or something different. Thus, although the assignment will use mirrors as props for the work, the overall result is a study of the windows concept, or the looking glass which Paraskos describes.

(Incidentally, I am left wondering whether Bressai’s photograph was deliberately set up to make a point set up or whether the photographer took advantage of a scene already in place.)

In my next post, I will look at some photographers who use mirrors in this way, and consider the test images I have taken so far.


Morris, Desmond. (xxxx


Gelder & Westgeest’s Photography Theory in Historical Perspective.






New considerations about assignment 3



Holly Woodward, 2017

I’ve been rethinking what I want to do for assignment 3, after realising that my previous proposal about people who are missing from the current visual narrative might be a bit easy and too similar in visual content to the previous assignments, and therefore a cop-out. So, the need to look elsewhere for ideas has led to the idea of mindfulness and transience, about which I have been thinking a lot lately, and there is a project niggling away there that I have yet to full pin down. It has to do with the flashes of understanding about the experience of “Now” that come to us suddenly, and unbidden and all too infrequently in our busy modern lives. Having recently watched Guillaume Néry’s wonderful TED talk about the experience of free diving, a phrase he used strongly resonated for me – the journey between two breaths.

One could interpret this in two ways. Either the journey from birth to death and how transient our lives really are, OR as the gaps/flashes of understanding that come unbidden, such as Guillaume Nery describes. The latter is dependent on taking the time to experience life on a fully present, moment by moment basis. I have referred to this previously in this post: and it has been a feature of my photography approach from the beginning.

Alongside this, there has recently been a thread on the OCA Facebook page about how our work for the OCA may differ totally from what we choose to photograph and to print for framing in our non-OCA lives, and my own feeling is that I want to combine the two, rather than keeping OCA work separate in its content and style. While I was happy with the subject and outcome of my last assignment (no. 2), I did not feel it reflected “me” in any way at all.

So, I’ve been mindmapping and researching photographers who work in the style I prefer and there is a link to the mindmap below


At present, the three photographers whose work I need to look at in more detail are Uta Barth, Emanuella de Ruiter and Cassandra Kapsos and I think I would like to do this through a series of semi-abstracts, possibly of light through the day or the coming growth of spring. My first idea was a series on the water of the River Ray from its source to its junction with the Thames viewed in a contemplative way, but after the mindmap exercise, I realised that I want to work with the idea of transience as an inner journey of the mind, rather than something physical. There will/may be time for that if I do the Landscape module. However, I also want to review work by people such as Paul Kenny, who uses natural found materials to express the idea of Now.

The references below have been parked here as they aided my decision making process. They may or may not feature in the finished assignment.

Roni Horn – Still water

Not the right idea, as she is talking about the Thames in terms of looking for something that she knows is there, but needs more time to find. I’m approaching from the opposite point of view – what is there is what is important now. – this one is important – so is this – and this. Most of her work is relevent – serendipity of damaged images saying more than the originals – multimedia event – good blog article


Note on ideas for assignment 3

A couple of ideas have so far presented themselves to me, and I now need to think them through in more detail.

  1. A study of the Victoria Cross event which will be happening in the village in April, showing behind the scenes and the event itself. (Window – as I will not specifically be involved myself, but functioning in an observatory capacity). It would be relatively straightforward, and continue with the themes of village life which I have explored in previous work.
  2. A response to my frustration that middle aged people, and particularly women seem to be an almost completely invisible group in advertising and are hugely under-represented in literature and visual media unless they are functioning in a business capacity. I need to work on the background to this, with a feminist perspective, but my initial thoughts are along the lines of a series of diptych images, of local group scenes with the middle aged women blanked out, and then portraits of them alongside, explaining who they are. I did a quick test as an example below.

img_2168-ass-3-trialThis would be accompanied by individual portraits of the people, with a short explanation of how they would describe themselves, e.g. in the above photo – Holly, photography student and local councillor; Bronwen, author and creative arts teacher; Sandra, TEFL teacher and runner. This is definitely a Mirrors piece, in the same vein as Exercise 3.2 and I need to think over who would be the best candidates to ask to participate, as they need to be willing to show something about how they see themselves in the individual portraits.

Thinking a bit further about how the individual portraits might be set, I also need to pin down how the portraits should be set and the type of gaze they include. Direct would indicate, “Here I am. Look at me, please!”, while Averted might give a more diffused feel. My initial reaction would be for Averted, but on reflection I think that it continues the trope about invisibility, but in a voluntary, almost participatory way. The more I think about it, the more complex and important the gaze will be to the series.