On Reflection: Week 12, Module Three

Variations 2.jpgVariations of Composition (Morris, 2017)

Working on the images for the module three Work in Progress portfolio realised an opportunity to explore composition.

More specifically, it was an opportunity to explore subtle variations in composition.

It was a valuable exercise in perceptions.

Furthermore, it enabled me to gather material for a future workshop which is planned.

Playing around with various compositional arrangements took me down quite a philosophical path.

Perceptions operate via various routes simultaneously.

Take, for example, a simple bar of chocolate. In photographic terms, the chocolate itself is irrelevant. Instead, the two factors which are important are the outer wrapping, and the combination of ingredients.

It seems superficial, but from a food photography point of view it is highly relevant. Without a wrapper, and assuming integrity (i.e. the surface of the bar has not been broken in any way to reveal the inner contents), what is there to differentiate between, say, a Snickers bar, a Mars, and a Milky Way?

Consequently, I found myself asking this week, what exactly is it that I am photographing? What is a Snickers bar for example?

Where does the product itself begin, and the packaging end?

Is a Snickers bar the combination of ingredients? Or, is it the combination of ingredients within a unique and specifically designed wrapping?

Francis Hodgson suggests that photographs are of something, and about something, with the latter point often being overlooked. Barthes and Heath suggest that images represent the signifier and the signified.

In these terms, a Snickers bar and its wrapper are the ‘of something’, the signifier. What they imply, the signified – the ‘about something’, can (in my opinion) be one or more of several things.

Firstly, it implies that we ‘beautify’ the food we eat: we need the wrapper to do this – to make the chocolate appear more appetising than it otherwise might be.

Chocolate isn’t eaten for its visual appeal (unless it’s a Black Forest gateaux), it is eaten for its addictive sweetness and the endorphin rush its metabolism causes. Taken purely on face value, does an unwrapped bar of chocolate really look appetising? Does it really initiate a gustatory reflex?

Secondly, it makes a statement about how we live our lives. Busy lives require food in portions that make the task of eating on the go an easily managed task. Discrete little packages of food to be eaten on the go, to be consumed conveniently need wrappers.

Thirdly, it is part of a sanitising process, helping to keep food fresh and clean.

Finally, it reflects the homeostatic (need to eat) and hedonic (eating for pleasure) aspects of appetite.

So much for our Snickers. But we can extend this – steak doesn’t come pre-cooked, it doesn’t come in a form that we accept as being edible. We grill it to make it more digestible (the proteins are broken down by the cooking process, and the cooking process has a sanitising effect). Steak in its natural state isn’t appealing – again, the cooked appearance of a nicely grilled steak is the signifier, the treatment of our food the signified.

Frith writes that: ‘Advertising only “makes sense” when it resonates with certain deeply held belief systems’ (Frith, 1997: vii).

I think that with this seemingly simple statement, Frith is telling us none of this hangs together unless we all buy into it – literally.

All this brings me back to my earlier question: what exactly is it that I am photographing? The product? Or it’s wrapper?

And that is why clever advertising people invented something called the ‘brand’.


Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana

Francis Hodgson: Quality Matters (2013) YouTube Video, added by Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography [Online]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dj3Wq-I7tc accessed 19 February 2017

Frith, Kathleen Toland. (1997) Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang



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