‘Text Messages’

Continuing to examine alternative relationships with food, the premise for my final major project, Jo-Ana, is a series of still life images which visually describe life with anorexia.

Based on pertinent diary entries made by a female anorexia sufferer, the project presents an opportunity to incorporate text into my images. This is a significant departure from my practice to date. Instinctively feeling this to be right for the project I have, nevertheless, questioned its use, benefits and appropriateness.

Several artists have incorporated text into their practice and research into their work has enabled me to reconcile the use of text within my own practice for the project. It is worth noting that image and text have a considerable history, with mediaeval manuscripts, for example, bringing the two together to establish layered meaning and placing it within the reach of the illiterate. In this sense, images are a democratising phenomenon.

Kurt Schwitters produced work covering several genres including Dadaism and Surrealism.

Miss Blanche (1923) is an example of how, using segments of found text, a Dadaist trait, he allowed his audience to find their own meanings.

Miss Blanche

Kurt Schwitters, 1923. Miss Blanche

Lorna Simpson’s signature photo-text, which involved the inclusion of short passages of text, often superimposed on the photographs, to introduce new levels of meaning to images.

Five Day Forecast 1991 by Lorna Simpson born 1960

Lorna Simpson, 1991. Five Day Forecast

Jo Spence combined image and text to protest the illness she suffered and what she perceived as the interventionist way in which her treatment was carried out.

How Do I Begin

Jo Spence, 1984. How Do Begin to Take Responsibility?

Barbara Kruger’s work involves the addition of text to appropriated images in order to promote thought and discussion relating to contemporary issues.


Barbara Kruger, 1989. Battleground

Gillian Wearing’s I’m Desperate (1992-3) fundamentally depended upon the inclusion of text within the images. Without text, would the images have been anything other than a collection of snapshots of strangers?

'I'm desperate' 1992-3 by Gillian Wearing OBE born 1963

Gillian Wearing, 1992-3. I’m Desperate

Relevance to my practice …

Clearly, there are cases where the images should speak for themselves. However, there are also some very good reasons for the use of text within or alongside images.

Text can help to steer the discussion in a particular direction. As photographers don’t we endeavour to do this anyway when we shape light, drawing attention to a specific part of an image and away from other areas through the careful placement of highlights and shadows respectively?

“A photograph, when it stands on its own, potentially has mutilayered meanings … Combined with text or text fragments, various possible meanings contained in a photograph can be orientated to divergent discursive directions.” (Van Gelder and Westgeest, 2011).

Additionally, text can enhance the impact of an image by providing information that, if absent, would fail to convey the intended narrative.

Furthermore, text can elicit discussions which otherwise might not be considered.

Words have agreed, coded meanings. The compositions created by artists are more open to interpretation. When the intention is the reinforcement of a visual narrative through the use of text, the image/text combination requires careful consideration to avoid diluting the message or creating dissonance.

Rosler describes images and text as two ‘descriptive systems’. There is a space between these two systems. Both are unique in terms of the message they can convey and how, and both are also unique in terms of what cannot be said. Together, though, the image/text combination can produce something greater than the sum of the parts. It is this synergy that allows us to fill the space, through interpretation, between the two systems – in effect bridging the gap. And the argument for the text? Well, that gives us a nudge in a certain direction.



Rosler, M. (1974-1975) The bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems [online]. Available at: http://collection.whitney.org/object/8304 (accessed: 18 April 2018)

Van Gelder, H. and Westgeest, H. (2011) Photography theory in historical perspective. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell

3 thoughts on “‘Text Messages’

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