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Updated: Feb 16, 2022


by/ Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi

Huge Bird College University Centre/ University of Central Lancashire


Symbolism, which spans a very wide range, will be the focus of this study with only a few limited but important examples. Beginning with the scientific and human historical connection between the use of symbols, this document will describe the spread of symbolism as an art movement in Chapter Two. Then, I present the symbolism of the substitution of symbolism for the art of photography by the works of the early photographers such as Oscar Gustav Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson. I will then explore the metaphors of symbolism in the works of Robert Frank and Peter Witkins, who used symbolism in their two different styles of modern photography. Finally, I will cite the sources and photographic examples used for this study.


Simply put, symbolism is another term used to represent something. Red, for example, gives us a bunch of complex ideas. It is perhaps desire, love or the opposites. It can even represent danger. The colour red can also symbolise communism or revolution. To the revolutionary, red is a symbol of revolution and a colour that signifies love to a loved one. To some, red may not even symbolise anything and may just be paint on a wall (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The colour red symbolises conflicting meanings

Art is my sense of effect and the connection between reality and imagination. Food and sex are more important than art. Art is needed to make food more attractive, and the attraction that art provides is useful for going beyond mere attachments or coercion to sex. Because it is a sensory organ of curiosity, the human brain interprets signals about it. Because of its inquisitive nature, it takes curiosity to explore the world daily. It takes imagination to rediscover all the intriguing possibilities of curiosity and avoid the difficulty or danger in encountering them. Imagination, on the other hand, requires art or takes the form of art to make its imaginative abilities more effective and less accessible to exploration. If there is no art, if our imaginations do not accumulate or if there is no touch of art to explore, it will be difficult to sustain our interest in entertaining any art in different ways.

Before I got into photography, I studied drama and the performing arts and got involved in acting. During that time, I worked on revolutionary street plays as well as standard stage plays. In those plays, I experienced the use of symbolism to maximise the director's idea, using characters, colours, movements, costumes, props and makeup. Later, when I was in photography, I realised from experience that there is no difference between the use of symbols and performing arts. Understanding that background, I had the pleasure of exploring the hidden meanings of the symbols in the images. After escaping from the Asian social background and coming to the European society, I could easily understand how cultural changes affect the implications of the hidden meanings in images. It was the best way to access symbolism. That is to say, what is seen only in a particular context has symbolic properties. But it is interesting to find out how the use of symbols is a decisive grammar in a universal language such as art.

Symbolism, which spans a very wide range, will be the focus of this study with only a few limited but important examples. Beginning with the scientific and human historical connection between the use of symbols, this document will describe the spread of symbolism as an art movement in Chapter Two. Then, I present the symbolism of the substitution of symbolism for the art of photography by the works of the early photographers such as Oscar Gustav Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson. I will then explore the metaphors of symbolism in the works of Robert Frank and Peter Witkins, who used symbolism in their two different styles of modern photography. Finally, I will cite the sources and photographic examples used for this study.

The scientific and archaeological relationship between human and symbols:

Neuroscientific research has shown how brain structures and neural circuits are mechanically subject to symbolic meaning. Accordingly, scientists suggest four interpretation mechanisms at the neuron circuit level.

They are:

Spelling - Symbols and connections between objects and verbs used to speak to them.

Interpretation - Allows you to learn the symbolic meaning of the context.

Composite interpretation - The emotional impact that exists between the markers and the internal organs of the body.

Geometric patterns can appear in the art of illusions and non-illusions. Because these patterns are ‘natural patterns’ to our brains, for the latter, they may be the geometric patterns that often occur in works of art that activate the natural basic activity modes of the visual cortex. They may be more effective in stimulating a large-scale activity pattern in the optical cortex. [i]

The above explanations attempt to provide a scientific explanation for the relationship between man and art but also give an idea of ​​the importance of symbols. But can that approach unlock the secrets of prehistoric artistic endeavours? That is the problem with archaeologists. The use of symbols by man draws on a history parallel to the advancement of human civilisation. Ancient cave paintings and rock carvings have been found on almost every continent (Figure 2). Whatever the aspirations of the man who drew on his 40,000-year history, it is certain that he must have expended a great deal of preparation and energy[ii].

The symbols amongst the animal carvings in the ancient caves in France and Spain bring to the modern world a strong sense of the use of symbols by our ancestors[iii]. Many of the symbols in the paintings, which are a mixture of ochre and charcoal fat, have been found in about 200 cave paintings throughout France and Spain. "We have invented nothing," said Picasso during a visit to Lascaux in France in 1940, which is believed to be about 17,000 years old[iv].

Figure 2 Prehistoric cave paintings, a period of human artistic development, were not really an art movement. It includes the origins of both sculpture and painting, both before writing, before printing, and primarily in the early stages. Because of this, anthropologists are more interested in the history of art[v]. They regard the use of symbols as a very important part of human behaviour, but the concept of art, symbolism, was introduced in the early nineteenth century[vi].

Symbolism as an art movement

Figure Portrait of Jean Moréas, by Paul Gauguin, 1891 Photography was born on January 7, 1839, in Paris by the French Académie des Sciences announcing the daguerreotype process[vii]. It was the end of the Industrial Revolution in Europe as well as the Romantic Era that began in 1798[viii]. Romanticism, a literary, artistic and philosophical movement that began in parallel with the Industrial Revolution, focused on natural beauty and human emotion. Symbolism, meanwhile, is inextricably linked with art, but its roots lie in Romanticism. As symbolism spread throughout Europe, intelligent sections of society, including artists, were drawn to it as a representation of the consequences of urbanisation and materialism that became apparent in the final stages of the Industrial Revolution[ix]. Industrialisation led people to a materialistic society, giving priority to the financial value of the individual. The abstraction of nostalgic emotions and the mechanisation of society increased the desire for independent thought and freedom amongst intellectuals. As a result, Jean Moréas published Symbolist Manifesto in Symbolism through the French newspaper Le Figaro[x]. It emphasises that the artist must have free access to the inner world, free from the precepts of nature and the boundaries of artistic conventions, for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals[xi].

Moréas said that one should try to "draw the ideal in a visual way" and that "its goal was not to express the ideal, but to express itself". Symbolism emerged as a reaction to naturalism and realism or sentimentality, which became prominent figures in nineteenth-century European art and literature, almost identical to Western European culture at the time. In portraying realism as fiction, naturalism focuses more on observation and the scientific method. Realism or sentimentalism relied on the true representation of reality without bringing anything artificial, alien, unbelievable or mysterious to art. Symbolism believes that the idea is about pure subjectivity and the expression of an idea rather than just a realistic or objective description. Their works were personal and an expression of their own ideology. They intertwined religious mysticism, perverted eroticism, and depravity in specific terms. Leading symbolist George Frederick Watts said of his paintings, "I paint thoughts, not things"[xii]. Many of his paintings are metaphorical of hope, love and life. They symbolise all the emotions and aspirations of human life[xiii].

When it comes to expressionism in art, the Norwegian expressionist artist Edvard Munch

Figure 4 Edvard Munch's The Dance of Life stands out. He played a major role in the art forms of post-German expressionism[xiv]. Edvard Munch's The Dance of Life symbolises three moments in a woman's life (Figure 4). The symbolic meanings of colours make a decisive contribution to the painting. The white symbolises Virgo, the red symbolises bodily lust, and the old lady with black symbolises Satan. The sea in the background of the painting symbolises the end of life without end. Therefore, the behaviour of worldly life before death is a dance, and it should be remembered that death comes after that. Many of Munch's works became symbolic because of their focus on the inner vision of objects as opposed to their outward appearance. Symbolic artists in general believed that art should reflect emotion or idea rather than represent the natural world in an objective, semi-scientific way embodied by realism and sentimentality. Symbolism in paintings is a summary of form and feeling, reality and the inner subjectivity of the creator[xv].

Symbols for the unspoken expression of the photograph

Figure 5 Two way of life. Artists in various fields use realistic and abstract symbols to recreate human thoughts and feelings. Symbols, concepts or ideas in this field of visual art, which the viewer perceives based on background knowledge, may not be directly related to the image. But it should be noted that its meaning always varies based on time, territory and sociocultural differences[xvi]. For example, art created during the Byzantine medieval and Renaissance period took on a religious form, and many of the symbols in those works were associated with it. The church commissioned the artist to create visual representations of religious moral advice and spiritual comfort for the ignorant common people of the time[xvii]. Throughout history, people of different cultures have come to understand the meaning of symbols. To take simple examples; water suggests purification and revival of the spiritual life[xviii].

Figure 6 Fading Away The use of photography for the symbolic expression of spiritual life extends to its near birth. The creators of photography, who grew up with technological experiments as a trusted partner of mankind, refused to use it merely for entertainment, beauty or evidence but rather to express non-physical symbolic feelings. In this review, I met Rejlander Oscar Gustave as the first photographer to make such an effort in photography. Rejlander was a Swede who studied art in Italy and settled in England in the 1840s. He turned to photography because he was an assistant to Fox Talbot[xix]. His Two way of life (1857) is one of the most sought-after photographs of the nineteenth century (Figure 6). Two way of life is a symbolic expression of the choice between the wickedness and the virtue of life: a sage brings two rural youths to the stage of life. Choose a righteous life with family life and good deeds[xx]. To bring this vast body of ideas into a single frame, Rejlander combined more than thirty separate photographed models and backgrounds. Although nudity was not uncommon in nineteenth-century art and sculpture, the true-to-life form of nude images adapted in photography was hotly debated. But those photos were taken by him with nude sculptures[xxi]. Two way of life photography introduced the space to use photography as a medium of art. Following Rejlander, Henry Peach Robinson performed Fading Away in 1858 (Figure 5). He used five negatives for its final printing. The photo depicts a young woman dying peacefully on the bed and a miserable family around her bed. The cloudy sky can be seen through the half-open window curtains in the background, and someone with a black cloak faces away in front of the windows. She is the only ugly figure in the picture frame and looks tighter than all the female figures. That image is the focus of the whole photo. The image above evokes the dramatic moment created by the imagery of the three women, giving the idea of ​​death. It presents a metaphysical concept of death for understanding life[xxii].

Until the symbolism of Rejlander's two-way life introduced a fine arts approach, documentary photography seemed to be the only classification of photography from the beginning. From photographer Philip Delamotte's Disassembly of the Crystal Palace (1821-89) to photographer Steve McCurry, a contemporary photographer, symbolism was best used for documentary photography by Robert Frank[xxiii]. Therefore, it is important to pay special attention to the photographs presented in his book The Americans.

Robert Frank and The Americans

"Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others. Perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph." - Robert Frank[xxiv]

Figure 7

Robert Frank was a photographer who caught my attention during the expression of symbolic impressions through photographs. Born in Switzerland, Robert Frank photographed American society from an outsider's perspective. During his 1955-1957 voyage across America, he took 28,000 photographs. 83 selected photographs were used for The Americans. The collection of photographs, which mirrored the lives of the American people of the time, was republished in October 1958 by publisher Robert Delpire as Les Americans. Later, it was published by The Grove Press as The Americans in New York with an introduction by Jack Kerouac[xxv].

In the second edition, which is a photo sequence narration or non-linear version, thematic, formal linguistic tools are used to link the photos together. All four of its instantaneous invisible chapters begin with a photograph of the American flag, and the characters in the images coexist with the interaction between motion and retention, appearance and invisibility, observation and observer in the photographs between these invisible chapters, he retained a representation of the American society (Figure 7). It did not have the conventions or classical form of traditional street photography, nor did it have the general pattern technically known as "good photography". The ghost reality of the American society, seen during his visit, made him a physical figure through his photographs. At stake was the persecution of the American people in the post-war period. We can see the social, political, economic, moral and spiritual crisis of the people in those images. For example, take his Trolley - New Orleans, 1955 photo (Figure 6).

Figure 8 Trolley - New Orleans, 1955

When I saw the Trolley - New Orleans 1955 photograph, I was reminded of the Rosa Parks incident when I was learning about American history in school. There are times parallel to the Rosa Park event that took place on December 1, 1955, that can be guessed. The Montgomery bus strike, which began with that event, was led by Martin Luther King and later became a decisive factor in the U.S. civil rights movement[xxvi].

At first glance, looking at the photo above, my attention was drawn to the white windowsill on the tram, which is visually segregated. In print, Frank may have tried to highlight their whiteness in the image. I believe that it is the first thing that easily presents us with the distinction between white and black in the image. It divides all the people in the image and shows us how they are trapped in their social conditions during that time. Seen from the left, two-thirds of the entire frame is made up of white males, females and children, and one-third is reserved for black males and females. Blurred notes on the glass at the top between the horizontally dividing sections of the image may sometimes be a reflection of the street. The protrusions in the middle are white and black passengers, and the lower part can be seen nailed to it with the slightly shiny car plate. The emptiness at the bottom and the blur at the top draw our investigative attention to the characters in the middle of the image. Of those characters, our focus is on the black man from right to second. The darkest place in the image is where he is. To look at him, we have to peek into the picture frame a bit. Only then can we see the expression on his face as he looks at us. We then see the interrogative face and the unstable posture sitting in the car relative to it. The white woman stares straight at the camera, and the dominance in her gaze can be understood even with a simple glance at the photo. The internal contradiction between the two white women and the black man in the picture frame further arouses the viewer's curiosity about the American society at the time.

Figure 9 American Flag (1957) by Robert Frank

I turned my attention to the photograph of American Flag (1957) in Robert Frank's collection. Although it has a very simple image surface, I felt that the metaphorical expression of its image was very powerful because the identities of the two women held between the two window frames in the image were obscured by the American flag. Simply put, one can look at this photograph as the life of a new American people, submerged in their original identities in America, built by a collection of different nations. Trapped in the dark frames of the faceless figure, I was struck by Frank's impression that the characters were voiceless. But in the social age, in which the photograph was taken, both women may have contributed to the social building, in which they actively maintained their power in the social, economic, and political senses and the American flag they were holding symbolised. Was that not the American society they built? In the history of American photography, this collection of Frank's photographs is considered the most divisive expression because of Frank's view of that culture and his attitude of disregarding traditional photography at the time.

Let us now set aside the approach of symbolism in Frank's documentary photography and consider the applications of symbolism in staged photography. My first choice there is Joel-Peter Witkin. The controversy surrounding the photographs does not exclude him from the specialisation of his work in this study.

Joel-Peter Witkin

Joel Peter Witkin, a photographer of our time, is a pioneer in the art of death, religion, myth and controversial photography. He is portrayed by fundamentalists and some as a distorted photographer. His work environment is known to be traumatic, not conducive to the public eye. But the art world regards him as a deeply contemporary artist[xxvii]. Witkin often used corpses, its parts, dwarfs, and transgender and intersex people for his photographs[xxviii].

Figure 10

They are also designed to have awkward shapes or postures. He focused on those scenes that we refuse to watch in our daily lives. The surface scenes of those objects can be called shameless pornography. The composition of his photographs takes the viewer to a different plane, ignoring the physical differences between man and animal. Their depictions of snakes, ghost masks and monsters are descended from ancient historical myths and associated with traditional culture through children's cartoons. The scratches and confusion on the surface of those photos add a mysterious depth to them.

He used techniques such as rough scraping, staining with print toner, and elaborate frames. The objects in those photographs, which are dark in nature, echo emotions ranging from sex to death through religion. When superficial pornography is excluded, he takes the viewer beyond traditional society to understand them. Artifacts associated with human nudity can be found in abundance throughout human history. It is generally accepted today that sexual thoughts, feelings, and activities are part of human nature and that the revelations associated with them are part of life itself.

Figure 11 He, who does not use computers for the post-editing of his photographs, commented with Musée Magazine on the style of attributing a very old look to the surface of the photograph that daguerreotype is used as the old method for photographs with an old look. He says it gives a soft, unique look to the subject being photographed. But unexpectedly for contemporary reasons, the weight of the printing paper and the quality of the coated silver vary, making the results of the printing not as good as it used to be[xxix].

It may be of some help to read his photographs on the ground after his experiences in life. He is said to have experienced an event that shook his psyche at the age of six. He was on his way to church with his mother when he was struck by a car on the road. The head of a little girl who had been the victim of the accident fell off and fell next to him, and little Witkin tried to touch it. Themes such as violence, death, and nightmares are used in his photography, which he believes may have been the result of the above event. Family life in his youth was a mess. His father was an Orthodox Jew and his mother a Catholic. Due to this religious difference, the mother and father divorced, and his adolescence began to fluctuate between the two of them. It could be a hint of insecurity and sense of loss in his photography[xxx].

Figure 12

Late nineteenth-century symbolists such as Felicien Rops, Gustav Klimt, and Alfred Kubin were amongst those who caught Witkin’s attention. They are the ones who commented on dreams, perversions and satanism. He was also impressed by the romantic and voyeuristic qualities of Max Backman and Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola). In addition, the characters in the contemporary mythical stories portrayed certain roles in his photographs. Characters such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman used the power of expression in their photographs (Figure 11). His impression of that skin blend was that his photographs should be as powerful as the last thing a person sees or remembers before death[xxxi].

Figure 13

He first recreated Christ in his photograph, in a slum in Philadelphia. It was themed around the coming of Christ to the world. There, he sought to visualise the invisible rather than to find out whether Christ was really alive. He believed that Christ was God incarnate and that Christ was the mask of God placed on man (Figure 13). Like Victorian photographer Juliet Margaret Cameron, he focused on photography rather than on historical innocence[xxxii]. A deeply spiritual figure, he engages in a personal exploration of the renaissance in comparison to Western photography (Figure 14).

Figure 14

The "Sanitarium", created by Witkin in 1983, is one of his most iconic images.

Figure15 Sanitarium He comments: "The tubes indicate the transfer of fluids running from the monkey's mouth and genitalia to the human. The wings are bird wings, and the mask is an old rubber mask turned inside out. I was reading some esoteric literature at the time about breathing in fumes and how such a sensation affects us. We cannot see such sensations, but I wanted to indicate them. I put this very large woman, who reminded me of the full-bodied women in Maillol's or Lachaise's work, in a languid pose. There is for me in this situation a strange, terrible sense of being forced to view the events in rooms of asylums or places of torture. But most importantly, it is a depiction of an egoless being, a shaman in existence here and beyond."[xxxiii]


So, I believe Robert Fank's candidate photo classification has influenced the international news reporting I have been involved with for a long time. Perhaps that is why I tried to symbolise the Sri Lankan society that faced the civil war in Sri Lanka through those photographs during my time in documentary photography. But after retiring from the media industry, today I try to focus on genre of fine arts photography. Because of this, it was important for me to identify the work of photographers who used symbolism in a staged way to empower the metaphor. Peter Witkins influenced me the most in that regard. Initially, I was a little embarrassed by his photo usage. My personal experience of battlefield reporting began to resonate in my mind through those photographs. But after those memories were overshadowed, Witkin’s photographs began to look different to me.

There are two distinct styles between Frank's and Witkin's. Frank transcends traditional documentary photography and empowers the expression of his image through symbolism. Witkin suggests that the composition of his photographs be designed to convey symbolic implications. Despite the differences between the two styles, symbolism has played a crucial role in the expression of photographers' emotions. The idea of ​​using symbolism for fine art photography came to my mind during my second year of university education. There, I created a photo called The Secret Love (Figure 15). I created the photo using chicken, bananas, and thin smoke, based on European beliefs about dreams. My interest in the use of symbolism to intensify the expression of the image was aroused by its result. Having been involved in the field of international journalism for over three decades, I will move in another direction in photography with this study.

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