Category Archives: Learning

Seeing Through Photographs

Seeing Through Photographs is a free MOOC presented by the Museum of Modern Art, available on Coursera. One has the choice to pay a fee and get a certificate upon completion or one can do the course for free and not receive the certificate. I opted for the latter route.

The course was quite handy and very informative. It covers a lot of the material that is dealt with in the Context & Narrative module, i.e. One Subject, Many Perspectives; Documentary Photography; Pictures of People; Constructing Narratives and Challenging Histories and finally Ocean of Images: Photography and Contemporary Culture.

There were many video clips with interviews with various artists about their work and each section had a resource list. MOMA supplied extracts from the gallery catalogues, links to various videos and other reading material and links to the actual artists featured in each section.

Interview with David Horvitz
Interview with David Horvitz

I would have enjoyed this course more if I had come across it at the beginning of Context & Narrative, I think, as I would have been able to use a lot of the information that was provided. Nevertheless, I’m glad I completed the course – each section only took up about an hour of my time, not too onerous at all. I particularly liked the fact that I was introduced to new artists and writings.

Reference List

Meister, Sarah (2016) Seeing Through Photographs [online] Museum of Modern Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 12 March, 2016]


Rhetoric of the Image – Roland Barthes

Barthes uses an advertisement to demonstrate an analysis of an image. The image he uses is the Panzani advertisement.

Panzani Ad used in Barthes' Rhetoric of the Image
Panzani Ad used in Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image

Coded messages are intentional when it comes to advertising. They are all pre-planned – what Barthes terms ‘a priori’ (p. 33).

Using the image above, he identifies three messages.

  • Linguistic – this deals with the caption and the labels that we read. We notice that the language in the caption is in French, yet the product labels connote a sense of ‘Italianicity’ (p. 33). This linguistic message is both denotational and connotational. The function of the linguistic message is that of anchorage and relay (p.38). When considering anchorage Barthes states (p.39) ‘At the level the literal image, the text replies … to the question: what is it?’ Anchorage is most frequently found in advertisements and press photographs. Relay is less common (see a more detailed explanation in my Contextualisation and Multiple Meanings of Images exercise).
  • Imagery/discontinuous signs – Barthes then proceeds to look at the images and identifies a signified which implies fresh produce and culinary preparation. The net shopping bag is the signifier. One’s culture plays an important role in making the first two connections. A second sign (iconic message) is identified: the combination of the colours of the produce, repeated in the label colours again help to convey the sense of ‘Italianicity’ – the same colours that are found in the Italian flag. The next message to be unfolded is the idea that Panzani has supplied all the ingredients for this delicious meal. It is further implied by appearing in a produce shopping bag that the tomato concentrate, pasta and Parmesan cheese are all equivalent to the organic produce surrounding them. The composition of the image resembles that of a still life, tapping into cultural memories of the viewer. The relationship between the signifier and signified(s) is not arbitrary.
  • Literal message – this is our identification of the items contained in the image.

Rules and methods of composition all fall within the realm of connotation. It is by using the spatial and temporal relationships within the image that the photograph can be properly understood. The denotation of an image plays a role in helping to define the structure of the coded messages within it.

The reading of an image is very dependent upon the viewer’s knowledge and cultural background. This is known as a lexicon. The more variance there is between two viewers’ lexicons, the more evident their different interpretations of an image.

A problem when analysing connotation is that there is no specific language to use – no special terminology.  Instead there is a common ideology. The signifiers within this ideology are termed connotators and the set of connotators a rhetoric (p.49). As Barthes states (p. 51) ‘it is precisely the syntagm of the denoted message which “naturalizes” the system of the connoted message.’

Reference List

Barthes, Roland (1977). Rhetoric of the Image in Image, music, text. London: Fontana Press

Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects

Last week I completed an online MOOC with Coursera on Learning How to Learn. It was a 4 week course that explains how the brain works in acquiring knowledge using two specific methods i.e. the focused mode and the diffused mode. The focused mode is the mode we use when we want to concentrate on details, while the diffused mode is used when we want to obtain a big picture perspective of what we are learning. The brain cannot be in both modes at the same time and it is beneficial to switch from focused mode to diffused at regular intervals.

Learning how to learn
Learning how to learn

A good way of getting into a focused mode is to use the “pomodoro method” which is just a concentrated time of say 25 minutes with a timer set in which one does intense concentration/learning and afterwards takes a break and then resumes the process later on. Using this method is more beneficial in the long run and helps ground the concepts you are trying to learn.

Chunking was also discussed and the importance of gaining context for what you are trying to learn. Recall and practise go a long way to cementing a good long term memory foundation.

The course also dealt with procrastination, how to recognise it and how to deal with it, making use of visual and spatial memory techniques and memorization.

This is an extremely insightful course, beneficial to any subject.


Oakley, Barbara and Sejnowski, Terrence (2016). Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects [online]. University of California, San Diego. Available at: [Accessed 7 February, 2016]

Semiotics Continued: Peirce’s model and Syntagmatic Analysis

Charles Sanders Peirce developed his own semiotic model, expanding on Saussure’s ideas. Peirce developed a triadic model:

Peirce's Triadic Model of Semiotics
Peirce’s Triadic Model of Semiotics

Peirce also used the traffic light example to illustrate this. In his example at an intersection the traffic light sign for stop = red light facing traffic (representamen); vehicles stopping = object; the message that a red light conveys to drivers that vehicles must stop (the interpretant).

The object is not in Saussure’s model. The representamen correlates to the signifier, while the interpretant is similar to the signified, but is also a sign in its own right. Roland Barthes describes this mode of representation in his essay Myth Today with a good sketch on page 113. Basically, there can be a series of nested sets of signs within any one image/text, depending on how deeply one looks. The first signifier and signified make up the first sign. This first sign in turn becomes a second signifier which corresponds to another signified, which together form the second sign and so the process continues.

Signs can be:

  • symbolic: the signifier is abitrary and we need to learn the relationship. It is not obvious. Examples would include the alphabet, numbers, punctuation.
  • iconic: we understand that the signifier resembles something, e.g. cartoons, a portrait.
  • indexical: the signifier is directly connected to the signified in some way. We make some kind of judgement call when we observe indexical signs. These signifiers are links which can be observed or assumed, e.g. footprints in the sand, a rash, a weather vane on a house’s roof.

These three signs are not mutually exclusive. A sign can be symbolic, iconic or indexical or any combination.

Peirce argues that an historical shift or hierarchy tends to occur from one mode to the other. He cites iconicity as the original mode of signification as it is the most simple and primitive. From there we move down to the index mode and finally to the symbolic mode.

Syntagmatic Analysis

This is the relationship of signs to each other. this has to do with the structural analysis of a text. I’m reminded of sentence analysis that we had to do during English in high school. There are various forms of syntagmatic structures:

  • narrative: the most common, based on sequential, linear relationships
  • spatial: the way montages in photographs work through juxtapositioning
  • conceptual: such as argument or exposition.

Exposition is reliant on the conceptual structure of argument or description and involves three elements, which are a more familiar set of circumstances that one would find in a court of law:

  • propositions;
  • evidence;
  • justifications

According Chandler, most theorists e.g. Peirce and Gombrich, the relationship of exposition is not applicable to visual media. Indeed, one would find it hard pressed to find all three elements in one photograph.

Spatial relationships include:

  • above/below
  • in front/behind
  • north/south/east/west
  • left/right
  • close/distant
  • inside/outside
  • centre/margin

Left/right, top/bottom and centre/margin is how we read text. Left/right deal with the horizontal compositional axis where elements situated to the left of the centre of the image indicate some that the viewer should know (it’s a given). Elements to the right of centre indicate something that is not quite known yet.

Top/bottom deals with the vertical compositional axis where up = more and down = less. Up also symbolises goodness and virtue, high status and power, while down symbolises death, low status, depravity, emotion. The upper portion of an image tends to deal with abstract ideas, while the lower portion deals with practical matters. Daniel Chandler states in his book Semiotics for Beginners that in western advertisements the upper sections show us ‘what might be’, while the lower section is more informative, showing us ‘what is’.

Centre/margin is where the most salient element is placed in the centre, and the other elements are arranged around the periphery or edges of the frame. This allows for a ‘to and fro’ reading between the various elements.

Narrative relationships tend to be sequential. A narrative, as we are all taught in school has a beginning, middle and end. Barthes very succinctly describes the levels of the narrative in Image-Music-Text:

To understand a narrative is not merely to follow the unfolding of the story, it is also to recognize its construction in ‘storeys’, to project the horizontal concatenations of the narrative ‘thread’ on to an implicitly vertical axis; to read (to listen to) a narrative is not merely to move from one word to the next, it is also to move from one level to the next.

(Barthes, p 87)

Reference List

Barthes, Roland (1977). Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press

Chandler, Daniel (1994 – 2016). Semiotics for Beginners [online] . Available from: [Accessed 19 January, 2016]


Barthes, Roland (1972) ‘Myth Today’. in Mythologies. New York: The Noonday Press

Kress, Gunther & Theo van Leeuwen (1996): Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design [online]. London: Routledge. Available from: [Accessed 22 January, 2016]

Fine Art Digital Printing Workshop

This past weekend I attended a 2 day workshop on digital printing at Vancouver Photo Workshops with Marc Koegel who is the Director of VPW. Marc  has worked and studied with many internationally acclaimed photographers, including Joe McNally, Greg Gorman, Jay Maisel, Arthur Meyerson, Mary Ellen Mark, and Ralph Gibson to name but a few and has also exhibited internationally in Europe and the United States, as well as locally in Canada.

The topics we covered during the two days were the following:

  • What an ICC profile is
  • How to generate custom printer and paper profiles
  • When to resample and why
  • What soft proofing is and why it is important
  • How to print more than one image on a page
  • Why resolution is important and how it affects your final output
  • The difference between an Adobe RGB, ProPhoto RGB and sRGB color space
  • When and how best to apply sharpening
  • How to properly convert color to outstanding black-and white images
  • How and Why to select a specific paper (or substrate) for a given image or series
  • How best to calibrate your monitor and printer
  • How inkjet printing compares to other printing methods, i.e. lightjet (lambda)
  • A list of recommended equipment (calibration, monitors, printers etc)
  • Mounting, framing and presentation options for your finished prints

The course was very informative even though Marc went off topic quite a bit, but even that was an additional learning aspect. We were given many opportunities to handle and inspect the results of prints on a variety of paper selections. Marc had prepared the same print on a large selection of photographic paper and even had the print made at two of the really cheap labs, so we were able to see the differences in tonality and depth of range through a large range of products. It was incredibly interesting to see how a paper type can affect the overall tonality of an image. The real take away about the ‘which photographic paper should I use’ saga really comes down to testing the image on a variety of papers and see what works well, and what you like best.

Marc demonstrated the best ways of resampling and soft proofing, providing valuable tips along the way. He and another student shared a good source for third party ink, although Marc personally does not use third party ink. The recommended site is Jon Cone’s Piezography which is chock-full of very useful tutorials on printing as well as links to Jon Cone’s refillable ink which is apparently of excellent quality according to the student who uses his products.  His workshops were also recommended. Another reference source for colour management that was recommended was John Paul Caponigro. Caponigro also has a very wide range of tutorials on the more technical aspects of printing, but what I found rather intriguing is that he has a very broad reading list that he draws on for his creativity and these sources are also listed on his website.

Marc stepped us through some of the aspects of the Epson printers as these are his printers of choice. We had all submitted a few images to him and on the second day of the course Marc printed off a print for each of us, going through his workflow in Photoshop, evaluating the images, making adjustments to the images, going through the print process and finally producing the final images off his large format Epson printer. My Photoshop skills are really rusty so this turned out to be a good refresher for me, plus I also learned about some of the newer features (last time I used Photoshop was when it was version 6 – the pre CS days).

Apparently there is a process called ‘outgassing’ that takes places when a print comes off the printer. The inks literally blows off a bit of steam and the ink needs to dry and harden for a minimum of 30 minutes, but preferably overnight. This doesn’t occur when lightjet printers (the types of printers more commonly found at the 1 hour photo labs) are used as the prints are printed through a light process and then go through a full chemical process and are washed and dried before they come out of the printer.

These were two very full days with a lot of information imparted. At least I now know what I should communicate to a pro lab and how to experiment when I invest in a proper photo printer.

Reference List

John Paul Caponigro [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 January, 2016]

Piezography [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 January, 2016]

Vancouver Photo Workshops [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 January, 2016]

Acrylic Lifts on Panel Workshop by Ross den Otter

I attended my first mixed media workshop today. It was presented by Ross den Otter, who is a well known photographer and mixed media artist here in Vancouver.  I had heard favourable comments on his workshops, so when this demonstration workshop popped up in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago, I immediately signed up for it.

My mind was a total blank slate. I really did not have a clue what to expect. The audience was very mixed – quite a few little old ladies scrambling over each other to get a front row seat, which really had me shaking my head, because the class is presented very much like cooking classes – there is an angled mirror on the wall behind the instructor so everyone can see no matter where they sit. I later realised that these were the “arty ladies” and not the photography crowd as they were asking questions such as “what do you mean by composition?”

Den Otter began by showing the class the preferred panels he uses. Interestingly enough he prefer to use the exhibition panels which are perfectly sized for his larger work only and tends to use the buzz panels which are slightly off in size as water does not affect them as much.

He then stepped us through his process of applying lightweight modelling paste (apparently this is like household polyfilla which we use to fill in cracks on our walls) to the panel. This first layer is extremely important as it lays down the foundation for the texture for the final product. Once that layer is dry a layer of Gesso is applied to the panel. The Gesso is like a layer of goop and this is applied with a foam brush and allowed to dry. Then a layer of acrylic gloss medium is applied to the panel with a small paint roller.

Ross advised us to print our photos on cheap copy paper, using a laserjet printer as the laserjet photos transfer better than inkjet photos, which will just run. A thin layer of the gloss medium is applied to the surface of the photograph and then the photograph and panel are put together. He also cautioned us that if the photograph has any text a mirror image will have to be used as the photo is placed face down on the panel. Once the photo is on the panel one has to carefully smooth the paper out to get rid of any air bubbles. As part of the paper is wet it is advisable to create small tears around the edges of the paper so that the paper isn’t stretched and this helps the paper relax. Rather like scoring a pork chop to prevent it curling up when cooking it! Again another drying process.

Once dry, one takes a wet sponge, squeezes water over the panel and proceeds to rub the paper off the panel gently. It is advisable to pile the paper off from the centre and work outwards using your fingers, so that one can feel when all the paper has been removed.

Using a fine sandpaper one then sands off the edges around the panel. Then there is another drying time. Den Otter sometimes puts his work in his oven at this stage at a very low temperature for about 20 – 30 minutes. The oven drying process ensures a very even drying process. A hairdryer can also be used, but he cautioned that if using a hairdryer, one should be aware that the drying process will dry in layers starting from the outside and working inwards and can create a totally different type of texture to the panel.

Once dry, another layer of gloss medium is applied with a foam brush over the whole surface. Another drying period for about 30 – 40 minutes follows.

Finally he uses a damp sponge and adds a very small dollop of student grade acrylic paint to it. He likes using a raw umber colour on his works as he prefers muted tones, but any colour would work at this stage. He then rubs the paint over the whole panel and then takes another very slightly damp sponge and wipes off the paints in the areas where he wants to retain highlights. He lets it dry a little and then repeats the process. Finally he applies paint to the sides of the panel.

I found this workshop very interesting (patience and waiting is a huge part of this process) and I think I will definitely try this technique, probably more for my own experimentation rather than for an assignment as it might be a bit cumbersome to ship for assessment, but you never know …

Reference List

Ross den Otter: Photographer / Mixed Media Artist [vidcast, online] Opus Art Supplies 27/10/2015. 6 mins 25 secs (accessed 06/12/2015)

Modern Art & Society

In order to broaden my knowledge of art, which I have to admit is sadly lacking, I enrolled in the Museum of Modern Art’s online course, Modern Art & Society, through Coursera.

The course is actually geared towards art teachers but I found it quite helpful as it explains to the teacher what knowledge to impart to the student and how to get students to discuss their ideas and so on. I did not get into the course readings as they were quite substantial, although I did download them as some of them might come in handy in my own studies later on. I did watch all the videos and performed all the quizzes.

Some of the topics covered were:

  • Introduction to Modern Art and Ideas, teaching with themes. Interestingly the ideas put forward here was the same way that the sections in the TAOP course were laid out
  • Next up was Places and Spaces focussing on van Gogh’s Starry Night, Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie (took me back to my reading of Johannes Itten’s The Elements of Colour), Gordon Matta-Clark’s Bingo, Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World
  • Following this was Art and Identity and the artists featured here were Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso
  • Then it was onto Art through Everyday Objects and of course Marcel Duchamp featured very prominently here. Robert Rauschenberg and his Bed, Meret Oppenheim with her fur covered tea cup and saucer (Object) and the Bic crystal ballpoint pen rounded up this section. I found this section quite fascinating. Maybe I’m drawn to the weird things out there in the world because I’m in awe of the artists’ imaginations.
  • The final section dealt with Art and Society with special focus on Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Felix Gonzales-Torres Untitled (Perfect Lovers), Jacob Lawrence Migration Series.

It was very helpful to hear art explained succinctly from a curator’s point of view and I think this has helped me to think a little deeper into the various aspects of art that I have viewed at exhibitions since doing this course.


Museum of Modern Art. Modern Art & Ideas [online] Coursera. Available from: [12 October, 2015]