photographed letterforms

Since the introduction of the printed word, letters have been reproduced. In traditional printing, including Guttenberg’s moveable type, the printing block differed significantly from the resultant text (not least in that it is a reversed, mirror-image). More recent methods of reproduction create texts that are more visually similar to the original documents. In photographic representation a scene is encoded (requiring the translation from two to three dimensions), but the resemblance is so effective that the decoding process can go unnoticed.

In 1925, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s use of the photographed letter demonstrated how type could be reproduced 'unambiguously'. Maholoy-Nagy proposed that the 'typophoto' is the truest, most objective representation of type. Moholy-Nagy’s proposal suggests a belief in type as fundamentally a physical ‘object’. Type must first be produced by other means, then replicated photographically. It is the typographic object, the result of a previous act of typography, that becomes the subject of the photo; the photo itself is not considered typographic.

Many contemporary media allow a sign to behave differently. Connotations may be transferred from a medium to its content. Different media have different 'meaning potential'. Type is anchored in a medium, appearing to have different significance on a page, on a screen, or on an object. Print, for example, is static, and therefore less personal than television, in which movement and action allow audiences to feel more involved. Photographic media are almost invariably regarded as more 'real' than other forms of representation. They are viewed as records or reproductions of reality, rather than representations. In photographic representation, the medium signifies reliability and reality. In Barthes’ terms, it is a 'perfect analogon'.

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Labworks (in collaboration with various photographers), Typography Kicks Ass, 2007

The 'Typography Kicks Ass' project allows users to type their own message using photographs of letters. Photographs allow type to be recontextualized. In the 'Typography Kicks Ass' project, letters are removed from their intended setting, and therefore also removed from their intended meaning. By allowing users freedom to create their own message, Labworks offer these photographed letters not in the context of a message, but in the context of a 'possible' message. Their meaning is not fixed, rather, they have 'meaning potential'.

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Pablo Alfrieri, Playful, 2007-2008

A distinction must be made between the two messages that a photograph may communicate: the denoted and connoted message. A photograph should not be viewed only as a reliable representation of reality, but also as a 'treatment' of reality, since it represents only one of many possible representations of a scene. At a simple level, the photographer selects one of many possible framings. Pablo Alfrieri’s 'Playful' depicts three-dimensional letter objects arranged in an orderly array of designer’s tools. The letters themselves are plain, with no pictorial characteristics, but their location alongside other tools asserts their role as a designer’s tool, and a physical object. Playful is not experienced directly. The typographic arrangement is photographed, then disassembled so that the letters may be used in other projects. The artefact is preserved only as a photograph, having the effect of making the past 'present'. The photograph is the permanent evidence that the temporary arrangement existed.


Lee Stokes, Pipe Font, 2009

At a more complex level, the photographer may interfere further, choosing and positioning objects to create additional significance. Photographed, functional objects are given new typographic meaning in works such as Lee Stokes’ 'Pipe Font', an alphabet constructed entirely from PVC pipes. Pipes are rearranged to apparently present letterforms, and to add linguistic meaning. New signification is constructed when the Pipe Font is applied in the production of the word ‘flood’, while the pipes appear to connect to a sink, and therefore retain their original context and meaning. These objects serve a dual purpose: as pipes and as type.

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The Computer-Generated Letter-Object

Trick photography and computer-generated images are increasingly rendering photography unreliable, yet the connotations of reliability remain. With better technology, photos are more able to masquerade as true representations of reality, when they are in fact heavily doctored or even entirely artificial/synthetic. In Computer-generated imagery, artificially created forms appear with virtually no visual indications that they are not photographic representations of a real scene. They can, therefore, present the unreal as the real, utilizing the apparent credibility of the photograph.


Petar Pavlov, Type as Image, 2008.

Petar Pavlov's 'Type as Image' is computer-generated, but masquerades as a photograph. It contains apparently three-dimensional letterforms, in environmental space, as is suggested by tonal variation. In their creation, computer-generated letterforms like this have more in common with typed text than with photographed objects. In many instances, the initial step in their creation is the pressing of a keyboard key. The ‘trickery’ which disguises them as photographic objects is comparable to a typeface. This disguise - the application of the shading and surface textures expected in reality - allows the type to masquerade as a real object, ultimately concealing the method of creation.

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Paul The Illustrator, Type Factory, 2009.

In 'Type Factory' three-dimensional type is computer-generated. As well as having the tonal variation one would expect in a photograph, this example has another distinct attribute which signifies realism: it is dressed in newspaper print. When compared to type-on screen, newspaper is tactile. It reminds us of the more physical days of print, when the texture of the paper contrasted with the smooth surface of the print, and the ink transferred to the skin of the readers' hands. Newsprint is seen as more genuine than the digitally produced letter which appears fleetingly on a computer or television screen. But, in this context, the newspaper print is appropriated for unconventional use. It becomes the surface texture on larger computer-generated type. The stories that the newspaper told are lost in favour of a bolder, larger statement. This statement refers back to the content of the newspaper. The command, 'read all about it', directs us to the many unseen stories within the newspaper, telling us that there are many narratives to be discovered within this text.


All of the above images link to sources.


foundations typographic landscapes photographed type in-image captions unconventional materials and surfaces
typographic portraits wearable type typographic objects image fonts further research

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