Dr Nick Haeffner

Studio 20: Image ethics: Form, meaning and context

Studio 20: Image ethics

Studio brief

This studio supports students who want to do research on the image, especially the photographic image. It offers a variety of perspectives on the aesthetics of the image and its relationship to a variety of contexts. It also looks at the role played by fantasy, desire and social memory when we look.

Images are often seen as self-evident and at the same time invisible (when we look we tend to see everything but the photograph itself). Instead of pointing at the photograph and saying ‘this is the plane flying into a building’, it is more accurate to say ‘these are dots of ink printed on paper in a pattern to resemble a plane flying into a building’ or ‘these are illuminated pixels on a screen which give rise to a mental image of a plane flying into a building’.

It is not only the materiality of the image that gets overlooked. There is also the role of context in fixing the meaning of the image. On closer inspection, context seems to complete the image, even though the attempt to distinguish between what is ‘text’ and what is ‘context’ can turn out to be slippery. Instead of seeing these as awkward or inconvenient barriers to our personal enjoyment of images, we can see them as a means of getting under the skin of images, finding out how they work and how to make judgements about them.

The summer task is:

To choose a photograph from a recent newspaper story and use it to respond (in writing, 400 words) to the following quote, saying whether you agree or disagree with it: "this is not a just image, it's just an image" (Jean-Luc Godard).

Outline the first seven weeks of study

  • Week 1: Introduction: What is a dissertation and what kinds of topic work best? How to deal with a body of work, a particular photographer, a technique, a genre, a critical issue, a style or a particular moment in history. Looking at examples of previous dissertations in this area.
  • Week 2: Sources: Where do I find material to base my dissertation on? What is the right kind of material? Why are some sources considered unacceptable for a dissertation?
  • Week 3: Quoting from your sources; referencing your sources; discussing your sources critically and having your own voice. Developing your own argument.
  • Week 4: Issues and critical perspectives i): the form of an image – technique, aesthetics, intention, the marks of authorship, codes and conventions.
  • Week 5: Issues and critical perspectives ii) historicising the image – genre history; history and technology.
  • Week 6: Issues and critical perspectives ii): critical judgement and the image – economics, institutions, markets, society, culture, gender, ideology and nationality.
  • Week 7: Pitching your dissertation idea to the group.

Reading list

  1. Shore, Stephen, The Nature of Photographs (London: Phaidon, 2010) – a classic text by a well-known photographer which emphasises the materiality of the photograph.
  2. Bate, David, Photography: Key Concepts (New York: Berg, 2009) – a critical study which breaks down the subject by genre (eg. portraiture, still life, landscape, documentary, etc.)
  3. Bull, Stephen, Photography (London: Routledge, 2009) – a clear and wide-ranging introduction to genres and critical issues in photography.
  4. Stallabrass, Julian, Documentary (London: Whitechapel, 2013) – lively and polemical articles which argue over the nature and status of photographic truth.
  5. Gibbons, Joan, Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance (London: I B Tauris, 2010)– looks at memory as both theme and function in contemporary art.
  6. Degen, Natasha, The Market (London: Whitechapel, 2014)– an up to date selection of writings by artists and critics.


Tutor Dr Nick Haeffner

Tutor Biography

Dissertation Studios

Studio 1: Another India

Harriet McKay

Studio 1: Another India will examine, reflect upon and critique the historic use of "exotic" motifs in design.

Studio 3: Music is the Weapon: Performance, Culture and the Music Industry

Christina Paine

Studio 3: Music is the Weapon: Performance, Culture and the Music Industry is an exploration of race, gender, class and more in music.

Studio 4: What Not to Wear?

Emma Davenport

Studio 4: What Not to Wear? will investigate the roles that dress and fashion play in our workplaces.

Studio 5: Imperfect Theories

Ektoras Arkomanis

Studio 5: Imperfect Theories allows you to critically examine any work that can be seen as theory or presents an interesting relationship with theory.

Studio 6: Curating Contemporary Art: From the Wunderkammer to Installation art

Nico de Oliveira

Studio 6: Curating Contemporary Art examines the impact of curatorial practice on art.

Studio 7: Fashioning culture: clothing and the shaping of identity

Dr Lesley Stevenson

Studio 7: Fashioning culture will examine critically the links between fashion, clothing and identity.

Studio 8: Pleasure, Excess and Dirt

Edwina Attlee

Studio 8 explores ideas of category, definition, identification and belonging through the examination of a series of objects and behaviours that appear to be in the wrong place instead of the right place.

Studio 9: The Continuing Lives of Objects

Danielle Hewitt

Studio 9: The Continuing Lives of Objects uses debates about change and preservation explore ideas within architecture.

Studio 10: Critical Theory and Critical Design. Artefacts, Images, Sites, Processes in Graphics and Illustration

Dipti Bhagat with Christopher Emmett

Studio 10 requires deep commitment and completion of critical theory and design for graphic design and illustration.

Studio 12: London Walking

Clare Qualmann

Studio 12: London Walking looks at walking as a mode of creatively appropriating the city, with particular attention to our own city, London.

Studio 14: All in the best possible Taste

Dr John Cross

Studio 14: 'All in the best possible Taste' examines the historical influencers of taste, style and fashion.

Studio 15: Music, Technology and Ideas

Lewis Jones

Studio 15: Music, Technology and Ideas encourages you to explore how and why we make music, including its origin, relationship to technology and more.

Studio 16: Narrative and Storytelling

Jon Baldwin

Studio 16: Narrative and Storytelling will see you produce storygraphs, storyboards and various forms of narrative analysis in the seminars.

Studio 17: Knowing Audiences

Jeremy Collins

Studio 17: Knowing Audiences will encourage you to study an audience group using qualitative research methods in your investigations.

Studio 19: Material in Motion

Heidi Yeo

Studio 19: Material in Motion will explore why an audience will put time, money and thought into acquiring an object.

Studio 20: Image ethics: Form, meaning and context

Dr Nick Haeffner

Studio 20: Image ethics: Form, meaning and context explores the aesthetics of the image and its role within fantasy, desire and social memory.

Studio 21: The Nonsensical Realm III

Joseph Kohlmaier

Studio 21: The Nonsensical Realm is a cross-disciplinary studio. This year it will engage with the idea of metaphor in art, architecture, design and music.

Studio 22: Meaningful work

Paul Harper

Studio 22: Meaningful work explores the value of making and the idea of craft as meaningful work.

Studio 23: A Common Thread

Gina Pierce

Studio 23: A Common Thread examines the relationship between textiles and everyday life, including its design, trade, sustainability and more.

Studio 24: Words in Space

David Price

Studio 24: Words in Space reflects on the role that words play in our visual world, performative spaces and the urban environment.

Cass Studios archive by year