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Student Showcase Archive

Cole Robertson

PhD Work

PhD work

  • Toward a unified field theory of photography

    Toward a unified field theory of photography, Cole Robertson 2017-
    Drugstore photographs and tape
    variable | Photographer: Cole Robertson

  • Toward a unified field theory of photography (detail)

    Toward a unified field theory of photography (detail)

  • Toward a unified field theory of photography (detail)

    Toward a unified field theory of photography (detail)

  • Toward a unified field theory of photography (detail)

    Toward a unified field theory of photography (detail)

(Dis)connecting dots, (un)making meanings: how images occupy (and are occupied by) language

‘The significance of the image as revealed in the process of scanning therefore represents a synthesis of two intentions: one manifested in the image and the other belonging to the observer... While wandering over the surface of the image, one’s gaze takes in one element after another and produces temporal relationships between them.’

Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography


What specific mechanisms are involved in what Flusser terms the ‘production of temporal relationships’ that result from viewing and interpreting a photographic image? I believe embodied, primary metaphor accounts for the seeming invisible underpinning of these relationships. That is, photographic image viewers and makers come to photography with pre-encoded embodied models for creating meaning, thereby drastically expanding the ability of the medium to communicate.

These types of shared unconscious knowledge bases contribute to a relatively frictionless visual communication. While this is advantageous for effective communication, it’s terrible for contemplation or thoughtfulness. The image, slicked with the grease of commonly held information, glides from producer to viewer with very little interrogation. This smooth flow of data (the ‘visual transaction’) needs slowing, disrupting, questioning, queering, transmuting, challenging, and generally fucking up. This is the driving force behind my work as a visual artist.


While there is an abundance of literature on the topics of photography, perception, cognition, and language separately, these discourses often speak independently of each other. My visual and written research brings together concepts of embodied thought, cognitive linguistic metaphor theory, and visual communication (both image creation and interpretation), all for the ultimate purpose of my visual practice - that of disruption.

Previous studies have unified concepts of linguistics (most notably semiology) with image theory, but this only tells part of the story. Starting with the written work of Flusser, Ian Verstegen, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Hito Steyerl, cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, and artists from Caravaggio to Amber Hawk Swanson, this practice-led research elucidates the invisible (and often unconscious) ‘connective tissue’ that contributes to the image’s facility to (seemingly) create meaning spontaneously.


Periodically throughout this work I switch between personal, analytic, and pseudonymic voices. This is both to employ the concepts at hand in a practical way, but also to provide a method for additional questioning of the texts. Thus the linking metaphoric structures are shown to pervade different writing genres and systems of communication.


Photography, image, embodied thought, philosophy, aesthetics, metaphor, linguistics, haptics, touch, networks, afterimage, aggregation, rhizome



  • PhD


    School of Arts & Humanities


    Photography, 2017–

  • One should not look at anything. Neither at things, nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors is it well to look, for mirrors do but show us masks.

    Oscar Wilde, Salome

    I like photography — its histories, languages and endless ability to move between genres, functionalities and industries. I teach, write, work, play, curate and create among this imagescape; through transmutation, alteration, animation, destruction, etc. I disrupt the transaction between viewer and image, hoping through visual disconnect to provoke analysis and hinder absorption.

    The totality of my practice lies on the uneasy boundaries between aesthetic pleasure, pure scholarship, and pedagogy. That is to say, I try to communicate my ideas about photography — its histories, practices, and peculiarities — through multiple media.
  • Degrees

  • MFA Photography, Columbia College Chicago, 2008; BFA Photography and Art History, Arizona State University, 2003
  • Experience

  • MA Group Lecturer, Royal College of Art, 2019-20; Visiting Artist Lecture, University for the Creative Arts Farnham, 2019; Visiting Artist Lecture, Bath Spa University, 2019; Visiting Artist Lecture, Liverpool Hope University, 2018; Instructor in Departments of Photography and Art History, Theory, & Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 2010-13; Adjunct Professor in Electronic Visualization, University of Illinois Chicago, Chicago, 2009; Adjunct Professor in Photography, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, 2007-2009
  • Exhibitions

  • Citation, European Artistic Research Network international conference, Leeds Art Gallery, University of Leeds, 2019; Another Land: Experimental Visualisations of Place, Stanley Picker Gallery, Kingston University, 2019; Flight Mode, Assembly Point Gallery, London, 2018; Property, Roman Susan Gallery, Chicago, 2017; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, And Queer (LGBTQ) Caucus Film Festival, Society for Photographic Education National Conference, Las Vegas, NV, 2016; Modular: Nasim Hantehzadeh & Cole Robertson, Mana Contemporary Chicago, IL, 2016
  • Awards

  • Red Mansion Prize (shortlist), 2018; Vermont Studio Center Artist in Residence, 2016; City of Chicago Individual Artist Grant, (2016, 2012, 2011, 2009, 2008, 2007); Illinois Arts Council Individual Artist Grant, 2013
  • Conferences

  • ‘touch piece’ and other thoughts on the body haptic, European Artistic Research Network international conference, University of Leeds, 2019; 'Connecting Dots, Making Meanings; Photography's Unconscious Networks', International Conference on the Image (theme: Artificial Images and Visual Intelligence: Seeing in the Age of Big-Data), Hong Kong Baptist University, 2018