Category Archives: Victor Burgin

Victor Burgin (1941 – ): Conceptual artist, Writer, Photographer

I am reviewing this artist/photographer at the suggestion of my tutor. I found his work really interesting not least because I was moving towards the addition of text to my images before I looked at his work. The first online reference I looked at was Galerie Zander. In “Seeing Double“(1) he adds text but unfortunately the images online were not good enough to read the text.

Further research produced a very interesting paper (here (2)) on appropiations which is defined in Wikipedia as:  the use of pre-existing objects or images with little or no transformation applied to them.

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Figure1.28 Victor Burgin: “Life Demands a Little Give and Take” (1974)

The text, for this image, was given as follows:

Evening is the softest time of day. As the sun descends the butterfly bright colours which flourish at high noon give way to the moth shades. The tones are pale, delicate. These are the classic Mayfair colours. White, naturally, takes pride of place, but evening white lightly touched with silver or sometimes gold . . . The look is essentially luxurious, very much for the pampered lady dressed for a romantic evening with every element pale and perfect.

This text is about the targeting of fashion towards white people rather than black. The author asks if, without the text, the message would be clear?

In my own assignment submission I used an Dior ad to state that even models carry at least 1kg of bacteria. I was interested to see how closely it resembled Burgin’s poster “Possession” which he created


Nuala Mahon

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Figure 1.29 Victor Burgin, “Possession”









Although my ‘message’  was a much simpler one and not political. Burgin was highlighting the uneven distribution of wealth in the world. Apparently his message fell on ‘blind eyes’ as very few people actually read it.

Burgin uses the above image in his exhibition curated by David Campany On Paper. (3)The blurb for this exhibition attributes the following statement to Burgin:

My decision to base my work in contemporary cultural theory rather than traditional aesthetics, has resulted in work whose precise ‘location’ is uncertain, ‘between’: between gallery and book; between ‘visual art’ and ‘theory’; between ‘image’ and ‘narrative’ – ‘work’ providing work between reader and text.

I love the idea.

Contrary to the ‘simplicity of his images to read and interpret, his essays are written in a sightly simpler style than Barthes but nonetheless they are not bedtime reading.

From his essay Seeing Sense (4) Burgin suggests:

A significant social effect of a photograph is the product of its imbrication within such discursive formations. It is easily appreciated that advertising activates such formations as, for example, those which concern family life, erotic encounters, competitiveness, and so on. The role of the veerbal in advertising will be ust as readily conceded – writing is physically integrated into nearly every advertisement. But art photographs are not exempt from such determinations of meaning, determinations which are achieved even where actual writing is absent.

Which I take to mean both art images and advertisement rely on written or implied words to project their meaning.

When discussing an image, by Garry Winogrand, of four women walking down the street passing garbage bags stuffed with rubbish, Burgin says, that we already have in mind the expression ‘old bag… He maintains

We cannot choose what we know, and neither can we choose what part of our dormant knowledge will be awakened by the stimulus of an image, reciprocally reactivated and reinforced by it.

This happens no matter how hard we try to maintain neutrality. Everything we have lived and experienced will influence what we experience when looking at a photograph.

In discussing Photography as art Burgin quotes Greenberg (5):

The art in photography is literary art before anything else. The photography has to tell a story if it is to work as art. And it is in choosing and accosting his story, or subject , that the artist-photographer makes the decisions crucial to his art.

In addition to Greenberg’s story, Szarkowski (6) talks about the sense of an image but Burgin believes we must add a third parameter which is the seeing subject, the observer of the image.

One of Burgin’s essay’s entitled “Looking at Photographs” provided me with a sore head from the level of concentration required to decipher its meaning. I decided to reread it today but in my mail this morning was a link to a Japanese photographer (7), Lukasz Palka. His ideas about reading photographs which fairly closely agreed with Burgins that to complete the work an observer is necessary, He says

The signifying significance of a photograph,……, at once depicts a scene and the gaze of the spectator, an object and a viewing subject

Burgin goes further than Palka in what he believes an observer brings to the image. He or she interprets the image on the basis of all his pre-knowledge and learning. Burgin also discusses the fact that a photograph is framed and in being framed it excludes part of the story. This is why so many professional street photographers like the Leica with the viewfinder to the side. In this way they can keep the whole surrounding in view and make the decision what to include and what to exclude in the final image.

Burgins ‘reading’ of the image, by James Jarche General Wavell watches his gardener at work, is extraordinary. One wonders if the photographer intended such a level of interpretation or indeed if that matters since the observer is part of the looking experience and is entitled to interpret as he thinks fit.

It is hard to make sense of Burgins conclusions about Photography and the codes contained therin.


  1. Works – Victor Burgin – Artists – Galerie Thomas Zander. 2016. Works – Victor Burgin – Artists – Galerie Thomas Zander. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 23 March 2016].
  2. 1.3 Appropriations. 2016. 1.3 Appropriations. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 23 March 2016]
  3. Victor Burgin: On Paper | David Campany. 2016. Victor Burgin: On Paper | David Campany. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 23 March 2016].
  4. 2016. . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 24 March 2016].
  5. Four Photographers by Clement Greenberg | The New York Review of Books. 2016. Four Photographers by Clement Greenberg | The New York Review of Books. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 24 March 2016].
  6. Szarkowski, J, 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 1st ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art
  7. A Photograph is an Experience. 2016. A Photograph is an Experience. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 March 2016].