Research point: Sam Taylor-Johnson


Read through the brief summaries below and choose two artists to explore in more depth. Make notes in your learning log or blog about how your chosen photographers use their art to comment on their own identity and the issue of female identity in general. Note down any similarities and differences between the two. Could any aspects of their work influence your own practice?

I chose Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) and Sam Taylor-Johnson (b.1967, formerly Sam Taylor-Wood).

Here I focus on Taylor-Johnson; the comparison between the two will be at the end of this post.

I’m not totally convinced that Taylor-Johnson has a claim to a place on a fairly short list of photographers who have “incorporated ideas of identity into their image-making” (course notes: 73), as I can think of many others with a much more apparent focus on identity (Nikki S Lee, Trish Morrissey, Gillian Wearing and Cindy Sherman among others). Not to say that identity doesn’t play a part of her work, it’s just not the major part in my opinion.

Early work

Some of her early self-portraiture work does fit into the ‘feminine identity’ genre, such as 1993’s Slut and Fuck, Suck, Spank, Wank – but this is the rather blunt and unsubtle end of her work that she thankfully outgrew.

Men Crying

Her well-known Men Crying series (2002-04) raises issues of the male identity, although by her own admission its real impetus (retrospectively recognised) was her own response to her cancer – her inability to cry: “I think that’s why I made 28 men cry instead. I always say that my work is ahead of me three steps. With hindsight, I was sitting there with people who’d cry my tears for me.” (Guardian 2009).

To me they are very much about identity in a particular respect – rather than gender identity (the broad message of seeing men in a stereotypical ‘feminine’ emotional state), they are concerned with the interplay of the personal identity of the individual (what did they have to think of to cry?) and their public persona, which is a distinct identity in its own right.

The use of famous actors means that as a viewer there is a real temptation to project onto the sitters what you already ‘know’ about them: the portraits of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams have you scanning for foreshadows of their deaths (the furrowing of Williams’ eyebrows does me in – there’s the punctum, right there), while Ray Winston looks incapable of crying and Ben Stiller is just goofing around.

Rather than identity, the driving force behind Taylor-Johnson’s work seems to be more about the expression of internal emotions. The key phrase in the course notes that helped me understand her was this: “Much of Taylor-Wood’s [-Johnson’s] work explores feelings and emotion” (course notes: 77).

Autobiographical work

For me then her best, most beautiful work is that which has its source in the examination of emotions or states of mind. Much of her output in the 2000s was, in one way or another, a reaction to her two bouts of cancer in 1997 and 2000. Self-Portrait in a Single-Breasted Suit with Hare (2001) is the most overt example, and “acts as a response to the constant questioning about what work she would produce after the [cancer] experience” (Bright 2010: 38)

Self-Portrait in a Single-Breasted Suit with Hare, 2001 – Sam Taylor-Johnson

She combines wordplay with reference to art history: she ‘held on to her hair’ whilst undergoing treatment, and the single-breasted suit refers to her mastectomy. Taylor-Johnson explains the art reference: “The hare symbolises lust and passion [in Renaissance and Baroque art], so here I am with a head of hair, in a single-breasted suit, holding on to lust and passion.” (Taylor-Johnson, in Higgins 2013: 195)

Taylor-Johnson has used the concept of floating in some of her work; and the fact that she practices transcendental meditation may help to illuminate this. In Self Portrait Suspended (2004), Bram Stoker’s Chair (2005), and Escape Artist (2008) she used bondage ropes, subsequently digitally removed, to suspend herself in mid-air in elaborate poses.

Though visually related, the effect of the works are different: in Self Portrait Suspended she looks weightless, ethereal, dreamlike – she said of this work that it was the freedom of a new start, post-illness (Higgins 2013: 192) – whereas the later Escape Artist is both visually and conceptually darker, as it looks more helpless than weightless, like she’s falling, about to hit the floor but just about held up by the balloons. In between the two is Bram Stoker’s Chair, where Taylor-Johnson “finds a way to show the fragile interior supports of exterior grace” (artist website).

Though personally-driven, all of these are in some way evocative of more universal emotions. Bram Stoker’s Chair in particular, may strike a chord with other women with regards to the tension between internal and external identity issues. I don’t however believe that Taylor-Johnson is intentionally looking to make statements about identity, I think this is a by-product from quite introspective work.

Taylor-Johnson hides her face in all these images, which could be interpreted as an intention to help the viewer identify – but the reason Taylor-Johnson gives is more prosaic: it’s about “hiding the grimacing pain – because I think that destroys the photograph” (Higgins 2013: 192).

Bound, 2007 – Sam Taylor-Johnson
Bound, 2007 – Sam Taylor-Johnson

I found it fascinating that Taylor-Johnson made an artwork out of a behind-the-scenes shot from Bram Stoker’s Chair, depicting her in the uncomfortable bondage harness before it was digitally removed, and called it Bound (2007). To me this implies that she felt the need to show the painful reality behind the faked graceful poses – adding a layer of ‘truth’ to the fairy tale aesthetic of the originals.

The course notes talk about the feminist criticism she received for some of her photography; I feel this was a little unfair and focused on what I’d consider to be atypical of her work. In the ‘floating’ projects she appears in vest and knickers, but the effect is not sexual but rather dreamlike – it’s nightwear rather than underwear in this context I think (though feminist criticism for directing Fifty Shades of Grey may have been more justified…).

To answer the questions in the research brief: yes, I can definitely see Taylor-Johnson’s work being an influence on my own. I find projects that allow me to depict internal states of mind, thought processes, emotions and sensations are the most interesting ones. On Context & Narrative the assignments I found most satisfying were about exploring creative block, dislocation and the tension between my work life and my studies. Taylor-Wood’s best work is subtle but really thought-provoking, something I aspire to.

Comparison between Barbara Kruger and Sam Taylor-Johnson: they are very, very different. Kruger is very bold, strident, unsubtle and has a singularly distinctive style. Taylor-Johnson is much more nuanced, subtle (that word again), intelligent and creative. Kruger is unashamedly feminist and addresses issues of gender identity; Taylor-Johnson addresses such issues in a tangential or maybe even unconscious way.


Bright, S. (2010) Auto Focus: the Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames & Hudson.

Higgins, J (2013). 21st Century Portraits. London: NPG. (accessed 11/04/2016) (accessed 08/04/2016) (accessed 08/04/2016)

5 thoughts on “Research point: Sam Taylor-Johnson

    • Rob Townsend 11 April 2016 / 10:40

      Yes! I actually saw it when it was first aired and loved it, had no idea who ST-W was at the time. It was only in my recent research that I discovered that it was her work :-)


  1. sarahjanefield512666 07 December 2016 / 16:52

    Rob, can you point me to the feminist criticism you mention in the blog, please? Thank you


    • Rob Townsend 07 December 2016 / 17:42

      Yes and no! It was mentioned in the Gesture & Meaning course notes and goes as follows: “Some of the work in which she appears naked, for example ‘Leda and the Swan’, has attracted feminist criticism”. However, the notes do not elaborate on, quote, or cite the source of this criticism (bad form, OCA course notes…!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • sarahjanefield512666 07 December 2016 / 18:07

        Yes, very bad form! I shall have to do some searching. Thank you


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