4D Project 2: The Subverted Object (a.k.a. The Doorknob Saga)

In our second 4D project, we’re once again tasked with taking a series of photographs. But now, rather than simply telling a story, we’re asked to take an object and subvert its meaning through photography. Each of us was assigned a different object — and in a stroke of misfortune, I was saddled with the humble doorknob.

Fig. 1. An average specimen of Doorknobicus dormitorii.

The funny thing about doorknobs is how little-noticed they are. They’re all around us, and yet we barely register their presence. Doorknobs are an example of the design adage that the most elegant design is the one you don’t even notice. Unfortunately, this makes them particularly bad subjects for a photo series. How do you take photos of doorknobs and have them be interesting? Or worse, subvert their meaning?

After trying to come up with ways to make a doorknob not a doorknob, and mostly failing, I decided to just run around NTU taking photos of doorknobs. The photographer is, after all, limited by his subject matter. Instead of coming up with fancy high-concept photographs, then, I’d take whatever photos I thought were cool in the heat of the moment, and figure out a way to justify myself post facto.

Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Doorknobs

For my test shots, I took several types of photos. The most basic variety of photos was just shots of doorknobs as-is, which provided a baseline for me to work from.

While exploring the form of the humble doorknob/door latch/door handle, I realized that most doorknobs in NTU have simple geometric shapes. I especially liked the “metal bar” design of the various door handles around ADM, which put a twist on the old-fashioned round doorknob one pictures when prompted with the word “doorknob.” This reminded me of a photo by photographer Andreas Gursky, titled Rhein II, which famously sold for $4.3 million USD:

Inspired by the way Rhein II reduces the Rhine river to a flat, linear, almost abstract canvas, I wanted to see if I could give ADM’s doorknobs the same photographic treatment.

Finally, I was interested in other ways to subvert the idea of the “doorknob.” Some of my ideas involved treating the doorknob as a threshold, or a boundary between two different worlds. I also experimented with light and shadow, and including other objects in the frame to change the overall meaning.


I consulted with Lei, who agreed that I had some good ideas regarding doorknobs and encouraged me to stay on the track of Rhein II-style abstraction. However, she pointed out that I could include more shots of people, or myself, interacting with doorknobs. Thus, when I got a DSLR for my final shots, my goal was to expand on the ideas I’d already covered with my test shots while also exploring the new possibilities a tripod afforded.

An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Doorknobs, Vol. II

As before, I had a lot of fun using strange camera angles and close-ups to present ADM’s metal door handles in a new light:

I also experimented with including myself in the frame in earnest. I had the idea of leaning on ADM door handles as if they were railings, taking photos of myself opening doors, etc.

Who knew doorknobs could be so interesting?

Final Selection

In the end, I had to pick 6 of my compositions as the final shots for submission. 3 had to depict the doorknob in its original context, and 3 had to show it in a new light. The criteria I set for my final submission shots were that a) they had to look good, b) they had to be visually distinct from each other, and c) they had to add something new to the overall submission. Here’s what I ended up choosing:

Doorknob in Context

These images essentially depict the doorknob-as-doorknob. They were the most visually interesting of my photos that had a recognizable doorknob as the focus.

Doorknob Subverted

These images subvert the doorknob, either by reducing it to its most basic geometric shapes (à la Rhein II) or by redefining it in relation to myself. The second and third images are geometric explorations, while the first one paints the doorknob as a barrier, or a series of jail cell bars, rather than a threshold.


Part of the assignment was also to use one of our photos on a poster, with accompanying text that changes the meaning of the photo. Here’s what I came up with:

Can’t get a grip?
More than 90% of NTU students suffer from work-related stress.
You are not alone. Talk to us at the Student Wellbeing Centre.
Phone: +65 6790 4462 Email: studentwellbeing@ntu.edu.sg

Here, I heavily manipulated the image to cast it in almost pure shadow; this is a form of chiaroscuro that draws attention to the division between the exterior and the interior of the door. I also mirrored it right to left so that my body now runs from the upper left to lower right, and the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the lower right of the image. I’m really happy with how the poster and the bad pun turned out, and so, it seems, were many of my classmates.

The Student Wellbeing Centre is a real thing, by the way. I chose this theme because I have family members who struggle with psychological disorders, and it’s a cause that I have personal feelings about. To everyone reading this post, please stay happy and healthy, and remember that you are not alone.


I didn’t expect to enjoy this project as much as I did. It turns out that going around taking ridiculous photos of doorknobs is a nice change of pace, and it almost feels like a scavenger hunt where you’re searching for hidden treasure. No one can stop me from lying on the floor or being a nuisance at the ADM front door if it’s in the name of art.

This photo was taken while lying prone, like some kind of visual terrorist

All in all, it was an entertaining exercise in framing, context, and subversion. I learned a lot about how to adjust the focus on DSLRs and where to print A2 posters, and I have a new respect for photography as a medium.

Now though, I have a poster and a stack of photos that I have no idea what to do with. Can someone hook me up with the NTU Student Wellbeing Centre? I have a critically acclaimed poster design I’m willing to part with…


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Chin Kee Yong

hello i play video games and also sometimes make video games

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