Practice Research: Liminal Space

Early on in the year I started by looking into Liminal Space as a possible theme for my Practice for this module. I started out by making images of spaces that were uncanny, strange, confusing and odd places whilst reading about Liminal Spaces on the web.

It does seem to be an internet driven phenomenon and has taken off with many photographs of buildings and internal shots of deserted spaces that appear to be odd and curious.

Liminal can be defined as per the Merriam Webster page below.

Merriam Webster Definition of Liminal.

Both of these definitions relate to the photography style that one finds when searching for Liminal Space photography.

Liminal also means crossing the threshold so it is a transitional state between two states or locations. The word Eliminate originates from throwing someone or something out through the door over the threshold into a different place. This could be going from one room into another, moving down an air bridge from the terminal to the plane, visiting a car park on the way to the shops, a location where you change such as a hairdressers, college, school or even doctors surgery. The transition place can be unknowing of the either side of the transition so can be something completely unrelated and weird.

If you Google Image search Liminal Space Photography you are presented with the following presentation of images. You can see from the images that there are hotel corridors, disused buildings, foggy petrol stations, empty landscapes and many other types of images that reflect a location that is instantly recognisable yet strangely unsettling.

Google Image Search for Liminal Space Photography


Much of the content around Liminal Spaces stems from the Backrooms images which feature some unidentified rooms, possibly a conference centre or open plan offices with the furniture missing. Photos of a living room in a house, with no furniture but a telephone left abandoned on the floor. This is the description of one of Todd Hido’s images, which fits in nicely with the liminal space theme. The backrooms seem to have spawned a whole mythos, with films, games and novels written about them. Some of the rhetoric around Backrooms and Liminal Spaces is reminiscent of the film The Matrix by the Wachowskis.

Many of the people who comment on the photographs or films that have been made using CGI all use words like atmosphere, eerie, scary, fear, unsettling, unnerving and uneasy. These are the same words that I refer to in my contextual visual analysis and have also come in handy for my practice with Liminal and Shutdown themed images.

Many of the comments refer to secret conspiracies and a parallel universe, which is probably people going a bit too far with their imaginations but it’s interesting that people are willing to carry out mental experiments as to a secret world that exists alongside our own.

There are also plenty of video essays on the topic of Liminal Spaces such as the following by Daniel Felix. LIMINAL – A Video Essay On Liminal Space

In this video, he compares the Liminal Space movement to some of the works by Edward Hopper and John Register. He quotes Register talking about the difference between his work and Hopper’s being that Hopper isolates a subject in his image whereas Register thinks that his images isolate the viewer. It’s interesting the way that he discusses many of the same concepts and feelings that I have in mind when I’m out with my camera in the dark or exploring a disused building somewhere.

Ruth Neubauer

I found the works of psychotherapist Ruth Neubauer on her website and spent some time contemplating how she talked about liminal spaces and her art.

A selection of Neubauer’s works from her website..

“A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.”

Liminal Space definition by Cambridge Art Association

Neubauer is an artist who spends time seeing the things in the world that are not noticed by most other people. She explains that she feels as an artist that she gets into a liminal space to produce the work, that is a place where she feels like a transition is occurring. She notes that the more abstract the images, the less they are tied to time, date and place

The photos on her website are detail shots of places that she has been and most are abstract whilst some represent identifiable places, but devoid of people. These aren’t really the sort of images that I enjoy making but I can see that there are some photographs where there is an uneasy feeling being created. Most of the pictures in her Abstract portfolio are texture filled and do take me back to another place and time, when I’ve been around buildings or rooms that are degrading or falling into disrepair.

Between Life and Death

Liminal Space, a poem by Jenni R. Clarkson, B.A is available via a library search on the WLV Library and is written about Palliative and Supportive Care. The poet, Clarkson, has a wonderfully moving poem that refers to liminal space in a different context. In her work she describes going into an apartment where her mother lies seemingly close to death.

She’s in a liminal space,” my therapist tells me

as I stare at the flickering candle on the table between us,

“and you can’t follow her.” I know this logically,

but I seem to be lagging behind emotionally

and spiritually. “I know,” I say. “She’s at the threshold;

we can only hold her hand so long.

Extract from Liminal Space by Jenni R Clarkson

The poem describes going into the room with her mother and sister already being in there with medical professionals also. In this work the liminal space referred to is the place a person might exist between being alive and being truly deceased. It’s a “Threshold” according to her therapist, harking back to my earlier callout of Thresholds in this post. The fact that the dying woman has begun to cross the threshold from life to death and the uncertainty and unknown of the predicament is what makes the verse difficult to read. For those readers who have lost a parent and experienced this time of their relative being neither fully alive or completely dead it is a call back to those memories.

Different Uses

I find it interesting that this is not a photograph and still causes us to think about Liminal Spaces, the term has been around for a long time, Oxford English Dictionary note that it’s first known use is 1875 and the frequency of its use has been increasing for a long time. From the charts below we can see (according to estimates from the Oxford English Dictionary, that it started to gain popularity in the 1950s and then from 2017 until 2023 it has increased from 0.08 to 0.18 occurrences per million. Each of these charts has a different source of data, scraped for the words and is only an estimate but we can note that the frequency continues to increase.

The Backrooms phenomenon that I previously referred to was first mentioned on a “4chan” thread in May 2019 and is the first known use of the term to describe this type of location or image.


For many photographers who have heard of Liminal Space it will primarily be related to the same type of imagery that I employ in the empty scenes that I shoot. Even my daughter, Cerys, has heard of Liminal Space and recently told me that she is a member of the Liminal Space Reddit where she enjoys seeing the familiar locations that she has never been too, being portrayed in a creepy manner. The use of the word is also seen in education settings.

It appears to be used as a method to help learners pick up new skills and knowledge through a method named threshold concept learning. Again the word Threshold appears alongside the liminal word.

(Irving, Wright and Hibbert, 2019) describes how “transitions through liminal spaces in threshold concept learning play out as an interrelated, cognitive, and affective process. We identify key transition points and mechanisms related to doubt, high-activation negative emotions, regret, and emotional resolution that trigger entry into, progression through or getting stuck within, and exit from a liminal space when a learner engages with and masters a threshold concept. “

They also quote a passage from Meyer and Land in which they say “In order to grasp a threshold concept, learners enter a liminal space of ‘being betwixt and between’ when they realise that their previous understandings are inadequate but before they have fully developed a new understanding”. (Meyer and Land, 2005Turner, 1977). 

It sounds vastly more complex than I can elaborate on here but my understanding is that Threshold Learning is a useful method to teach people that there is a stage between what they previously knew or believed, and what they will leave the process knowing. This in-between state is useful as it helps the learner to dissociate and effectively forget the prior knowledge, replacing it with the new, updated and more useful information.

Where are my car keys?

In this context, thresholds and liminal spaces, also remind me of the Doorway Effect, in which it has been scientifically proven that going through a doorway, across a threshold then, impacts the memory of a person negatively. It’s a reason we forget why we’ve gone into the other room, “what was I going in here for?” is something I’ve often said. Many other people will also identify with this phenomenon and whilst it’s not linked with Liminal spaces, I find it interesting that people with experience of liminal space images often remark that it’s like deja-vu, that they may have been to this place in the past. One study I found in a journal, via the WLV Library has a full study into the effects and outlines why this might happen:

“consistent with several other studies, consistently found that that people were more error prone when they had just moved from one location to another compared to if they had walked across a large room. “

(Pettijohn and Radvansky, 2015)

Back To Hido

A video that I watched on Youtube, linked below, discusses how these type of images can fill the viewer with feelings of fear, dread, sadness, loneliness and many other different sensations. In some of the images discussed, there appears to be some buildings of a non-descript design, maybe a prison or governmental office type structure, with the occasional light left on in the window. It reminds me of the work of Todd Hido, as I have discussed in the previous research post. These topics link through my year’s work and help me in the Practice work as well as in my contextual works, such as the visual analysis on the photos of Mark Power and Liam Wong.


Liminal Spaces are everywhere and nowhere, they’re difficult to describe or even truly understand why they affect some people and not others. It might be down to previous life experiences, previous lives (if you believe in the reincarnation theories around liminal spaces), or even imagination running away with the viewer to create a narrative of what might have occurred or what might occur.

Liminal as a word is used in many different fields, but the uses I’ve seen of it over the last eight months all have an air about them of a mysterious phase or period where someone is transitioning from one state to another. Other uses mentioned above are still wooly, and not concretely defined.

As part of my practice I used the eerie and fearful atmospheres produced by my work in the Shutdown series of images where I photographed an empty factory building with the lights extinguished. To me it’s a liminal type of image, as I am used to seeing the area in question full of people and lots of noises, smells and other signs of humans working. The images below from 2001 and 2003 show one of our factory buildings before and after being completely emptied out and waiting for its next phase.

Building 3 in 2001, Bob Griffiths

The photo with the emptied out structure, shows the facility in its liminal stage awaiting for the install of the newer equipment that would soon fill the floor space up and help the company continue its journey to growth. Whilst the photo above might be unfamiliar to many people, to engineers it represents a normal type of work environment with machines and the associated accoutrements needed to produce a product. The lower of the two images (below) is likely to give engineers a different sens, as they might usually only see this type of factory building during it’s construction or the winding down of a business that might result in their redundancy. As such, it might qualify as being an emotionally charged image and it fills the liminal space “criteria” to be an image that might unsettle or make someone feel ill at ease.

Building 3 in 2003, Bob Griffiths

Both of the photos above were taken by myself, with the incoming wave of digital photography on my Olympus C960Zoom and Canon Powershot S30. I’ve always liked photographing change, whether it is the demolition of a building in the town, or a new construction being progressed. This is an interest of mine, and until recently I figured it was just a strange obsession, but with the knowledge that Liminal Spaces, Thresholds, Change, and Transition are valid subjects for photography I feel a little happier. Not that I care what people think of my photography too much, but it’s nice to understand why I may find these types of images and scenes interesting.

With all of the different meanings of Liminality I found that I needed to change my contextual assignment to one around atmosphere, which is caused for me by liminal photos but it narrows the topic down somewhat. The Practice work I’ve completed for my exhibition also relies on the transition of time, place, location and even me as a human moving through time and space in the same factory for the 35 years I’ve worked there. It’s fascinating to me that all of the modules have aligned this year to develop into linked styles and subjects of photography.

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