Category Archives: Reading photographs (part 4)

Learning outcomes (end of part four)

Learning outcomes (end of part four)

Reading photographs

I have enjoyed this part of the course and learning about semiotics, deconstruction and the grammar of photography. In the previous part of the course I submitted an assignment (photographing the unseen), on Illiteracy. I unwittingly preempted some of this current learning when I considered the different types of language we use in order to communicate. I was interested in all the different codes that form the way we transmit meaning and tried to articulate it in preliminary work for the ‘unseen’ assignment. Here is what I attempted:

A post to show my thinking is here

I was trying to visually articulate some of the different codes that we use and how some people can read some codes and not others, rather like some people can read French but not Spanish; as Philip-Lorca diCorcia said, “Photography is a foreign language everyone thinks he speaks.” (, 2018).


Creation of images that demonstrate a practical and conceptual understanding of the appropriate use of techniques

This assignment was not image based. However, choosing the one image to analyse for assignment four, involved research into a short list of possible images and this necessarily involved considering the ideas and meaning behind them.  For my work on image consideration please see below:

Short list of potential images


Demonstration of an emerging critical awareness and ability to translate ideas into imagery

On the contrary, this written assignment encouraged the translation of imagery into ideas. The image that I selected for the essay was this one by Dulcie Wagstaff and I enjoyed the deconstruction of this image in order to present my own interpretation of it.

Sharon Boothroyd said in the OCA course materials, ‘a picture might mean one thing to one person and something entirely different to another’ (Boothroyd, 2014 p 100). So, thinking about how the image created ideas in my mind and how it triggered a particular meaning for me made me aware of the deconstruction of an image rather than the making of one.


Conduct research, development and production in response to the themes raised in this course

During part four I have engaged with the main terms associated with semiotics and have an understanding of photography as a visual language with its own codes and grammar. I have also understood that a photograph is not something that can be merely ‘translated’ as there is a subjectivity that results in ‘interpretation’ as Boothroyd says ‘ an interpretive approach to understanding pictures takes into consideration the fluctuating and conflicting codes inherent within them’ (Boothroyd, 2014, p 100). Two main ‘light bulb’ moments for me was the understanding of ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’. and the terms ‘punctum’ and ‘studium’. 

Show a critical understanding of contemporary imagery in relation to historical practice and theory

I have considered Wagtaff’s image for the assignment but I was keen to inform my understanding of it by considering other practitioners who have engaged with issues of psychological illness. Considering Jeff Walls’ Insomnia and some of the work of Francesca Woodman brought the artists together in my mind to allow a wider appreciation of work in the field of mental health generally.

Additional development

I enjoy essay writing and have appreciated the chance to remind myself of the correct approach after having ten years’ absence from HE academic writing.



Boothroyd, S (2014) Context and Narrative, Open College of the Arts. (2018). (2018). Photography is a foreign language everyo by Philip-Lorca diCorcia @ Like Success. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Mar. 2018].


Rhetoric of the Image – Panzani advert


Rhetoric of the Image

(Rhetoric: the art of persuading)

To denote is to define exactly (e.g. the colour red)

To connote is to imply a meaning (e.g. danger)
(Thinkmap, 2018)

Roland Barthes, in his essay ‘Rhetoric of the image’ provides a detailed example of deconstruction of the following image.

Traces Of The Real. (2018).

My first thoughts when looking at this image were around:

  • the string bag and its suggestion of domestic shopping at an outdoor market
  • the actual Mediterranean vegetables and the implication of Italian cooking
  • the association of the colours with those of the Italian flag
  • the inclusion of dried manufactured products with fresh products
  • the colour red and its representation of pasta sauce
  • the repeated name ‘Panzani’ and its Italian vibe
  • the overflowing o the bag with produce, suggesting opulence and plenty

Barthes’ essay

Well, that wasn’t exactly an easy read! However, I hope that I have taken away from this essay the following points. Barthes’ aim in his essay was to understand the image’s messages. He purposely chose an advertisement image as the meaning in adverts is intentional: that is to convince us to buy a particular product.

According the Barthes, there are four signs in this image:

  • The string bag with the connotation of just back from the market
  • The peppers and tomatoes and the connotation of authentic Italian ingredients
  • The combination of foods together to connote a total complete meal
  • The tins, packets and sachets with the connotation of being the equivalent of fresh produce


Linguistic messages:

In his essay, Barthes identifies linguistic messages. This relates to the narrative on the  image; the labels and the text. The labels clearly show the word ‘Panzani’ and we see this word four times in capital letters; once on each of the four products (the two packs of spaghetti, the sachet and the tin). The labels tell us the name of the company (denote) but they also imply (connote) an ‘Italianicity’ with the sound and spelling of the word. Panzani is not an English word or a French word. Italian words are renowned for ending in vowels and this gives us a sense of the Italian.

The phrase ‘a l’Italiennne de luxe‘ ensures that we recognise the link with Italy and the connection of this product with luxury, quality and superiority.

Coded messages:

The image itself is of a string bag, some vegetables and some packets of dried spaghetti which doesn’t sound that exiting or engaging.

So, why do we think of shopping at the market, home cooked foods, meal preparation, a family  sitting together for a home cooked dinner, authentic Italian ingredients, the finished meal, and  a family environment, etc. These are the coded messages that are implied in the image and that rely on our cultural experience. As a society, we know that fresh ingredients result in a home cooked meal possibly shared with family and friends and we know that fresh ingredients are healthy. We also know the colours of the Italian flag and the association of Mediterranean foods with health and the exotic (especially in 1964) and can therefore relate all this  freshness, healthiness and ‘Italianness’ to a superior dining experience. All these ‘signs’ can be interpreted from the basis of a cultural code that we all understand.

Anchorage text

The wording at the bottom right of the image is as follows:



We are immediately ‘told’ that this is a de-luxe product, a luxury, superior product and all we need to create this superior meal is pasta, sauce and Parmesan. The ingredients are arranged ‘tumbling down’ from top left to bottom right which is where our eyes are guided to in order to read the (French) text. The text tells the viewer how to interpret the image.  In effect, we are told that this is a luxury product.



A personal response

Despite the intentions of the advert and I suppose with 54 years hindsight since the image was ‘released’, I see this marketing as nonsense. The implication that dried pasta is a fresh and healthy product does not identify with my own response that white, refined carbohydrates are not healthy. Perhaps I will be proven wrong but this advert just does not work for me and all I see is manipulation of the general public to buy unhealthy cheap products for the benefit of mass producers of cheap food.


Thinkmap, I. (2018). connote vs. denote on [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Feb. 2018].

Traces Of The Real. (2018). The Rhetoric Of The Image – Roland Barthes (1964). [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Feb. 2018].


Punctum and Studium

Punctum and Studium

I saw this image at the Impressions Gallery, one of a series of images  celebrating the shared history of the UK with Pakistan.

The studium is the broad sense of what the image is about (the where, when and what, of the image). The term relates to the overall interest the photograph has for a viewer and its attractiveness regarding lighting, subject matter, composition and so on. An image of a little girl in a pretty dress eating an ice cream may be a pleasant image to attract our attention.

The punctum is distinct point of interest that jumps out at the viewer. A photograph may be perfectly ‘good’ without a punctum but it is the small unexpected detail that makes the photograph more effective and interesting. The punctum may be different for different viewers as it can be personal to the viewer depending on what resonates with him or her the most. More usually though the punctum will be obvious, the spider on the hem of the little girl’s dress for instance.

The inclusion of the boy’s face at the right hand side of the image above,  is an ‘extra’ detail that is unexpected. The image would have been successful without it but it made the image more interesting. I considered this to be the punctum of the image.

Denotation and connotation

Denotation and connotation

A photograph can be interpreted on different levels.


Denotation.  We can ‘translate’ an image by considering the objects within it. In the photograph below we can translate it by stating the facts of the image – a tiny dog, a lady’s legs and the front legs of a larger dog. So, the image of the little dog is a sign that denotes (represents, indicates, stands in for) a living, breathing, real-life, miniature dog. When we see the photograph of the little dog, we think of a real dog. The image of the dog denotes a real dog.


Connotation.  We can also interpret these facts and say that the image is of  a lady taking her two dogs for a walk in the park. So the image of the woman’s legs and the two dogs, suggest the idea of a walk in the park.


A lady, two dogs … and a walk in the park

Image by Elliott Erwitt, New York, 1974

(Johnson, 2018)


A doll, a book … and a bedtime story

In my image below, what is denoted is a doll and a book; what is connoted is a child’s bedtime story.

My own image



Johnson, K. (2018). Elliott Erwitt’s Photographs – Review. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Feb. 2018].



Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols as a part of communication.

When I see a red traffic light I STOP. When I see a green one, I GO.

The semiotician, Roland Barthes, ‘made distinctions between the different parts of a photograph which help us to see how meaning is created’ (Boothroyd, 2014, p101).


In the examples below, the physical form of the red flag and the red light are signifiers. They are images that represent something real in the physical world.

Images courtesy of Pixabay

The signified is ‘danger’ and ‘stop’.

Signs can only be signs when they are invested in a meaning. In this image below, the signifier is the representation of the woman and the signified is the concept of  toilet facilities for females.

Another example of a signifier is the four leaf clover. What is signified by this is the mental concept of  ‘good luck’



Signifier + signified = SIGN

The overall effect of the photograph. A sign has 1) a material form and 2) a mental concept.


Boothroyd S (2014) Context and Narrative. Open College of the Arts.

Departures between photography and written language

It is easy to look at a photograph and think that you are looking at the real thing. However, take the image below, you are not actually looking at my husband’s hand, but at a photograph of it.

A main difference between written language and visual language is that written language is arbitrary (random) to its meaning. It is arbitrary that the lines K E Y mean the physical object shown below: There is no direct relevance between these random marks on the page and the physical object it depicts. CLE is also used to depict this object so it is clear that the ‘lines’ are ‘random’ depending which written language you are familiar with. CLAVE also depicts this object as does 关键 and on and on.

So, there is no direct relevance between the marks on the page and the object they represent.


However, with visual language the photograph always refers to the subject (the referent) in some way, albeit with different levels of precision. So, in the image above, the referent is the particular physical key being photographed. The image is referring to it.

Translation and interpretation

Translation and Interpretation

Because words/codes can be ambiguous we can never know exactly what an author/photographer intended. We can only interpret his or her text/image in keeping with our own experience and viewpoint.

If I think of something being translated I think of a direct translation such as from one language to another, so, ‘It is a nice day’ becomes ‘C’est une belle journée’ in French or ‘es un buen día’ in Spanish.

If I were to interpret it though I would consider if ‘a nice day’ related to the weather and it is ‘nice’ because it is sunny or is it ‘nice’ because it is my birthday, or because I am on holiday? There is a subjectivity surrounding interpretation that allows for multiple meanings, depending on the viewer. In addition, ‘It’s a nice day’ when spoken could actually mean the opposite. If the weather was atrocious, snowing and howling a gale and someone said ‘nice day’ it would be greeted with an understanding of the verbal irony in use where we say one thing and mean another.

Derrida was concerned with interpretation. Please see my post on Derrida and Deconstruction here.

Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction

Here are a few of my musings on Derrida, Deconstruction, translation and interpretation.

Deconstruction is a difficult concept but it isn’t entirely new to me as it formed part of my learning for my literature degree, but it was difficult then and ten years have passed so it is time to refresh my memory.


Deconstruct: reduce something to its constituent parts; dismantle; dissect.

In order to understand how something has been created, it has to be taken apart before it can be put back together. I understand this to say that if you can examine the myriad small parts that make up an image and have opinions on why they have been used, then you can start to form individual ideas of meaning behind the image; Deconstruction looks at the relationship between an image and its meaning.

Translation and Interpretation  

Because words/codes can be ambiguous we can never know exactly what an author/photographer intended. We can only interpret his or her text/image in keeping with our own experience and viewpoint.

Derrida was concerned with the interpretation of images and not translation. If I think of something being translated I think of a direct translation such as from one language to another, so, ‘It is a nice day’ becomes ‘C’est une belle journée’ in French or ‘es un buen día’ in Spanish. If I were to interpret it though I could consider if it related to the weather and it is ‘nice’ because it is sunny or is it ‘nice’ because it is my birthday, or because I am on holiday? Derrida was concerned with interpretation.


Going back (again) to my literature days

In writing, because words can be a little ambiguous, we cannot always interpret a text exactly as the author intended and we may never know exactly what the author intended anyway.

The last sentence of Great Expectations is, ‘I saw no shadow of another parting from her’ (Dickens, 2002). Does this mean that Pip and Estella live happily ever after never to be parted? or does it mean that she won’t leave him (and hurt him) again as all they will ever be are friends? It could be a traditional happy ending with marriage on the horizon or it could be an acceptance of being ‘friends apart’ (ibid). As Sharon Boothroyd says in the course notes ‘it takes as much effort to read a book as it does to write it’ and this is an example of where the reader has to work hard to interpret the novel. Being a romantic I favour the happy ending but just as this ending means something to me, it may well mean something different to the next person.

Derrida expressed ‘the slipperiness and unreliability of language’ (Johnson, 2005) and above is an example of how language is not always black and white in its meaning. Likewise, photographs are also open to interpretation  and essentially, like the author and reader, the photographer and viewer have equal status when assigning meaning to a text or image.

Speaking v writing

When someone speaks and is listened to, there is a reliability and truth behind the communication. The speaker is present at the time the words are heard by the listener so the message is likely to be honest and reliable. However, when someone writes and the writing is read at a later date the writer is not likely to be present at the time of reading. This can lead to differing interpretations to what the author intended.  There is a sense of being removed from the work, because the originator is not present when the work is being interpreted. The same goes for photographs. The photographer is unlikely to be present when the images is viewed.


Overall, the message that I take from this school of thought is that images are open to interpretation; they cannot be read as an exact ‘science’ and the photographer and viewer both have an equally valid part to play in the interpretation of the image. We cannot usually know the intention of the photographer and like books, images can be open to question; each individual bringing a unique subjectivity to the interpretation.

Take an image of a tarantula. If I saw such an image I would have a physical reaction of revulsion and fear. I would have little idea of what the photographer intended; did she intend to freak me out or did she intend to display spider beauty? We will never know but different people will have very different reactions.


Boothroyd, S. (2014) Context and Narrative. Open College of the Arts.

Dickens, C. (2002). Great expectations. London, England: Penguin.

Johnson, D. (2005). The Popular & the Canonical. London: Routledge.

Photographs not used as a means of communication

Can you think of any photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication?

My first thoughts were of  X-rays and passport photographs which are taken to represent something extremely accurately. However what is an X-ray if not a photograph taken to communicate something to a medical professional about the state of someone’s health? and what is a passport if not a photograph taken to communicate a likeness of an individual?

Advertisement images clearly mean to communicate how good a product is. Documentary photography may intend to communicate a social concern, photo essays tell a story, newspaper images tend to persuade, school photographs aim to record family history, family snapshots communicate happy moments in time and provide mementoes of holidays and weddings. Photographs in text books aim to teach, photographs in frames on the mantelpiece aim to initiate nostalgia and a crime scene image is taken to record vital information.

Photography is a visual language with its own grammar and usually has the aim of communicating or expressing something. There is usually a ‘point’ in taking an image.  I am struggling to think of any photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication. Like any form of written communication has something to say, I feel that all images communicate something to someone.