Part Four – Reading Photographs


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

It is difficult to think about any type of image that is not used as some form of expression or communication. Perhaps scientific images are a candidate? For example, images of butterdlies, plant species etc. These images are a record. However, even these are used to teach and therefore communicates.

Project One – The Language of Photography

There is no such thing as a universal photographic language which can be directly understood in the same way as spoken or written language can.

When we refer to photography as a language, we’re speaking more about an interpretation rather than a direct translation of information.



  1. the process of translating words or text from one language into another.
  2. the conversion of something from one form or medium into another.



  1. the action of explaining the meaning of something.
  2. a stylistic representation of a creative work or dramatic role.

(Oxford Dictionary)

Traditionalists see language as a fixed medium used to convey specific meaning. A message is given through a code of grammatically correct syntaxes to allow an exchange of information to occur. In this view of language there’s not much room for ambiguity.

Interpretation is different from translation because, rather than depending on a correct word for word account of a text, it allows for a certain degree of subjectivity and also allows an expansion of meaning.

Do we take the elements we see in a photograph at face value (translate them) or do we get beneath the surface (interpret them), opening up the opportunity for getting it ‘wrong’?


In photography, the symbol is always relevant to the subject. It is its referent. This doesn’t mean that a photograph is always a precise depiction of the subject, but the way photography works means that it always has a certain proximity to its subject. It refers to the subject…This means photographs may look like the real thing but they’re not it.


Before you read any further, look carefully at Erwitt’s image and write some notes about how the subject matter is placed within the frame. How has Erwitt structured this image? What do you think the image is ‘saying’? How does the structure contribute to this meaning?

The subject matter is placed in the top 2/3 of the image vertically and centrally horizontally. The three subjects are spaced equally apart. Erwitt has placed himself at the height of the small dog, resulting in the exclusion of most of the other two subjects. Erwitt has made a conscious decision to crop in this way.

Erwitt could be trying to convey the concept that it is all a matter of perspective. By placing himself at the same level of the small dog, Erwitt puts us in the same scale as the small dog, and we don’t relate to the rest of the subject matter. Had Erwitt stood back and took in all the subject matter, we would have lost all the impact of any particular perspective.

Project Two – Reading Pictures


Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) coined the term deconstruction. He believed language to be malleable, with many possible meanings and that language is in part independent from the demands made of it by the user. This is a main element of poststructuralism, which gives equal status to the author and reader in the determining meaning.

In interpreting pictures, we must let go of the idea that there is a precise meaning – elements in the picture will mean different things to different people.

Derrida encouraged the questioning of knowledge and showed us that we have to take something apart before we can put it back together.


Rip out an advertising image from a newspaper supplement and circle and write on as many parts of the image as you can. Comment on what it is, what it says about the product and why you think it’s there.

The following section is extracted from the course text:

“Tools for deconstruction – semiotics

Roland Barthes (1915–80) was the father of semiotics in the world of photography, the study of signs and language. Semiotics is a useful (but not the sole possible approach) in interpreting photographs.

Signs, signifier, signified

Barthes made distinctions between the different parts of a photograph which help us to see how meaning is created. For Barthes the photograph is a sign that is made up of a signifier and a signified.


In semiotic terms:

SIGN = the overall effect of a photograph

SIGNIFIER = the actual picture, its formal and conceptual elements

SIGNIFIED = what we think of when we see the picture. This could be very straightforward, for example a picture of a dog signifying ‘dogness’. Or it could be metaphorical or conceptual, for example a crown signifying royalty or the union flag signifying Britishness.

When both the picture of the dog (for example) and the idea of what a dog is come together, the SIGN is made. We need both.

Denotation and Connotation

We can interpret a photograph on two different levels:

Denotation is an objective approach in line with ‘translation’ – looking at the elements present in the image. What’s there?

Connotation is more in line with ‘interpretation’ and is to some extent subjective. What do the elements mean (or connote)?

In short, denotation states the facts and connotation allows for an interpretation of the facts. For example, looking at the Erwitt picture again you might say that what’s denoted is a small dog, a pair of boots and the front legs of a larger dog. What is connoted might be that a lady and her two dogs are going for a walk in the park on a winter’s day. But you might go even further, depending on your own point of view or preconceptions, and say that it’s a wealthy lady taking her dogs for a walk (because of the small dog’s outfit or because you believe that wealthy New Yorkers are the type of people who have small dogs like that).

Punctum and Studium

Studium is the term Barthes uses to refer to the general status quo of an image. The studium is the photograph’s cultural, political or social meaning.

The punctum is an element within the picture that disrupts the rest of the narrative. In other words it punctures the meaning and takes it off on a different tangent (for example, in the Erwitt picture, the larger dog’s legs). It may even provide a contradiction or at least an alternative reading. It may also be the point in the photograph that gives the viewer a personal connection with it above other elements.


Barthes talks about the rich tapestry of meaning. He suggests that, just as fabric is woven in different directions with different colours and threads, so is meaning – and the more complex the threads, the more enriching the experience. What he means by this is summed up by his term ‘intertextuality’. Each person comes with their own background, education and experiences and all of these things contribute to how they interpret life and events. We all come to read a text from a very different place and therefore we each create a different meaning from it. This is the enriching experience that Barthes refers to; the more we have to share with each other, the richer the tapestry becomes.

You can’t help but bring your own background into play when interpreting photographs and this brings a unique and at the same time universal voice to the creation of meaning. When interpreting photographs, it’s also good to draw on other readings, pictures, paintings and experiences you’ve had in order to bring the photograph to life even more.”

Roland Barthes / Rhetoric of the Image – summary, notes and review

What Barthes is essentially trying to do in “Rhetoric of the Image” is to examine and understand the messages that images contain, and the extent to which they take part in creating an ideological worldview. That is to say, Barthes is asking how ideologically charged are images and transmit an educational message to society. “Rhetoric of the Image” focuses on commercials since they contain a highly condensed image that aims for maximum efficiency in transferring its message. Commercials have to get their message across in 30 seconds and they therefore employ highly charged and intensive images in order to convince us to buy this or that product. Therefore, for Barthes, commercials are a very convenient medium in which to explore the way ideologies are reflected in visual images. Commercials have to be able to speak in a conventional language, use conventional terminology and transmit its message very fast, and therefore they provide access to conventional ideologies of their time.   

In “Rhetoric of the Image” Barthes works along the lines of two theoretical distinctions: connotation and denotation, and the internal relations of the sign between the signifier and the signified.

The signified, according to Barthes, has two level of meaning: the denotational and the connotational.  The denotation is the dictionary meaning of the sign/word and it detonates something in the real world. The connotation is the interpretative association that comes with the sign and is something which is culturally and context dependant. For Barthes connotation is a higher level of interpretation, and he assumes that being a part of the same culture involves having similar connotations to certain signs.

Additional concepts use by Barthes in “Rhetoric of the Image” are the visual and the audio levels. The visual level of the commercial is everything that we see and the audio level is everything that we hear while watching the commercial. The audio and visual level interact to create the effect of the commercial. The audio level anchors the visual level, it tells where to look and on what we should focus our attention.

In “Rhetoric of the Image” Barthes gives the example of a pasta brand imported from Italy to France. The commercial is in Italian despite the fact that it is aimed at the French customer. Barthes holds that the fact that the viewer cannot understand the things spoken does not stand in the way of associating Italian with quality pasta.

The rhetoric, the repetition of images in commercials, is determined according to Barthes by the sum of meanings yielded by the signs which compose the code and are in the image with ideology tying them together into a coherent utterance. That is, Barthes holds that the repeating images in the 30 second commercial represent messages that are already a code for ideologically determined meanings.

In conclusion, in “Rhetoric of the Image” Roland Barthes is arguing that “natural” reality is not essentially encrypted or encoded but rather that it is its reproduction is a visual image that codes it and enforces cultural meaning upon it. Visual mediums are perceived as portraying reality while in fact they are constructing it.” [accessed 31st Oct 2019]

Short (2011, p 122) notes that:

Studium is the general enthusiasm or polite interest in the photograph

Punctum is that which arrests attention, dependent of the individual; “that which pierces the viewer”.


Short, M, (2011). Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA