BA Phot

C&N Part 4: Reading photographs

Page 2


Project 1 The language of photography - Exc. 4.1 - Project 2 - Reading pictures - Exc. 4.2 - Research point - Upsum

Arbus - Barthes - Derrida - Erwitt - Wall - Conclusion - Referencing

Project 4.2 Reading pictures


[25Mar, [p.99]] How then so we interpret photographs? Part 2 described the way text can anchor the meaning of an image and there are additional factors such as 'cropping, captions, placement on the page, other accompanying text' [Boothroyd (2017) p.99]].

And we turn, with some trepidation, to the theories of Jacques Derrida.


I'll quote the cmat's opening paragraph in full,

Derrida coined the term deconstruction and challenged traditional ideas regarding predetermined and fixed language. He believed language to be malleable, with many possible meanings (or polysemous); moreover he believed that language has a power of
its own that can’t be held down by the demands of the user. This is an important theme of poststructuralism and gives both author (or artist) and reader (or viewer) equal status in the production of meaning.C&N Boothroyd (2017) p.100

Well, surprisingly, that's not too scary, that's what I have been banging on about all along it is best expressed in my favourite quote from Sontag,

photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer Sontag, On Photography, quoted in La Grange (2005) p.37

That is the third time I have cited this Sontag quote in this part alone and I seemingly never tire of it.

all interpretations are equally valid;
question authority and 'truth'.
Derrida wants us to reject orthodoxy, dogma and 'accepted wisdom'. Three cheers for that.

Exercise 4.2

is shown on another page.

Tools for deconstruction – semiotics

[28Mar, [p.101]] As Derrida was to deconstruction, so Roland Barthes was to the semiotics of photography. Semiotics is the study of signs and it provides a toolkit for interpreting photographs.
We have already net Barthes (a news photograph is a message comprising a source of emission, a channel of transmission and a point of reception) in Part 1.


signifier = the picture, 'its formal and conceptual elements' [p.101]
signified = the thoughts arising in the viewer arising from the photograph
sign = the combination of the two

Elliott Erwitt,New York City, 1974
Box A
Elliott Erwitt,
New York City, 1974

Denotation and connotation

These are the two approaches to examining a photograph.

denotation is more objective - translation in the terms of Part 4.1, looking at the signifier
connotation is subjective - interpretation, the signified.

The cmat gives an example of the earlier Erwitt image, fig. A1

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). C&N Boothroyd (2017) p.102

Punctum and studium

The cmat suggests that studium is the photograph's 'cultural, political or social meaning' [p.102] and punctum 'an element within the picture that disrupts the rest of the narrative' [ibid.].

Elsewhere, I have seen it suggested that another explanation is a simpler objective / subjective split again.


I am beginning to wonder why I was afraid of this lot. I had considered Barthes impenetrable and pretentious. Now I readily assume that I am oversimplifying this enormously, but intertextuality just seems to echo the point I have been making since the outset (EyV Part 1) that the viewer's (literal and holistic) personality is the main driver in reacting to photographs: it is a largely subjective process.

The cmat cites Barthes' analysis of Panzani pasta sauce as an example - we have looked at this in Part 2 on anchors and relays.

S o - all this breaks down fairly simply: there are aspects of a photograph that most of us can agree on - the objective (maybe physical, maybe representational) aspects; and there are others (probably the more significant) which are personal reactions - the subjective aspects.

Source Objective Overall Subjective
  translation   interpretation
Barthes signifier sign signified
Barthes denoted   connoted
Barthes studium   punctum
Barthes   inter textuality

Research point

is shown on another page.

Conclusion  and Summing up

Photography is not a language, whatever the cmat might suggest.

There are aspects of a photograph that most of us can agree on - the objective (maybe physical, maybe representational) aspects; and there are others (probably the more significant) which are personal reactions - the subjective aspects.

When writing about a picture,
look at the objective, denoted, aspects;
find quotes from the artist on the particular work or their general approach;
look for the subjective, connoted, aspects and speculate on how they might be interpreted and why the artist chose to include them;
look at the piece in the wider context of the artists work, how it might relate to other artists and other art forms:
deploy the appropriate technical terms.

Part 4 Project 2 - Local References

(rn) author (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn March 2020].

(rn) author (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn March 2020].

Page created 13-Mar-2020 | Page updated 05-Jun-2020