Semiotics and photography

Semiotics is about signs and meaning.A sign can be, for example, a word, a picture, a chair, a building, etc.We are surrounded by signs. Signs mean something. Language consists of signs that are understood by those who know the language. Signs are used everywhere. Road signs are signs with very precise meanings. We often learn the meaning of the characters without thinking about it. Other signs need to be learned before we can understand them. For example, not everyone understands the word vlk. It is Czech and means wolf. We can not calculate that meaning by looking at the word because there is no connection between the way the word looks and what the word means.

A photograph is also a sign, it matters. In most cases, we are quick to read the meaning of an image because we can quickly see what it represents if it is a realistic photograph, but even if it is realistic, the image may well contain meanings that go beyond what we immediately understand.

When we look at an image, the brain immediately begins to produce associations that spring from the image. What is it reminiscent of? Have we seen anything similar before? The thoughts that are set in motion by the image can become more and more abstract even if they spring from concrete things in an image, or we have some experience with a certain type of images that makes us understand more than the immediate recognition holds.

In a semiotic analysis of a sign, one distinguishes between two basic meanings. The denotative i.e. the neutral or lexical, where we simply recognize the individual parts of the image e.g. this is a picture of a horse. The second basic meaning is called the connotative meaning i.e. the thoughts and associations we talked about before, it is also called co-meaning. Dependingon how the horse is made, photographed or drawn, the picture contains different connotations. The word horse does not say anything special about the horse other than the species name – it is not a zebra !

When we look at photographs, of course, it is the connotative meaning that is the most interesting. This is where the experience lies. A good photographer will work with these connotations. The tools the photographer has used can make us experience more than what the picture immediately shows.

Let’s look at a concrete example:

I begin with the denotative meaning: The picture shows three children playing in front of a close-up of a person with a crown on. To the left of the children is a teenager and to the far left in the background is a couple standing and kissing each other.

The image is divided by the light so that two of the three children are in the shadow in front of the man with the crown who is not in the shadow. On the wall behind the characters are written some words: l’Archevêche, Patrimoine 50/52 cours Mirabeau and in capital letters Roi René. On the wall below the Patrimoine is a picture of an older building.

If we initially just look at the visual expression and save the written text a bit, we can by reading the connotations of the image from right to left, see a temporal movement in three different lifetimes: childhood, adolescence, adulthood. The children still relate to the person with the crown on, while the teenager is literally on his way out of the shadows and away from the children and farthest away, the two adults kissing.

The picture can thus be seen as an unfolding of the classic story of the child’s gradual liberation from (parental) authority on the road to independence in life. Out of the shadow of authority cf. the conventional metaphor light / shadow where the light is the positive and the shadow the negative.

This photo does not require  such a reading, but should I further substantiate the interpretation, I can include the text. Here we enter a new phase of a semiotic reading, with the words written in French. So if they are to be included, they must be translated. Experience and curiosity are important elements in interpreting an image.

Patrimoine means paternal heritage, l’Archevêché means archdiocese and cours Mirabeau is a place name, namely the beautiful main street of the city of Aix-en Provence in the south of France. Roi René (1409-1480) also called René d’Anjou was both lord, count and duke and enjoyed great prestige and respect in Aix.

So even though Roi René was a good man, he can also symbolize authority in this context – this is not about authoritarian oppression, but about the kind of natural authority that lies in the words Patrimoine and l’Archevêché which is also parental authority in family with. So Le bon Roi should be seen here as an overarching symbol of the authority we must all free ourselves from.

In addition, one could go into an analysis of the person’s body language to further substantiate the development from child to adult, but it does not add much to the reading, perhaps just apart from the fact that the teenager seems to have some luggage in the bag on his way away from childhood.

Finally, I want to take a look at the image that illustrates this article.

On the denotative level, the contours of a red women’s shoe are seen, with the heel in the center lying over a small part of a dial with two hands. What do the two signs that seem to have nothing to do with each other mean ?And why do we only see a small part of the dial?

We are dealing here with the type of sign that Pierce calls icon * because the expression or form of the sign is similar to what the sign represents and therefore makes it possible to understand the signs, even if it is not a photograph, they are so similar that we can see what they imagine?

But what do they mean? Many people probably know the meaning of this composition because through experience they have encountered this sign, today it is a rare sign. Connotatively, the reduced dial must be read as a lack of time, ie something that must go quickly  and the shoe is the reason why it must go quickly .

A sign with a shoe that needs to be treated in a hurry, especially if it is high-heeled,  refers to what is called a heel bar, or a place where you can get your shoes repaired quickly.

The symbol for heel bar is made of neon and hung for many years at the Central Station in Copenhagen.

  • Charles Sanders Peirce, American semiotician who distinguishes between an icon representing his object through equality, an index representing his object through causation (a weathercock) and a symbol representing his object through social convention (traffic light)
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