Category Archives: Part 4: Reading Photographs

P4: Research Point: Semiotics and decoding of images & ads

In order to make sense of semiotics, before I undertook the recommended research, I am creating a mind map of the language of semiotics. I used several sources to try to get a visual image of how the terminology could be expressed in my mind map (1 – 4). The map is something that will continue to grow as I learn more. The final map will be added to my physical learning log.


Roland Barthes in Rhetoric of the Image, states that:

….there are those who think that the image is an extremely rudimentary system in comparison with language and those who think that signification cannot exhaust the image’s ineffable richness.(5)

Sharon’s blog on Jeff Wall’s Insomnia image.

Between these two parameters we have a whole spectrum of possibilities. In Sharon’s blog on decoding Jell Wall’s image Insomnia.

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She states I see a kitchen, denoted by the cooker, fridge freezer and table and chairs. She is pointing out what is actually re-presented in the image. But because of the   cold colours, the stark lighting, among many things, there is a connotation (a message, a signified) of bleakness. She then brings her own personal experiences, in life, into her ‘reading’ of this image. Described by Victor Burgin as ‘intertextuality‘ or the overlapping series of previous texts ‘taken for granted’ at a particular cultural and historical juncture(7). I found this the most interesting aspect of the reading of the image as I had not read the caption and I assumed the man lying on the floor was in an intoxicated stupor. I was bringing my life experiences to the reading. One of the comments on the blog said that intoxication was impossible because of the absence of vomit. Thus making clear that the writer did not have any personal experience of this.

Sharon then describes Wall’s positioning of his images in the overall world of art as well as her own analogies with Insomnia in literature. With what literature would I have linked the image?

Diane Arbus: Singular Images: Essay on Remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth. (8)

Jobey starts this essay assuming that the reader will agree with her interpretation of the image.

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We pity them, partly with hindsight, for their complicity

But she goes on to say that the Darius’ would be in their 60’s in 2005, when the article was written, but admits that we have no idea what happened to them. Although I would be in the Arbus camp that feels she exploited people using her apparent charm to get, often vulnerable people, to pose for her. I do not agree that we can assume that this family was doomed to unhappiness and ultimately divorce. I think they were probably posing in a way that they were instructed to do, by Arbus.

For me Maryin is adopting a typical Liz Taylor pouting look, not a bleak, faintly defiant, almost trance like look. I agree that the young man looks ill at ease but this could be because his wife was the one who wanted to pose for this famous photographer. She might even have thought her young husband looked a little like James Dean. For me stating that the Darius marriage looks already exhausted  is a connotion too far.

I do not like Arbus composition habit, of using three quarter length poses. In doing this she misses, for me, the funniest thing, the child clutching his groin. My own son, who thankfully was not retarded, used to do exactly the same.

I feel the information Arbus sent, in a letter, to Peter Cookston and the adjusted version, of this, which he used to caption the image, was leading the viewer in a very particular direction. Captions are very powerful and are supposed to support the image but they can be used, like all printed material, to direct the viewers interpretation. Arbus wanted the viewer to believe that this was a young couple on the verge of disaster. All the ingredients were there to engender pity, a very young bride who gave birth to a retarded child and had two more children fairly quickly. The husband is a manual worker rather than a rich professional. All of this assumes that rich professional couples with 1.5 children are somehow happier than our Bronx family….

Arbus’ comment I think all families are creepy in a way and her eventual suicide tell us much about her own family situation. She said we are nicer to each other than the camera is going to make us. But she neglected to say that my camera is going to make those I photograph. She presumably gave her models some instructions since the photographs are all posed.

Although there are some counter arguments about the intertextuality of this image, in the essay, the reader would have to go and investigate these for his or herself.

Judith Williamson: Advertising

In the opening paragraph of Judith Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements which I was able to access online (9) she states:

We can only understand what advertisements mean by finding out how they mean, and analysing the way in which they work.

In the this chapter she uses an advertisement for tyres to clarify the meanings of signifiers and signified in advertising and to demonstrate how they are inextricably bound together to make up the sign. The jetty has the shape of a tyre and the cladding looks ‘like’ a tyre but what is signified is the strength of the jetty which we then transfer to the tyres. She calls this method of transference ‘Referent Systems‘.

She goes on to analyse the use of colour in advertising as a

connection or connections unstated by the verbal part of the ad, and sometime quite – apparently irrelevant to it

In her Source articles she takes an ad in each issue and decodes it according to her system of interpretation.

The first ad I looked at was for adler. I had no idea what this company produced and on close inspection of the ad I was still unaware of what their product was.

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I could not make out that the Masai Mara woman was, according to Williamson, burdened down with a bracelet. I found the ad very disconcerting only because of the lack of visual aesthetics. The ‘thing’ the woman was carrying looked ugly to me. I agree completeley with Williamson that this ad must have been a failure because neither its signifier – the bracelet – not its signifieds penetrated by brain… The woman was supposed to connotate some kind of primal timeless world. But since I brought my own experience of the Masai to my viewing of the image (my intertextuality) I did not interpret it as intended. I felt that it was such a pity the woman was not clearer, the Masai are an elegant, beautiful tribe.

The Peroni ad which Williamson decoded was interesting. (11).

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 11.43.42The woman’s smouldering look places her, according to Williamson, in a genre of Italian actresses who managed to make sexiness look kittenish – at once innocent and sensual. These and several other signifieds in the woman’s look connotate the 60’s period that is seen as fresh, chic, easier and simpler than today.

The colours used in the ad speak of summer and the seaside. The red tag resembles a jeans label usually attached to blue jeans. The black background powerfully symbolises, and enhances, the mysteriousness of the woman. Her dark curls falling on her forehead are reminiscent of waves according to Williamson.

I do not think I would be able to read all of this into this particular ad should I be asked to decode it. I have to admit I was much more influenced by a YouTube video which I watched about subliminal advertising.

  1. Semiotics: the study of signs – YouTube. 2016. Semiotics: the study of signs – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 April 2016].
  2. Semiotics: the study of signs – YouTube. 2016. Semiotics: the study of signs – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 April 2016].
  3. Visual Semiotics – YouTube. 2016. Visual Semiotics – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 April 2016].
  4. Ferdinand de Saussure and Structural Linguistics – YouTube. 2016. Ferdinand de Saussure and Structural Linguistics – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 April 2016].
  5. . 2016. . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 April 2016].
  6. Beneath the surface. 2016. Beneath the surface. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 April 2016].
  7. . 2016. . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 April 2016].
  8. . 2016. . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 03 April 2016].
  9. 2016. . [ONLINE] Available at:,%20Decoding%20Advertisements%20smaller.pdf. [Accessed 05 April 2016].

  10. . 2016. . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 April 2016].
  11. . 2016. . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 April 2016].
  12. Derren Brown – Subliminal Advertising – YouTube. 2016. Derren Brown – Subliminal Advertising – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 April 2016].



A 4: Project 2. Reading pictures

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. You could use this as the basis for your assignment if you feel it’s taking you somewhere interesting. Or you could adopt this method for your assignment preparation.
Come back to this exercise when you’ve reached the end of Part Four and see if you can add anything to your analysis.


I pulled this ad from a copy of Vanity Fair, February 2016. It is publicity for Dolce & Gabbana products. I discovered that it is one of a series of advertisements, which can be seen on the Dolce & Gabbana site.

The image has various people either seated or standing outside or beside a restaurant and fruit vendor. There are eight women and two men. Most of the people in the image are taking photos of themselves (selfies). The three seated women have a light meal in front of them. The people in the image are a multinational group. One of the men is a waiter and the other a clergyman. Most of the women are wearing high-heeled shoes and their dresses are, for the most part, bright and colourful, many with floral motifs. Most of the women have a handbag or carrier bag in their hand or close to them. One of the women on the right of the image has a bouquet of yellow flowers. The mobile phones they are using seem to have a floral cover. The waiter is carrying a jug of water. The seated women appear to have wine in their glasses.

Behind the people to the left and centre of the image are two entrances. The wall is covered with bouzonville. Inside the left entrance there is a floral bouquet on a table. Inside the entrance on the right there is a set of white condiments on a table or sideboard. There are black & white images on the walls. The entrances are protected by bead curtains drawn to the side. The awning at the top of the image has five words written on it. At the rear of the right of the image there is a display of fruit and above the words FRITTIVEND are written.

DOLCE & GABBANA appears in the bottom right of the image. Below the word ITALIAISLOVE is written preceded by the # tag.

Above we have all the ‘signifiers‘.

The advertisement is showing us what fashion items Dolce&Gabbana will be offering clients. We can see that the style will be floral or nautical. Their carrier bags will also carry these themes. The shoes for the summer will have very high heels, be brightly coloured are also carry floral patterns. Although there are heavy Italian ‘signifieds’ the people are multiracial indicating that the cloths and accessories are suitable for all.

The people are mostly young, slim and pretty. Apart from the rather rotund Italian Mama, at the rear on the left, who is there to reinforce the ‘Italinicity‘ as Barthes calls this signified. The bouzonville is a further reinforcement of this message as are the Italian words on the awning. The yellow bouquet being carried by the lady makes us think of mimosa which further reinforces the Italian concept.

There are further connotations in the words on this awning. Domenica is there to link us with the Caribbean lady at the table. Pranzo is the Italian for lunch or dinner suggesting the food and wine on the red checked tablecloth. Portofino and Venezia are major Italian tourist attractions indicating that, at least some of these people are on holidays.

The one denotation or signifier I could not read was the presence of the clergyman. Looking at the other ads in the series there are nuns in some wearing brightly coloured high heels. I cannot see what is being indicated here.

I chose this particular ad because it is colourful and there is so much going on in it.


Another ad from this series.




A4: Project 1: The Language of Photography

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?

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Erwitt, one of Magnums founding photographers, was a master of the decisive moment in street photography. He apparently did not plan his images but just reacted to what he saw on the street (1). Believing this,  it is hard to understand how he managed to capture the above image. He must have noticed the juxtaposition of the dogs, humans and little dogs legs. Then he got down at the level of the small dog to make him the ‘star’ of the composition. The dog is really comical with the hat and so insignificantly small compared to the other dog that I take to be a Great Dane and their owner. The little dogs expression is a little scared and maybe suspicious. He is unused to being the centre attraction of any image because of his sister – The Great Dane. This is what makes the image amusing.

What is the image saying?

The image is composed of three distinct sections as illustrated below.


The image  follows the rule of thirds almost perfectly. The main point of interest, the little dog, is placed in the third vertical quadrant on the right. The image is also divided into thirds from front to back hroitontally. In the foreground we have the pavement. The main components of the image are placed in the middle and the fading background is to the rear.

In addition  the image can be further divided according to the Phi recangle


The little dogs face is exactly centered where the lines cross. This makes it a very strong point in the image giving the little dog the ‘star’ role.

There are other details which make the image well balanced. The dog’s lead on the right is balanced by the tree in the background on the left. the big dogs legs on the left are balanced by the archway to the background on the right. This pulls the image together both horizontally and vertically.

Until I had to look in depth at the image for this exercise I had never noticed some of these details. I always wondered where the rest of the Great Dane’s body was. Looking in detail I found a small part of her body in the top left corner. I asked myself would that be cropped out if the image was created today leaving the image more sterile. I also noticed that the Great Dane was female. Did Erwitt want to highlight this too? The male is tiny and the female is enormous… Maybe but we will never know.

Having done this analysis I asked myself “Do I like the image”. I have to admit my opinion has not changed. I have always found this image a visual challenge…… It is all those parallel lines……

  1. 14 Lessons Elliott Erwitt Has Taught Me About Street Photography. 2016. 14 Lessons Elliott Erwitt Has Taught Me About Street Photography. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 31 March 2016].