Category Archives: Research point: Semiotics and decoding images

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].