Category Archives: Research & Reflection

Terry Barrett: A Theoretical Construct for Interpreting Photographs

Following is a short review of Terry Barrett’s article published in 1986.  It’s a  little long in the tooth now, but I thought it worth a look in preparation for receiving my copy of the 1999 edition of Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images.

The beginning of the article looks at previous ways of categorising and describing photos based on labels such as “pictorialist” or subject matter such as “nature”, “landscape”, “the nude”, “war” etc. Then we move onto the core of the article which introduces a way of looking at photographs “based on an analogy of visual images and verbal statements”. Barrett introduces six categories which are “logically discreet and conceptually distinct”, but he also points out that “photographs will often overlap them”.


This category is the surface of the image – what is denoted. Barrett states that “all photographs may be said to describe the surface of objects in greater or lesser detail and clarity, within the constraints of various cameras, lenses, films, and other technical variables, and within the constraints chosen by the photographer”. He goes onto to say that certain photographs don’t attempt to go beyond – this is the whole purpose of the image.  Examples include identification photos, medical images etc. He states that “these photographs are analogous to statements of fact in verbal language, are visual recordings of empirical qualities and quantities, and are meant to be interpretively and evaluatively (sic) neutral”. Barrett points out that there is a important question here: whether a photo can be interpretively and evaluatively neutral; however the point is that some photos are meant to be descriptive only.


Barrett states that “though many descriptive photographs are made to be used as the basis of future explanations, some photographs are expressly made to explain, or are made to function as visual explanations. Often they are descriptive answers to questions which seek explanations”. He quotes Edweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion series as a good example of this category – certainly they describe, but they go beyond in that they seek to explain something that wasn’t known before. Other examples include photos of bullets in flight, the impact of a drop into liquid – things are are not possible to see normally. He says that “most press photographs would also fall into this category, as would the work of some photographer artists who do ‘street work’ and ‘documentary’ photographs”.

The point of photos in this category is that they attempt to be objective in order to explain how things are. He goes on to say that photographs in this category “are falsifiable in that potentially they could be empirically demonstrated to be true or false, accurate or inaccurate”. The sense of the word “falsifiable” was briefly confusing to me, but in this case the meaning is taken to be “prove to be false”:  that is it would be (potentially) possible using empirical means to verify the photo or to prove it to be inaccurate or misleading in some way. Because we could potentially use empirical means, they are different from the next category: interpretative photos.


This category is more complex than the previous two. Barrett explains it as follows: “interpretive photographs are non-falsifiable explanations which are analogous to metaphysical claims in language in that their makers use them to make assertions about the world independently of empirically verifiable evidence”. He cites many of the photos of Jerry Uelsmann as being good examples of this category. Within this category is a great deal of “art” photography and Barrett claims that most are historically grounded in Pictorialism. Because this images are subjective in nature “they are non-falsifiable since in cases of dispute they cannot be confirmed or denied empirically”.

Ethical Evaluations

In this category are photos who aim to deliver a certain ethical message. Barrett states that “photographs which function as ethical evaluations always describe, often attempt to explain, but also and most importantly imply moral judgments, generally depicting how things ought or ought not to be”. He gives the example of advertising images which aim to show us “the good” life, or what we should desire or aspire to be like. He cites the book by W. Eugene Smith, Minamata as “a paradigm example of work in this category”. He also includes the social criticism of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine as other examples.

Aesthetic Evaluations

Barrett claims that all photographs can be appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, even those which are primarily made to be explanatory or to be a social commentary. But there are certain images which are made primarily for aesthetic appreciation. He states that they act as a “visual notification” that the photographer deems certain subjects to be aesthetically pleasing or even that a photographic representation of those same subjects is pleasing. I’m reminded strongly of the well-known Gary Winogrand quote: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed”.

Theoretical Photographs

The final category includes photographs which “are not about people, places, objects, or events in the world but are about art or photography”. Barrett goes on to explain: “they generally are made to address issues about photography, or issues about photographs, functioning as visual commentary or as visual art criticism. More simply, they are art about art or photographs about photography”.

This is plainly a more difficult category to clearly identify (or perhaps it’s just by elimination – if a photo doesn’t fit the other five categories, it must be this one). Here, a postmodern approach is probably more common – for example, including text which delivers the real message.

In this category, Barrett includes Sherrie Levine’s copying and re-purposing photographs made by Walker Evans and the paintings of Mondrian. He also includes Vikky Alexander and Richard Prince in this category but also points out that “some work which would be placed in this category has been labeled ‘conceptual'”.

Using the Categories

Barrett says that the purpose of the categories is not to encourage a pigeon-holing exercise, but to stimulate discussion of images. In particular, “placing any photograph in a category or combination of categories, even those paradigm examples cited here, requires decisions which need to be backed with evidence drawn from the picture or from external contextual information”. He adds that “in considering a photograph for placement, it is necessary to sort out its content and expression, its denotations and connotations, its rhetoric about its subject”. 


It seems to me that the point of the categories and in particular the thought processes around placing an image in a category is to better understand the photo. This reminds me of Barthes’s Rhetoric of the Image, in the sense that thinking about potential categories causes us to dig into “its rhetoric about its subject” and not necessarily take things at face value.

As a potential approach for assignment four, this is useful thinking material, and gives a hint at a framework via the checklist: “content and expression, its denotations and connotations”.


Barrett, T. (1986) A Theoretical Construct for Interpreting Photographs. Studies in Art Education 27, no.2 (Winter 1986), pp.52-60.

Barrett, T.M. (1999) Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. 4th edn. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Looking for Lenin

At Rencontres d’Arles 2017, I saw an interesting exhibition of images by Niels Ackermann and Sébastien Gobert titled Looking for Lenin. The associated book is available on Amazon (see here).

The work consists of looking at the legacy of Lenin in a very practical way: examining what has happened to the many monuments of him especially in the Ukraine (the books quotes 5500 statues). The book actually provides a map of the locations, so if you’re inspired and happen to be spending time in the Ukraine you can construct your own pilgrimage, or perhaps the word should be “anti-pilgramage”.

The introduction states:

“The Ukraine is engaged in a vast process of decommunisation: within this scope, the country is cleaning up all its monuments of Lenin. The photographer Niels Ackermann and the journalist Sébastien Gobert have travelled the country in search of these discarded idols.”

Ackermann & Gobert: Kremenchuk, 30 march 2016.

In the 2017 BBC video of the same name, Gobert comments that “every Lenin has a different story to tell and every Lenin has a different fate”. He goes on to say that through these statues, it’s possible to understand a great deal about the modern Ukraine and that while plainly many (not all) people reject the past, “one of the things that this decommunisation process has not solved is what Ukraine wants to do next with its history”.

The book contains many toppled, disfigured and discarded sculptures of Lenin connoting the changed circumstances which allow the expressions of feelings which were probably always there. The book provides a great deal of background information which gives the feeling that there is a lot of conflict between those who look forward and those who look back on what was at least familiar. In many cases the statues are in pieces and put in storerooms, under stairs, in backyards with lots of other junk, indicating that the statues and the memories of Lenin and very much part in the background – almost forgotten.

Ackermann & Gobert: Odessa, 21 Nov 2015

There is a strong element of amusement in the collection: very often the statues have been re-located into a completely different context. Some statues have been re-purposed in an amusing way such as this one which was made by the Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Milov, titled Dark Vador in the suburbs of Odessa.

In these cases, it’s almost as if ordinary people are re-claiming Lenin’s legacy and re-writing it to suit the changed world.

The photographs are in colour, typically in landscape format and taken in a classic documentary style with the statue front-and-center. There is no attempt to “pretty up” the situation. The photos show the statue (or sometimes part of it) in context and it is the context which has greatly changed. In many cases, literally Lenin has fallen off his plinth with the obvious connection of falling from grace. The new circumstances of the statues, sometimes obviously cared-for, sometimes not, tell us a great deal about the conflicting emotions of the people. There is a strong message that Lenin isn’t around in the same way, but he’s still there in a sense, and it will take the decommunisation process some decades yet before a proper historical context will be found.


Ackermann, N. and Gobert, S. (2017) Looking for Lenin. Lausanne: Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc

Looking for Lenin (2017) [television programme online] BBC iplayer. At: (Accessed 04 Mar 2018)



Reading Photographs


Following is a short review of a book by Richard Salkeld titled Reading Photographs: An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images. I stumbled over this book in one of the Amazon recommendations.

According to Amazon, this book promises a “refreshingly clear introduction to the key theories of representation and visual analysis and demonstrates how they can be applied to photography”. I found this description very attractive, given the many photographic theory books out there approaching neutron star levels of density.

The first chapter (What is a Photograph?) traces the history of the development of photography “from daguerreotype to digital” and mentions some of the key people involved from the earliest days. Although interesting, much of this content can be found elsewhere and really only forms background to the rest of the book.

Reading the Signs

The second chapter is where it starts to get interesting from a Context & Narrative perspective. Salkeld starts the chapter with “Imagine you woke up as a dog”.  He states that you wouldn’t understand anything about your new doggy world. You wouldn’t understand the barking of other dogs or their habits. In short, you’d have to learn to speak dog. Or should that be “doggish”? In either case, Salkeld nicely illustrates just how much of what we experience and interpret is learned and not inherent. Semiotics, therefore, is everywhere.

Starting to touch on the topic of the title of the book, Salkeld goes on to talk about the language of photography:

“The photographer has the opportunity to make a series of decisions, which may enhance or encourage a particular reading: the choice of black and white or colour; how to compose the image within the frame – what to include and, equally important, what to exclude; what is the angle of view; what is in focus; and so on. To some extent, every photograph is the product of choices and decisions.”

Already, just from this paragraph, we get an interesting list of things to look for when structuring how we approach an image, each of which potentially has meaning, or at least, to which we can infer meaning based on our culture and experience.

The chapter moves on to review some key semiotic elements (most of which I have included in my blog article titled Semiotics – see here). Salkeld explains that “photographs function as indexical signifiers in that they are produced by the effects of light on a light-sensitive material”. This idea of indexicality – of a photograph being a trace (no matter how slight) of the original subject has fascinated many authors from Barthes to Sontag and onwards. Of course, photographs are also iconic – they “resemble what they signify”. Finally, there may be also arbitrary or symbolic signifiers within the image if, for example, there was text included.

Moving onto denotation and connotation, Salkeld explains that denotation is the literal meaning of the signifier – it is what we actually see in the image. Connotation is what we make of it – in his words: “the associated ideas that are suggested by the image, but which are not explicitly denoted”. He expands on the nature of connotation by stating that “individual and subjective experience, knowledge, taste and emotion will all contribute to the particular associations”.

An example might be an image of a yellow triangular sign with black borders which contains an exclamation mark. So far, this is what is denoted. Our connotation of the image is generally “caution” – it indicates that there is danger. This is our interpretation of the contents of the image. In this case we have a symbolic signifier – one which does not resemble the signified and must be learned.

Truth and Lies

Henry Peach Robinson: Fading Away

The third chapter looks at ideas of reality and photography. Mention is made of the long history of manipulated and “directed” images from Henry Peach Robinson’s Fading Away (made from five separate negatives) to Gregory Crewdson’s “single frame movies”.

Salkeld goes on to point out that “the advent of digital photography has raised awareness of the manipulation of images; however, the practice of manipulation is as old as the medium itself”.

This point is picked up in the chapter titled Defining the Real in the Digital Age in Wells (2015). Wells asks the question “does all this not destroy the claim of photography to have a special ability to show things as they are and raise serious doubts about those genres with a particular investment in the ‘real’ – documentary and photojournalism?”  In an age where “fake news” threatens to drown out any ideas of objective truth, these points raise important concerns.


This chapter applies the ideas developed in the previous two chapters “to the matter of individual identity as represented in photographs”. The starting point is portraiture and idea that a photograph shows how someone really looks. As an example of our underlying belief that this is so, Salkeld quotes George Bernard Shaw as saying “I would willingly exchange every single painting of Christ for one snapshot”.

Salkeld goes onto to compare the essentialist notion of identity, that we all have inside us our “‘real’ and ‘true’ identity; an individual essence which marks us from the cradle to the grave”; with the constructivist notion which argues that identity is not fixed, but is relational i.e. it depends on context – “who we appear to be depends upon how we present ourselves and to whom”.

Given the complexities around identity, it’s doubtful whether a single image can “capture” a person at all and for this reason, Salkeld “at best, the portrait photographer must manage the process in order to construct a representation that connotes a particular idea of identity”.

Barbara Kruger: Untitled (your body is a battleground), 1989

The chapter moves on to consider the body and all the rules, cultural norms and associations with it – Salkeld states that “the body can be readily understood as a rich and complex semiotic text”. He goes on to state that:

“How the body is represented and for what purpose is a rich source of debate about identity, economics and politics; as Barbara Kruger’s 1989 photomontage declares: Your body is a battleground.”


Big Brother is Watching You

The chapter opens with a quote by Walker Evans:

“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”

From this starting point, Salkeld goes on to “explore photography as an instrument of control and surveillance, and of voyeuristic looking”. He examines the use of “mug shots” to identify criminals (or the accused) and points out that the “identity” involved is a very limited one which principally focuses on dimensions, colour, age, origin etc. The purpose is that the individual must match the the appearance in the image to be reasonably sure of the individual’s identity from a bureaucratic perspective.

The chapter continues to examine various applications of photography such as the work by Francis Galton who superimposed standardised photos to form composite images which he proposed would represent a typical criminal or other type of person.


In this final chapter, Salkeld looks into the core question of aesthetics: “is it art?”. He makes the point that “the relationship of photography to art has been, from the first, uneasy” due, at least in part to the mechanical nature and the (typically) lack of uniqueness of the image. The pictorialists were following the lead of painters and it wasn’t until the 20s and 30s, a hundred years after the invention of photography that the modernists started to push the medium into a new direction.

But the question of whether photography is art has lingered. Salkeld mentions the views of British philosopher Roger Scruton who has argued very forcefully that photography cannot be art. His view is that “the camera has no imagination – it can only show what is there and what exists”. Beyond that, Scruton’s view is that our only interest in a photograph lies in the thing photographed, not in the photograph as an object in its own right.

He goes on to state that:

“a photograph thus fails, in Scruton’s court, to fulfil the minimum requirements of a work of art – that it should express something about the world (not simply show it), and that it should be an object in its own terms”.

Salkeld notes that “the question of whether or not a photograph can be expressive, and whether expression is essential to a work of art is more complex”. He suggests that expression is one valid purpose of art, but not a necessary one and due to the signifying nature of a photograph, the true “meaning” of an image is actually made by the viewer. Finally, he concludes that what is art, and what isn’t is ultimately decided by “particular individuals and institutions and reflect particular cultures and fashions”. In essence, a photo becomes art when the art world says it’s art.


The title of this book is in two parts: “reading photographs” and “an Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images”. The second part is certainly delivered: Salkeld provides a strong introduction to the key ideas of semiotics as applied to photography, how an images relates to identity and so on. In the sense of providing tools, Salkeld also delivers on the first part of the title, but what he does not give us is a “how to”. He provides a lot of context, but not a structured way to read photographs. Nevertheless, in terms of positioning photography within the world of art, he has done an excellent job. As preparation for assignment 4, the book makes a good start.


Salkeld, Richard (2017) Reading Photographs: An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images.  [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed 31 Jan 2018)

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed 23 Sep 2015)


Julie Blackmon

I noticed Julie Blackmon’s work at The Beauty of the Line exhibition at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland (my blog article about the exhibition is here).

According to her Wikipedia entry: Blackmon was born in 1966 in Missouri and her “photographs are inspired by her experience of growing up in a large family, her current role as both mother and photographer, and the timelessness of family dynamics. As the oldest of nine children and mother to three, Blackmon uses her own family members and household to “move beyond the documentary to explore the fantastic elements of our everyday lives”.

Julie Blackmon: Trapped, from Homegrown

Her images are fascinating, full of people and things in odd situations and bursting at the seams with narrative. The example above titled Trapped from the Homegrown series is a case in point. Our eyes are initially drawn to the cat in the middle of the frame and in a light area. The cat somehow looks a little annoyed. As our eyes move around the frame we quickly come across the round windows with contain the letters K C U F from left to right, but with each letter reversed as if written on the outside of what is clearly a garage. As we look further, we see a couple of skateboards and other things which we might think of as typical garage stuff and then we spot the piece of cardboard with the word “RESIST” written in red.

Clearly carefully staged, these images are no accident. I can image a Gregory Crewdson level of planning being required to ensure that everything is just right: the lighting, the arrangement of furniture and people, even pets on occasion. The more we look, the more we see and the overall impression is strongly of a story in motion, but the story itself remains out of reach. Truly worth a long look.



The Beauty of Lines

Laurent Elie Badessi: Man’s Back, Horse’s Back, Camargue, France, 1994

Subtitled Masterpieces from the Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla collection, this exhibition at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne presents a quite amazing history of photography. Names include Bérénice Abbott, Eugène Atget, Robert Adams, Walker Evans, Vik Muniz, Man Ray and Lee Friedlander, however contemporary artists such as Alec Soth are also represented.


The theme is simple in concept, but intriguing and well organised: the beauty of the line, in all its forms. The Musée’s website provides the following introduction:

“Throughout history, photographers have always oscillated between two extremes: the mimetic illusion of reality and the enhancement of the esthetic qualities of the image. Whether it be ‘instantaneous lines’, according to the expression of Henri Cartier-Bresson, rational lines inspired from New Topographics, or the diversity of the curved lines of the human body, the line structures and sometimes reinvents the real – to the point of abstraction”.

Straight Line …

Berenice Abbott: View of Exchange Place from Broadway, 1933

The first section which the visitor comes across is titled the Straight Line. At first thought, this seems logical enough, but then it occurs that straight lines don’t occur in nature – they are the mark of the human being and his/her impact on the world. Following is an excerpt from the introduction to this section of the exhibition:

“Perfectly vertical and parallel lines draw the attention of many photographers whose aim is to document reality … In the 1930s, it enabled Margaret Bourke-White to glorify the technological feat that a bridge represents; in 2004, Edward Burtynsky used it from a much more critical perspective in exploring the contemporary exploitation of territories”.

In this section, straight lines predominate with architecture of one sort or another being the main theme. People are occasionally present, but usually as supporting characters or even being incidental. The book (Musée de l’Elysée, 2018) which accompanies the exhibition quotes from Olivier Lugnon (2001) that “the perception of of an absolutely straight, frontal line is characteristic of the ‘documentary style’ that some photographers adopted to give a neutral, objective look the the image, while concealing the artificiality and subjectivity that this structure necessarily imposes”.


While it’s plain that straight lines play a part, it’s also clear that things are rarely “pure” – that reality is messy and even imposing.  The book states that “whether straight or curved, lines make up only a fraction of a photograph’s formal spectrum, in which framing, point of view, light and shadow play a no-less-important role”.

As an example, the image by Burtynsky is approximately 2m high by 1.5m wide and is placed in a central place in one of the smaller rooms but which is visible from the main exhibition room. This allows the image to be seen from quite a distance. Seen from afar, the image with its repeating lines feels strongly like a tunnel and is very eye-catching. The lines of the bamboo scaffolding are visible, however due to the strong contrast between the subject and the sky the dominant effect is produced by the strong converging lines of the tops of the buildings suggesting almost a cathedral.

Likewise, at first glance the image by Robert Adams looks like an interplay of lines and strong shadow-shapes, but there is a strongly lit, curved path which leads us to the door which is in shadow. Lastly, there is the crucial shadow figure placed vertically half-way and horizontally just to the left of centre. The overall effect is of straight documentary, however the human element is vital and could almost be seen as a portrait of suburban (wo)man.

… and straight Lines

The second section could instead be titled “not so straight lines”. At this point, nature and real life starts to play a more important role. The introduction to this section states “photographers who have sought to capture instantaneous moments of life have not necessarily submitted to the discipline of such perfectly straight, parallel lines … the composition is no less studied and mannered, but the line’s rectitude softens. In the works of Lisette Model, Larry Clark, Nan Golden and Henri Cartier-Bresson, vertical lines structure the composition without necessarily being centered or parallel with the frame”.

In the image from Julie Blackmon there is an interesting interplay between the straight lines of what appears to be a grand house suggesting formalism and structure contrasted with the detritus of three children, one of whom looks out of the frame at who knows what. There is humour here – the little boy has his fingers in his ears while his sister plays the violin. The smaller sister looks on, in the background, with an anxious expression on her face. The image nicely blends straight lines with the not-so-straight approach demanded by small children.

The simply beautiful1 image from Michael Kenna shows a sharply focused delicate frond in the foreground with soft branches or tree trunks in the background. A classic, almost meditative image from a master which demonstrates the almost-but-not-quite straight lines of nature.


This section contains work which relates to the two previous sections, but with clearly a more abstract approach which makes us question what we are looking at. The introduction points out that “some artists have deliberately sought to mask reality, so as to emphasise the visual power of the image. Aaaron Siskind, Alison Rossiter, Ray K. Metzker and Harry Callahan each found a way of photographing the world while showing us only abstract lines”.

Alec Soth: Colombia. Bogota. 2003.

The image by Alex Soth presents a white wall, at a slight angle, positioned in the middle of the frame. The wall is topped with embedded shards of glass, making a very difficult barrier to climb. What is impossible to tell is whether we, the viewers, are looking out or looking in.  Are we enclosed or is the wall keeping us out? The wall implies not only a physical barrier, but at the same time a duality of meaning.


Without doubt, the section on curves is the largest, taking up the entire top floor of an already large exhibition.

The introduction to this section of the exhibition states that “in the 1920s … freeing themselves from the painting-imitations that the pictorialists had been producing, they [i.e. photographers of the time] attempted to prove that it could be a fully-fledged art form. In front of their lenses, the curves offered by nature by flowers and the human body became a means of demonstrating that photography was very much equal [to] drawing”.


I’m not completely positive that the “lines” theme worked – it seemed a little forced at times. What can’t be denied is that this selection from the Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla collection presents us with sublime pieces by masters from the early years of photography to recent times. The use of lines, to some degree or another, is an inescapable part of photography, but the exhibition does well to highlight these boundaries that we otherwise might take for granted.

The Beauty of Lines continues at the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland until May 6 2018.


Lugnon, Olivier (2001) Le Style Documentaire. D’August Sander à Walker Evens, 1920-1945. Macula:Paris

Musée de l’Elysée (2018). The Beauty of Lines: The Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla Collection. Scheidegger & Spiess: Lausanne


  1. Sincere apologies to those to whom the ‘B’ word gives offense. I promise to keep it to an absolute minimum from now on.



Semiotics is an entirely new concept for me, struck for the first time in Context & Narrative. In an effort to provide some clarity to myself about the topic, I decided to do some research and collect some key information about semiotics and especially as it applies to photography.

Signs and so on …

The starting point of semiotics is the sign.  Wells (2015) provides an introduction:

“The science of signs, first proposed in 1916 by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, but developed in particular in the work of Roland Barthes (France) and C.S. Peirce (USA). Semiotics – also referred to as semiology – is premised upon the contention that all human communication is founded in an assemblage of signs – verbal, aural and visual – which is essentially systematic.”

Clearly, this concept of sign is central – it is the basis for all of our communications and therefore might be said to be a fundamental part of how we live with other people.

Wells goes on to say that “the sign proper has two aspects, signifier and signified. The signifier is the material manifestation, the word, or pictorial elements. The signified is a mental concept that is conventionally associated with the specific signifier. While separable for analytic purposes, in practice the signifier and the signified always go together.”

Short (2011:121) explains the term signifier as being “the form that the sign takes” and the signified as “the concept it represents”. Grundberg (1990) gives the example of the dots and dashes of Morse code being signifiers while the letters of the alphabet are the signified.

Salkeld (2017)  states that “a sign comprises two elements: the signifier – its physical form, such as a word (spoken or written), an image, a gesture, or an object; and the signified – the mental concept triggered by the signifier”. He goes onto give the example of the letters D – O – G as being signifiers which trigger the mental image of a dog. Of course, this isn’t universal – it plainly only works for people who understand enough English to make the mental connection. Salkeld calls this an “arbitrary signifier” – there is no specific connection between the letters “dog” and the mental concept – it is learned – and this is a characteristic of most spoken and written languages.

Salkeld (2017) adds another layer with the term ‘referent’ – “the thing that the sign as a whole stands for, but which is not physically present”. I understand this to mean that we have a chain of reasoning from the signifiers (D – O – G in the previous example) to the signified (our mental understanding that the letters “mean” a dog) to the referent (an actual dog).

Separating the ideas of the signified from the referent wasn’t so simple for me. My interpretation settled on the following:

  • Signifier: the (possibly arbitrary) collection of letters, sounds, gestures, images
  • Signified: the mental image prompted by the signifier
  • Reference: the actual object or person in the real world

From this point of view, I can make the example of a photograph of a friend. The signifier (the image), prompts the mental image of my friend (the signified). I therefore recognise the sign as indicating my friend. However, this is separate from the real person (the referent). There is therefore a clear separation from the image and the referent, the instant after the image is formed.

Symbols and Icons

Short (2011:123) provides some further terminology which is essential to semiotics: symbols and icons. She defines a symbol as “something that represents something else. In this instance, the signifier does not resemble the signified”. The important point is that the relationship must be learned and is therefore culturally specific. Examples include: languages, numbers, traffic lights and flags.

La Grange (2005) explains that “the symbol is essentially the same as de Saussure’s signifier in that their relationship to the subject is arbitrary and they need to be interpreted”. Grunberg (1990) points out that “the signifier is wholly arbitrary, a convention of social practice rather than a universal law”.

Short then goes on to explain that icons are different. “In this case the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified: bring similar in possessing some of its qualities”. Examples include a portrait, a cartoon, a scale-model, metaphors, sound effects and imitate gestures.

Indexicality of Photos

A particular type of signifier is the indexical signifier or just index which “is physically or causally linked to the signified. This link can be observed or inferred.” (Short 2011:123). Examples include smoke (indicating fire or heat), thunder (indicating lightning) and footprints (indicating footsteps).

Short goes not to state that indexicality “is particularly pertinent to photography simply because a photograph is a literal ‘trace’ of its original subject”. This “trace”, no matter how distorted or realistic then becomes separated in some sense from the referent, the actual subject, due to the image being frozen in time.


Grundberg, Andy (1990) The Crisis of the Real. New York: Aperture

Hall, Sean (2014), This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. (2nd ed) London: Laurence King Publishing

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23 Nov 2016)

Salkeld, Richard (2017) Reading Photographs: An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images.  [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed 31 Jan 2018)

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

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23.09.15)



David Bate: Looking at Portraits

Via Chas Bedford’s C&N blog (see here), I tripped over a reference to David Bate’s 2009 book titled Photography: The Key Concepts. There is a chapter titled Looking at Portraits which is particularly relevant for C&N Assignment 3. What follows is part summary, part reflection on the contents of the chapter.


The first section discusses the idea of identity and Bate makes the point that “portraits fix our identity in what is essentially an art of description”. Although there are myriad uses for portraits, put quite simply, the portrait says “this is how you look”. He notes that “the early commercial industry of photography was dominated by the development of studio portraiture” because people wanted “likenesses”. The demand was immense and focused strongly on the fixed studio where “clients [could] see themselves in a picture as they wished to appear”.

After discussing different types of portraiture, Bart ends the first section of the chapter by stating:

“What all portraits have in common, in their overlapping and different ways, is the central issue that the portrait is a means employed to establish the identity of a sitter, regardless of whether they are viewed as a social problem or a human being with positive features”.

Elements of a Portrait

Bart puts forward the notion that almost all portraits are made up of four key elements: face, pose, clothing, location. He notes that different types of portraiture use these components in different ways – for example, the face might be emphasised and the other three reduced in importance or be practically non-existant. He states that “in effect, the use of the four elements (face, pose, clothing, location) and their combined relation in the picture are what organizes the rhetoric of a portrait”.

These four elements form a useful language for thinking about portraits. But what do they say about self-absented portraits such as Nigel Shafran’s series Washing Up? It seems to me that they’re not so useful in such an extreme example where only location plays a role.

Bate argues that we “read” all of these elements. That is, we observe, interpret and take meaning from them. For example, he states that “just as the expression on a face is the rhetoric of mood, so the pose contributes to the signification of character, attitude and social position”.

Ad for Kodak Brownie – Eastman Kodak Company

In the section discussing pose, Bart makes the observation that passport photos and police mug shots have a similar aim: to be as objective as possible. The flat lighting and lack of a smile are meant to reduce subjective differences and any empathic identification with the subjects. He goes on to suggest that “the ‘smile’ (a rarity in the history of painting) emerged in photography as a popular convention precisely to signify the willing – ‘happy’ – participation of the sitter ‘to-be-photographed'”.

This is an interesting observation, but I do wonder at what influence marketing has had towards making the smile almost ubiquitous.  When I think about the early advertisements for cameras which came from Kodak which stressed the happy, fun aspects of photography. These early ads typically contained a happy family and very often showed smiling people, plainly delighted with their new Kodak camera. This would be an interesting topic on its own to investigate.

Reading Portraits

In this section, Bart argues that we can only go so far with “reading” portraits. The four elements give us a language, however we are very limited by surface appearances. Even if there is written material to provide a context or anchor the meaning of a portrait, we are still left with only a “surface” with which to make up our own minds.


Bart asks us what do we see when we look at a portrait? He asserts that we recognise a human figure and that this recognition gives us a kind of pleasure. He gives examples such as seeing the photo of a loved one, or suddenly meeting someone seen a long time ago. He argues that this re-cognition, or the return to something already known, is the return to a pleasure already experienced in the past. It’s effectively the repetition of a pleasurable moment.

He goes on to say that “in portraiture we probably encounter three general categories of people, all of which entail different aspects of recognition”: familiar, unfamiliar and the known.

The familiar category includes family, friends, neighbours, colleagues. These images are often circulated in the personal realm such in family albums, desktops and these days probably most often on smart phones.

The known category includes people who exist as a “discursive knowledge”.  That is, they might be familiar to us, but we do not know them in the sense of the familiar category. Examples include famous (and infamous) people (celebrities, stars, politicians, criminals). These people (who may be fictional – Bart uses the example of James Bond) appear in magazines, newspapers etc. – they are very much in the public eye and in that sense, they are known to us.

Bart states that the familiar and known categories “can be seen as comforting, since they repeat, in different ways, figures who are already ‘images’. The pleasure is in seeing the familiar and known again and again”.

The unfamiliar category is the interesting one. These are people who are either ignored, or if they are shown, it is in ways which don’t fit with their self-image. An example which pops to mind are the many photos of the homeless over the years, extending almost to exploitation. This point is expressed very well in a PDN Online interview with Robert Shults. Those photographers who take taken the time to get to know and collaborate with individuals rather than the amorphous entity we call “the homeless”, have presented images which correspond to their actual identities. An example would be Sam Wolson’s project This Life I Lead.

Bart notes that “photographers who are conscious of representing the unrepresented in new ways, which do correlate to their actual identities in some way, is of much value – and this is often where innovations in portraiture are achieved, precisely because they interrupt the comfortable economy of the same”.

In the last part of this section, Bart argues that we get pleasure from recognising someone in an image – be it a loved one or someone famous or infamous. He goes further to suggest that we also get pleasure from the “uncanny impact” of a stranger’s face (the unfamiliar).


In this section, Bart commences with pointing out how the viewer of an image is unavoidably connected with the camera’s position in the scene – the two are interlinked. We are effectively constrained by the original positioning of the camera. Bart calls this “identification with the camera” and gives cinematic examples which exploit this aspect – for example, “a ‘thrilling’ point-of-view shot, hurtling down a cliff”.  We see many examples of this in sports and leisure activities which have been aided by the production of lightweight, waterproof cameras such as the GoPro and others.

A key aspect is identifying with something or someone. That is, we identify ourselves as being like the person in a portrait. Bart points out that this likeness might only be a fantasy and may never be fulfilled, but nevertheless there “a visual satisfaction in the fantasy of identification”.

He goes further to suggest that there are four types of identification when looking at portraits:

  1. “With the camera, as viewer.
  2. Of the person depicted (recognition).
  3. With the person (or object) depicted.
  4. With the look of the person(s) in the picture at us or other characters in the picture.”

Just from an intuitive point of view, these types of identification make sense. In the domain of marketing, it is number 3 which is perhaps dominant – the desire to be like the person and perhaps to experience their surroundings (luxury, exotic location etc.). Bart doesn’t expand on the 4th point, but I take it to mean the expression on the person’s face, or perhaps their clothes etc. Of course, this then links back to the earlier section on elements of a portrait: face, pose, clothing and location.

Returning to my earlier example of Nigel Shafran’s series Washing Up where I argue only location plays a real role of the four elements, I can see that the identification aspect is probably key. We all have washing up and we can identify with the domestic situation and even with the captions of what was eaten that resulted in the washing up.

Narcissism and Looking

In this somewhat complex section, Bart refers to Freud’s theories about how we view ourselves from infancy and the implication that we look at portraits as a kind of reflection of ourselves. He states “in this respect we might see that a central gratification of portraiture is precisely an address to the imaginary question: am I like this person or not?”. From this basis, he moves onto the idea of projection which also affects how we view portraits.


Bart assets that “in ‘projection’, the viewer casts off uncomfortable feelings, which arise in themselves, and relocates them within another person or thing”. He gives examples of the projection of feelings about a father or mother onto another person who might serve as a substitute such as a father or mother. He argues that the same projection occurs when viewing a portrait.

Thomas Gainsborough: Self-portrait (1759)

I’m not sure why Bart only mentions uncomfortable feelings, because I believe that we can project all sorts of feelings onto others. For example, maybe a person reminds us of someone we like and rightly or wrongly we attribute (project) those feelings on that person.

Bart goes on to suggest that certain types of portraits (be they paintings or photographs) “invite the spectator to fill in the missing details”. At this stage he is writing specifically about the portraits of Thomas Gainsborough. He quotes Joshua Reynolds as stating that the “‘striking resemblance in Gainsborough’s portraits is achieved by leaving ‘many important features undetermined”.

This kind of projection is, I believe, us providing the narrative around the image. Classical portraiture often situated the subject in a fantasy landscape which could be some kind of idealised rural ideal or perhaps an exotic location, all designed to provoke our internal story telling and identification with the sitter. The “missing details” may be about the wealth and social status of the subject or about their profession, such as a ship’s captain.

The Blank Expression

Bart commences this final section of the chapter with a discussion of the “enigmatic” expression on Da Vinci’s painting the Mona Lisa. He states that the expression comes from a painting technique called sfumato, whereby the features are slightly smudged. Apparently, this technique encourages us to project our own feelings onto the image and to “see” them reflected. Bart states that the painting draws us in to an “intimacy” which is caused by what we want to see. 

In the photographic world, there are techniques such as soft-focus or selective lighting which also increase ambiguity of meaning so that the viewer is somehow free to impose their own meaning.

Bart argues that the opposite can also apply. He cites the large, high resolution portraits of Thomas Ruff which provide too much information. His point is that when overloaded with information, we don’t know what is important and what isn’t – we don’t know “what is signified and even less, what the subject is thinking”.

He ends with stating that the meanings of portraits are always “corrupted” by the process of viewing. The viewer always imposes their own interpretation, based on their relationship (identification) with the signifying elements in the image.


The four elements discussed by Bart: face, pose, clothing and location form a useful framework for discussing a portrait. They form the basic organising idea. Building on these elements, the different forms of identification are useful analytical tools which relate to the elements. For example, we can say things about how just changing the position of camera can change our interpretation. Finally the general categories of people (familiar, unfamiliar and known) give us ways of thinking about locating subjects and also give us ways to play with these boundaries by placing people outside of common context (for example: presenting George Clooney at home as the family man).


Bate, D. (2009) Photography : The Key Concepts. At: [Accessed 25 January 2018]