• Andy Przybyla

A Question of Semiotics

Updated: Nov 28, 2019

General semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, their meaning and use. If you've seen or read the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown the lead character, Dr Robert Langdon is a professor studying in this field.

In photography however, semiotics is the way we interpret a picture or image. When we look at a picture we look for meaning in the construction, colours, lighting, framing and composition. Semiotics is a complicated field and before moving onto analysing a photograph myself I want to explore the some of the parts a little deeper.


Is it yes or no

When we look at an image we initially see what the creator wants us to see, however in some images especially constructed ones, there can be more that we initially connect with visually.

Things can be coded into the image. This encoded information has been added to give more substance and depth to the mage. The creator might be trying to include a message or invoke a feeling with their work. By using signs, colours, emotions and a whole range of other methods a simple scene can become a whole lot more.


You will see in the image things that are specific to you. Things you have been taught or learned through experience. This could be based on your education, political persuasion, ethical view, religion, sex etc. You will see what you have been instructed to see. As an example if a priest see's a cross they might think of their faith, while someone without religion could think of quite the opposite. So connotations are the things we think into the image based upon our own thoughts and feelings.

Roland Barthes

One of the big names behind the theory of semiotics was Roland Gerard Barthes, a French literary theorist. His book Camera Lucida is an attempt to explain via a deeply personal account how looking at a certain set of photographs creates emotion.

Roland studied at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris and was highly inspired by existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. He suffered from numerous health issues that exempted him from service in World War II and allowed him to spend time on his studies.

Susan Sontang

Susan wrote the well known book On Photography, a collection of essays sharing her views on photography in a capitalist society. Written in the 1970s it looks at what was at the time the present day role of photography vs the historical role.

The book is said to have become part of the rhetorical tool kit many photography critics now just and carry around in their heads and use to form their opinions.

Codes in the meaning

Symbolic Codes, Semantic Codes, Proairetic Codes, Hermeneutic Codes, and Cultural codes are all discussed by Barthes when looking at semiotics: Symbolic codes are the easiest to look at, a cross will often link us to the church but a small equal cross will link us to health or ambulances, a similar green cross is safety or pharmacy. A heart shape symbol can link us to love same as the letter x will link to a kiss.

Semantic codes have a hidden connotation. If you think of a horror movie poster there is a lot of black and red used as these colours have links to night and blood. If a person is perhaps cuddling an item or person we will take it for granted they love or are happy to see the person/object.

Proairetic codes are actions likely to happen. If we see someone putting a gun into a holster, we may assume they are going to shoot someone later. Imagine a picture of someone with their hands over their eyes, this suggests a shame, and that something has happened already they are ashamed or perhaps something they don't want to see

Hermeneutic codes are things that direct you and hook you. Some call it the enigma code, and it creates questions within the image. It comes up a lot more when an image is coupled with text and that text has a section which stands out or is asking an outright question. The intention is making you look further or ask why something is the case.

Cultural codes are things linked to a certain knowledge or group of people. Being from outside this culture or not possession the intended information may mean you do see the meaning. They are used to engage a certain audience or people who understand a context. They normally add layers of meaning for a particular audience.

My attempt at a explaining an image

Below we have a photo by Gregory Crewdson, an American photographer famous for his deep dramatic images.

Crewdson is a great example of a photographer who creates a tableau vivants (living picture) hence my reason to examine his work. You really have to look out for the minor details and things that look out of place or that can be construed in different ways.

The image above, Untitled 2004 is a bedroom scene featuring two people, most probably a couple considering their state of dress and the double bed. They have potentially had an argument or some news that has drawn them apart as apparent by their direction coupled with the fact they're looking down indicating sadness.

There is a question around what and where the room is. At first I thought it was their bedroom but its on the ground floor and this is unusual. Ground floor bedrooms are normally reserved for people who need them, or when the house is on one level. Could it be a motel room as there is the en-suite or is it just a bathroom and the chair is also pointing towards a multi-use room. Due to the amount of bottles on the dresser and bathroom shelf I am leaning towards it being their home.

The colours are interesting with the bathroom looking inviting and warm but why is the door left open? This is in opposition to the cold blue hue of the room. It's obviously a warm night with the door being open this has probably allowed the little bird to enter that is looking at the woman from her dressing table. There are two lamps on but their warm yellow light is not really having an effect on the rest of the room.

Crewdson is well known for his use of light and i've seen more creative lighting in his other works but this is still very stimulating tacking the different sources and how even the lighting looks. More than this he has trapped us in the scene. There is nowhere else we can look as there is no bathroom window and the view outside is obscured by another building. What ever is going on in these scene the couple are left feeling as trapped as we are.

I've found a video on his brief encounters series which you can see below where you can learn a little more about the artist.


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