Semiotics as a concept has come up in previous modules and I’ve always found it to be a slippery beast. I suspect that to fully get to grips with it is a lifetime’s work and even then may not get resolved.

Semiotics and Semiology are related but distinct terms to describe how language and objects can be interpreted. Ferdinand De Saussure defined Semiology as signs comprising two parts, the signified and the signifier. Short describes the signifier as referring to the form which the sign takes and the signified as meaning the concept it represents(Short,2011:122). To put this in plainer language the signifier is the thing itself and the signified is what we infer from the sign. Stephen Bull says Saussure’s concept of Semiotics was developed mainly around the idea of how signs operate in spoken language(Bull,2009:15).

At the same time Charles Sanders Peirce as a three-part sign; sign (representamen – the form of the sign), interpretant (what is inferred from the sign) and object (the thing that the sign refers to)(Short,2011:122). Peirce was more interested in how signs operate on things, rather than just language. He further identified three types of sign; Icon (the sign reflects qualitative features of the object it represents), Index (the sign utilizes a connection between it and the object), and Symbol (the sign utilizes some convention or habit connecting it to the object)(Atkin,2013).

Specific application of Semiotics to photography is largely due to the work of Roland Barthes. Barthes adopted semiological terms and explored cultural meaning in terms of the signified and the signifier. He said that the language as a signifier is arbitrary and not pre-ordained. It is down to individual societies to relate specific words with objects. In his essay ‘The Photographic Message’ he states that “the photograph is unique among ‘signs’ because the photograph carries its referent with it”(Shawcross,2012:11). This led to his describing photography as a message without a code, meaning that unlike spoken communication there is no cultural variation required to interpret the image. Barthes also adopted the work of Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev, who used the terms Denotation and Connotation to apply the interpretation of signs in language. Hjelmslev defined Denotation as meaning how sign operate in conjunction with language, and Connotation to refer to the cultural implications of the sign. However the implications of Barthes statement about photography being a ‘message without a code’ means that Hjelmslev’s definition of Denotation does not really work with photography since language does not come into things. In photographic terms the use of these terms has been slightly simplified so that Denotation is taken to mean ‘what is shown’ and Connotation to mean ‘what is understood’.

In simple terms photographers can use a particular subject, and how it is photographed, to imply a specific concept or emotion to the viewer. How successful this is depends on both the photographer and the viewer having some common understanding between them. Maria Short cites as an example the work of Risaku Suzuki and says his image of cherry blossom in early spring symbolizes hope and strength, and at the same time falling blossom shows the fragility of life(Short,2011:129). Although the basis of Suzuki’s work from which this image is taken reflects a cultural understanding that is largely universal. It is quite likely that implied references to Japanese art and culture may only be understood by Japanese people, or others with a long association with Japan. In this case the symbolic reference is not totally universal.

Short, M. (2011) Basics Creative Photography 02: Context and Narrative. (01 edition) (s.l.): AVA Publishing.

Bull, S. (2009) Photography (Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications). (1 edition) (s.l.): Routledge.

Atkin, A. (2013) ‘Peirce’s Theory of Signs’ definition. [online] In: Zalta, E.N. (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Summer 2013. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. At:

Nancy M. Shawcross in Durden, M. (ed.) (2012) Fifty Key Writers on Photography (Routledge Key Guides). (1 edition) (s.l.): Routledge.

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