An introduction to the study of signs and symbols


Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols - these can be found in the spoken or written word, in the nuances of music or the art of cinematography, within the shapes and curves of sculpture or by the sinewy grace of dance or more particularly in our case the structure of a picture, whether as a painting or a photograph and how these are read. The Reading of the image is the process of discovering the wealth meanings within the frame that occurs when the viewer reacts to the signs and symbols which constitute the picture. The process inevitably involves some shared understanding of what the picture represents. In this way viewers with different social experiences or different cultures may find different meanings in the same image. This is not necessarily an indication of the success or failure of the picture in question. It's only the difference between translation and interpretation.

Semiotics has evolved into quite an elaborate area of study and in doing so has established its own gurus and developed its own vocabulary and idioms - in essence its very own signs and symbols! When researching semiotics one becomes involved in the significance of words and images and initially confounded with a specially related vocabulary. Words such as paradigm and syntagm, signifier and poetic function, exnomination and referential function. The whole subject has become codified and for those wishing to delve deeper, I attach a bibliography at the close of these notes.

So what is it then?

Firstly bear in mind that it's mostly common sense. Secondly, remember that we're all actually quite good at it - all we have to do is 'tune in'. Culturally, we're surrounded by images, signs and symbols whether visual or in sound. Traveling along the average road we're bombarded with traffic signs that need to be unambiguous - they are not for interpretation but intended for direct translation. The same journey may reveal advertising posters targeted at specific groups (as a non-smoker, I find cigarette advertising baffling - I am not the target audience!) finally arriving at our destination, the office we seek may be represented by a corporate logo. So they're here - all around us. And in other ways too - for the 'semiotics of smell' we have naturally occurring pheromones and the artificial fragrances of the perfumer's art.

Advertisers, communicators and 'the media' all rely upon a common frame of reference. This shared understanding is exemplified by those of stereotypes, archetypes and emotional narratives. If we were unable to respond this common understanding millions of pounds spent on communication and advertising would be wasted. So it works and we're all part of the culture. We willingly participate. We understand the messages, having absorbed them over time and by repetition in a form of 'social osmosis'. As individuals and as artists we return the messages through our pictures by selectivity of subject, context, focus, lighting, angle, process and presentation. Semiotics can be broken down into three main areas of study. Those of Sign, Codes (sometimes called systems) and Culture.

The sign.
A study of the different varieties of sign, different ways of conveying meaning and relating to the people who use them.
Codes (or systems).
A study of ways in which signs are organised covering the ways in which a variety of codes have developed in order to meet the needs of a society or culture.

A study of the culture within which these signs and codes operate. To break this down a little consider the following simple example:-

A sign: a Stetson hat and a neckerchief - meaning: clothing.

As a code: we could interpret the hat and neckerchief as cowboy attire.

Culture: this dictates our viewpoint - to the frontiersman: a friend, to the native Indian tribes: a threat.


So how can we use the information to improve our understanding of photography?

We need to open our minds to the art of 'reading pictures', by doing so the enjoyment of looking at pictures is greatly extended. To enable us to better understand the process the study of representation is of particular interest.

Consider the word Representation we could break it down to read Re-Presentation. After all in capturing an image and showing it to others we are indeed re-presenting it and by doing so it becomes something more than the original scene and setting - the photographer has added to it and a third party will decode the message. We can further understand representation by scanning through newspapers and magazines for here can be found a rich vein of visual shorthand in this case the 'stereotype. Stereotypes not only occur in newspapers but in all forms of popular culture…advertising, pop music lyrics, soap operas etc. To illustrate the common ground and our shared cultural experience of stereotyping carry out the following brief exercise.


Stereotypes, examples

Write, sketch or imagine a very brief picture description to represent the following:- the mother-in-law, a Frenchman, a burglar, a dictator, a student, a Russian, a grandmother a professor/genius, a grandfather, a jazz musician, a gangster a hippie, a city gent, a doctor an alien being, an American tourist, a witch and a detective.

Stereotypes are often crude, cartoon-like, generalised and represented by clichés. They are instantly recognisable by key details of appearance.

A stereotype is, therefore, a simplified representation of (frequently human) appearance, character and beliefs. It has become established through years of repetition in the media as well as through assumptions in everyday conversation. A stereotype is a distortion and an exaggeration.

An Archetype is an extremely intense example of type and deeply embedded within our culture. Archetypes include arch heroes, heroines and villains who epitomise deep beliefs and values. Examples include characters from religion, mythology and popular culture.…Robin Hood, Superman, Buck Rogers, James Bond, all are archetypes.


Representation and construction

Groups of people are represented in certain ways through visual images. The media frequently organises our understanding of categories of people and directs our understanding as to why certain people should belong to certain categories. This can be in the form of political propaganda. Consider the representation of 'dangerous Trade Unionists' in the Tory press, the 'bosses' in left wing press and the depiction of Jews in Nazi Germany. As our perception of genre is constructed from key elements then type, too is similarly composed, eg physical appearance - hair, clothes and distinguishing features.


Representation and meaning

What is represented through these types is far more than a view of categories of people or of what they commonly look like. We also see a representation of attitudes toward that type. By the construction of certain characteristics, treated in a particular way, we are persuaded as to what we should think of them. We are given a set of value judgments - we decode value messages subliminally from the surface representation.

Example: the cliché of a wise old oriental man - wispy beard, long mustache, long grey braided hair, a robe and an inscrutable expression. This same description can be subtly altered to become Fu Manchu - a scheming, archetypal villain. All types carry meanings. Absence can be indicative too...what is excluded from the frame (racial or gender exclusion as a form of direction or censorship). A landscape perhaps that excludes an industrial site to represent a countryside idyll, include the industrial site and we have a representation of 'the rape of our countryside'! As photographers we are continually selective, as soon as we frame the scene we exercise selection. Use selection to advantage - to direct and strengthen the message.


Representation, Culture and Meaning

When a group of people are represented this is often as valid a statement about the culture/photographer as it is about the group - and not necessarily the same statement either! Remember that it is not only the photographer who is selective in his or her view about a particular culture but we, as the audience, are selective too in how we interpret a picture. The picture is a bridge. The strength, width and direction of that bridge depends upon the intentions and skill of the photographer. Start to exercise your visual skills and decode the messages within the pictures you see. Once the technique is better understood, your pictures will improve as a consequence. Use the knowledge gained to make your pictures more powerful, get your viewers involved with what they see. The most successful pictures subtly direct and involve the viewer - the narrative begins - let the viewer continue and complete the story or perhaps use it as the basis for a completely fresh narrative - and that's called inspiration.
Let's make inspirational pictures!!


Further reading:

'More Than Meets the Eye', Greame Burton

'Understanding the media', Andrew Hart

'Introduction to Communication studies', John Fiske

'Film as social Practice', Greame Turner.


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