Theoretical Tools for Reading Photographs

Deconstructions – Derrida – to fully understand how something has been made, you have to take it apart before you can put it back together. don’t take things at face value be prepared to delve deeper and be opening to alternative meaning.

Semiotics – Barthes – the study of signs and language


The signifier is the element in the photograph that signified what we think we are seeing or feeling in an image. Together they are the sign that contributes to the overall effect of the photograph

Denotation – states the facts, the literal translation of an object, the accepted version of what something is. ie there is bucket in the picture, it holds water.

Connotation – interpretation of the facts, (open to our experiences, knowledge and preconceptions of what that object could mean on an practical or metaphorical level). ie. the bucket holding water could be interpreted as life giving drink, or a means to clean yourself. This is a more personal take on the element.

Studium – another term coined by Barthes in his book ‘Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography’. to describe the general status quo of an image. The studium is the photograph’s cultural, political and social meaning. By this he means the overall feel of the image that places it in a comfortable, understandable space for us as the viewer.

Punctum – as opposed to Studium, punctum is an element in an image that ‘punctures’ the meaning. It the thing that doesn’t fit or draws our attention to it. It’s the element we are viewers are drawn to that makes the image more interesting and creates a connection.

Intertextuality – the individual background, education and experiences that you bring to your interpretation of an image that you view. Each person will read a photograph and bring it to life in a different way. Barthes says that sharing these readings with others will also enrich the experience and the understanding of the meaning.


Whilst researching for Assignment 4, I came across some feedback from another student’s tutor, which advised that he PEEL it when writing his essay.

PEEL acronym

This is great advice for constructing a paragraph, which I am definitely going to use.

Part 4 – Project 1 – The Language of Light

Exercise on Erwitt’s New York 1974

look carefully at Erwitt’s image and write some notes about how the subject matter is placed within the frame. How has Erwitt structured this image?

What do you think the image is ‘saying’? How does the structure contribute to this meaning?

Erwitt was born in Paris in 1928 but relocated to the US in 1938 with his family. His trademark was depicting surreal or absurd moments in a candid style, owing much to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment.

This image is cropped so that you can’t see who the legs belong too. At first glance it looks like a couple walking a dog along a path. When you look closer you see it’s actually a human and and a large dog which contrast against the whole of the little dog. The little dog is linked to the other legs by the straight lead.

Each of the elements have a human touch, i.e the legs next to the human and the hat on the little dog. The main focus of the image is in the centre, but you scan the image from bottom to top, starting with the foreground that goes from a shallow depth of field to sharp at the feet and then up to edge of the photo and across to the bright blown out back ground. Having the image back lit really helps with highlighting the shapes of the legs. The blurred tree in the background gives the image a feeling of depth.

I really like this image, it tells a story, but leaves an element of mystery. I like that the dogs and humans have equal status in the image.