Can a photograph narrate? Allen Feldman said “the event is not what happens. The event is that which can be narrated” (Campbell, 2010). In order for an event to be narrated a syntax and language must be used. In photography, the narrative language used is a series of visual codes which are combined in order to produce a rhetorical argument. A linguistic message. It is by reading the codes of photography that the viewer is able to observe a range of different meanings. (Bate 2016: 18) There are multiple codes, messages, rhetoric and grammar that the viewer of an image should try to understand. This essay with discuss three significant codes that are used in photography.
Firstly, semiotics. Semiotics will be analysed as first described by Roland Barthes. Secondly, the concept of studium and punctum will be considered. Stadium and punctum was another photographic theory developed by Roland Barthes. Thirdly, psychoanalysis will be examined as defined by Sigmund Freud. Finally, these three visual language codes will be evaluated in the context of contemporary photographic narrative. Semiotics is the study of signs.
Everything can be interpreted through the use of signs. A sign consists of two constituent parts. The first part is the signifier.
The signifier is the actual thing itself. The second part is the signified. The signified is the internal thought that is triggered by seeing the signifier. (Bate 2016: 20) Roland Bathes was one of the first to apply the theory of semiotics to photography. Barthes noted that signs exist in photographs and they create meaning. It is possible to treat photographs as “texts” and the component signs can be interpreted and decoded.
(Wells 2015: 123) The semiotics of photography can be explored by looking at this image from 1920 of king George V driving to the Epsom Derby (Figure 1). A man runs alongside the carriage holding out his cap. He is begging. However, there is a deeper story. The coachman wears white breeches and top boots, the footman white tie, white waistcoat and morning coat with a cockade in his top hat. This style of servants’ uniform is from many decades before 1920.
The royal party is dressed formally. This shows that the king is conservative and authoritarian by nature. The war brought a significant increase in motor vehicle use, however the King has decided to travel by horse and carriage. This carriage is a luxury city convertible called a “landau”.
The king is confidently proclaiming his status and wealth. Despite the first world war just ending there are no security guards present as the royal party travel in an environment away from the general public. The beggar is dressed in worn tattered clothes.
He has a forelock to make himself appear “gentlemanly” while wearing his cap as his head is closely shaved to reduce lice infestation. He wears a medal on his chest, which shows he has survived the war. There were many jobless veterans living in destitute poverty in Britain at this time. The beggar is holding out a workers cap. The royal party appears uneasy but are not fumbling to find any spare change.
In the background, the woman who is walking down the road is wearing a dress that is cut above her ankles. This dates the image to the post war period. Someone looking at this image in 1920 would have garnered more information than someone looking at it today as they would have been much more familiar with the cultural subtleties. This shows that signifier and signified can change over time and a photographs meaning is sometimes forgotten. Roland Bathes developed the phrase Studium and Punctum in order to describe the information and emotional relationship of a photograph that may arrest peoples attention. He used the word studium to describe how he may have a polite gentle interest in an image, of liking an image but not loving. The studium gives the viewer an insight into the general intent of the photographer. The studium is the cultural content of the photograph and understanding the cultural content is dependent on the cultural background of the viewer.
(Barthes 2000: 27) He used the word punctum to describe the detail that jumps out of an image and “stabs” the viewer by making a direct personal connection. The punctum shoots out of the scene and grabs the viewers attention with a prick, a bruising punch, a poignant sensitive sting. The Punctum “punctuates” the Studium. (Barthes 2000: 26) This is an image of a young black woman facing two white police officers during a black lives matter demonstration in 2016 (Figure 2). The woman stands alone, dignified and calm in a soft delicate dress. The officers confronting her wear body armour and they are supported up by a strong line of police collegues.
The officers appear defensive, they are on the their back feet. The studium shows in the womans dress, her calmness, the police officers uniforms, the suburban environment, the muted colours and the soft light. Punctum is in the eye of the viewer but in this example it could be the expression of complete calm and dignity on the womans face juxtaposed by the anxiety and body language of the police officers. The punctum spotlights the power imbalance between the white establishment patriarchy and the black equality movement. In recent times, psychoanalysis has become marginalised and under valued in photographic analysis.
(Bate 2016: 8) Sigmund Freud developed ideas around psychoanalysis in photography. People see the world through their eyes. Therefore, looking at a photograph can feel similar to looking at the world and may trigger fragments of unconscious forgotten memory from life experiences, especially a persons experiences as a child. Emotions can be triggered for example love, desire, dependence, fear and anger. These unconscious emotions may affect the viewer in irrational and unforeseen ways. For example slips of the tongue, dreams, fetishes, experiencing the uncanny, imagining that something is dead when its alive. (Bull 2010: 46) A photographer who is aware of the triggers for unconscious emotions can exploit them in order to manipulate and move the viewer.
This is an image from 1956 of a mother and child who are about to go shopping in Alabama (Figure 3). The mother and daughter are smartly dressed, they appear clean, middle class and are representative of the American dream. However, the photograph was taken in 1953 which was during segregation so mother and daughtermust use the “coloured entrance”.
Subconscious emotions will be different for everyone but in this example might be triggered by observing the secure relationship between mother and daughter which is juxtaposed with the injustices of inequality and unfairness in American society. “I think that there isn’t a photograph in the world that has any narrative ability. Any of ’em. They do not tell stories – they show you what something looks like.” (Winogrand 1982) There is an essence of truth in this Garry Winogrand statement. At a rudimentary level, photography is a technical reproduction of what was in front of the camera lens at the moment the shutter was released. However, photography is much more than this, a photograph can express a rich and complicated narrative.
At its birth, photography didn’t express narrative as it was considered to be a tool for making visual reproductions that were used for scientific documentation and portraiture. In the 1860’s “pictorialist” photographers began to experiment with and accentuate tone, beauty and composition. (Luvera 2017) In the 1920’s photographers like Aleksander Rodchenko and Walker Evans produced work that had a distinctive linguistic message which was specific to the photographic medium. Using these linguistic messages, photographers started to tell stories.
(Luvera 2017) For the last 80 years or so it is now widely accepted that photographs have a language of their own. By understanding and utilising the ontology of this photographic language, a photographer will be able to shape, manipulate and greatly increase the strength of their work. If a photographer is to survive in the commercial environment they must be sophisticated and work hard at understanding and engaging with narrative.