Paddy Whannel, the media critic, wrote “Semiotics tells us things we already know in a language we will never understand” (1). Semiotics, the study of signs, is a modern science that, like most fields of study, has created its own language to describe how we read and interpret all forms of communication. It was co-founded by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913), a Swiss linguist, and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914), an American Philosopher but Daniel Chandler in his introduction to semiotics (2) explains that these men approached the subject from quite different perspectives; Saussure was interested in “the role of signs as part of social life” whilst Peirce studied the “formal doctrine of signs” which he saw as being closely related to logic. Chandler tells us that since then many self-styled semioticians have become involved in the subject from backgrounds as diverse as linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology but until the 1960’s semiotics was generally the realm of a small number of academics. This changed when, starting in the 1960’s, Roland Barthes wrote a series of influential essays that explored semiotics both in terms of linguistics and then the visual arts and that steered the subject into the main stream of linguistic and media studies.

As a young science it has few universally accepted theories partly because the forms of communication it studies are so diverse. Although it started with linguistics it is now concerned with visual signs of any type from Chaucer’s words to the lollypop ladies stop sign, but also encompasses sounds, body language, drawings, paintings and photographs; in short, any method of human communication and, like Chandler, I am ignoring zoo semiotics, biosemiotics, musical semiotics and architectural semiotics. Each of these sub-categories no doubt have their own language and theories so it comes as something of a relief to find that, in the context of photography, the same basic core concepts are repeated and used by most writers (2)(i).

Definitions and Language

  • Sign – a meaningful unit which is interpreted as standing for something other than itself. Signs have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning.
  • Signifier – the physical form, the thing, the object, the sound, the image or gesture
  • Signified – the mental concept that is triggered by the signifier.
  • Arbitrary or Symbolic Signs – where there is no natural connection between the signifier and the signified; most words fit into this category, the word “sun”, if seen as three different shaped marks on a page “s”, “u”, “n” has no connection to the ball of fiery gas in the sky; we have just learnt to associated these three marks with the sun.
  • Indexical Signifiers – where the signifier is directly produced by the signified; footprints and shadows are good examples.
  • Iconic Signifiers – are those that resemble the signifier; a drawing that accurately represents its subject falls into this category.
  • Denotation – the indisputable thing that we are looking at.
  • Connotation – the associated ideas that are suggested by the image but which are not explicitly denoted. These ideas are typically socio-cultural or personal.
  • Genre – a particular style or category of communication. This is relevant because the genre will typically point to conventions that are historically or ethically associated with that style. (contemporary semioticians refer to genre as a semiotic sign-system)
  • Anchorage – a concept introduced by Roland Barthes that describes how a caption or other text can “anchor” the meaning of an image and limit the ways in which it might be read.
  • Relay – a less common circumstance in photography where text and image hold what Barthes calls a “complimentary relationship” and where both are “fragments of the unity of the message”. (3)
  • Complex Signs – a sign that contains other signs

The Haystack

The deceptively simple idea is that when we look at a photograph we recognise parts of the content as signs, the sign is in two parts the thing we are looking at, the signifier, and the idea that it conjures up for us, the signified.

So to refer back to Fox Tabot’s Haystack (see previous essay here) we can identify plenty of signifiers; the ladder, the haystack, specific shadows and the shadows in general, the detail of the hay, the hay knife, the thatching and so on. Each of these were an object in real life and have been represented in a  realistic way in the photograph. Each of these signifiers trigger ideas in our mind; the ladder makes us think of ascending to cut the hay or, if we have more imagination like Ian Jeffrey (7), Jacobs ladder rising to heaven; the shadows make us think it is near mid-day, the overall contrast might suggest that it is a warm sunny day; for anyone who has stacked hay bales the detail of the stack might evoke memories of itching and scratched forearms.

If we look at the photograph in its totality we can read it as an iconic signifier because it imitates the haystack; but it is also indexical because the connection between the haystack and this photograph is not arbitrary, it is a direct relationship. Once we are on the subject of indexical signifiers we can identify some inside the frame such as the shadow which is directly related to the ladder.

There are some more subtle but equally important signs that we have learned to read in a photograph. the print or screen image is obviously two dimensional, it is flat, but we can recognise that the back of the stack is further from the camera than the ladder, we “read” this information by instinctively identifying the signifiers that communicate perspective, tonal variation and the relative size of known objects.

As mentioned in the previous essay (here) I used to live in a  place where these sort of stacks are still common and even own a hay knife so there are, what Barthes refers to as,   connotations; signifiers that have a particular meaning to me, or to put it another way I bring to the viewing of this image the context of having lived in a rural setting where ancient and traditional farming methods are still prevalent. I relate this stack to the ones I have seen in the Apennines, I can imagine cutting into this stack with my hay knife.

There are also signs that are, what Barthes calls, denotations; these are the obvious or common sense meanings of the signs such as being able to recognise the time of day based on the length of the shadows or that the stack is high, or that the hay on the ground has fallen there when the labourers cut out the blocks.

As this photograph was originally published with a description written by the artist we can also consider the nature of the image’s relationship with that text. Fox Talbot explains why this calotype has been included in his book; it is to show how well his photographic process records the infinite detail of a stack of hay. He wants to make the point that this is a superior process to painting because no artist would spend the time recording every stalk in the way his camera has. This text should anchor the meaning of the image; Barthes (3) tells us that there is a “floating chain of signifiers” in a picture and to exert some control over how it is read the artist provides some explanation of the image. At the simplest level Fox Talbot calls his picture “The Haystack” , this anchors the meaning of the main subject, it would be pointlessly argumentative to suggest that it is a straw stack or a cottage because Fox Talbot has focused our understanding to some degree. The main text anchored the meaning of the image for me because I have a literal mind, I accepted Fox Talbot’s motivations as he describes them but interestingly Ian Jeffrey (7) has ditched the anchor and gone in search of other meanings. This shows quite clearly that the anchor is not a guaranteed fixing agent, it only fixes the meaning if the viewer is receptive to the artist’s premise.

A Conclusion of Sorts

Daniel Chandler (4) quotes many writers who have criticised Semiotics including the suggestion that the discipline being concerned with everything  is a form of  intellectual terrorism that “overfills our lives with meaning”. Other criticism includes that it is over formulaic and thereby arid but my favourite argument against comes from Dominic Strinati, as quoted by Chandler, who wrote:

    “How can we know that a bunch of roses signifies passion unless we also know the intention of the sender and the reaction of the receiver, and the kind of relationship they are involved in? If they are lovers and accept the conventions of giving and receiving flowers as an aspect of romantic, sexual love, then we might accept… [this] interpretation. But if we do this, we do so on the basis not of the sign but of the social relationships in which we can locate the sign… The roses may also be sent as a joke, an insult, a sign of gratitude, and so on. They may indicate passion on the part of the sender but repulsion on the part of the receiver; they may signify family relations between grandparents and grandchildren rather than relations between lovers, and so on. They might even connote sexual harassment.”

On balance semiotics has some value in reading a photograph but Barthes was right to point out that it is at its most powerful when used to interpret advertisements because, in that field, we know that the meaning has been intentionally inserted. With an art photograph it can be used as an analytical tool but I suggest that we need to see it as a form of analysis more than a complete way of decoding the meaning. Overall I am more comfortable with the Ainslie Ellis’ (5) argument that understanding photography is a combination of creative attention and a grasp of its visual history. He goes on to say

“Aesthetics? Too often the pot-boilings of critics or academics rather than creators. Semiotics? An attempt to force visual imagery into the jargon of linguistics and so become subject to merely political and social interpretations.”

Photography’s greatest assets are its accessibility and universality; it is a truly democratic art form second only to writing in terms of its availability to the ordinary person (ii). Unfortunately this makes it equally accessible to any academic searching for a socio-political subject upon which to pontificate. In a slightly masochistic way I have learned to enjoy Roland Barthes in small doses, his tendency to use fifty long words when ten shorter ones might do is frustrating and a barrier to understanding but many of his essays are wonderfully insightful; I am therefore willing to partially exclude him from the following sentiment.

I find that too much of the theory of photography interpretation is written by people who are neither creators, art critics, historians, photography academics nor curators and this tends to root their theories in the context of their own field or, worse, leads to their dogma being presented through the prism of their political leanings. This might sound harmless but young and impressional students are exposed to interpretations of photography that appropriate the artist’s work to promote political agendas. The feminist agenda and Cindy Sherman being a case in point.

I am unqualified to say whether this is true of all art but wonder whether music is plagued by this same blight of comments from off-stage. Photography has more than it’s fair share of highly skilled and well informed writers and I sometimes wish that more attention was paid to their educated art criticism than to the politically motivated ideas of people outside of the visual arts. My fundamental distrust of semiotics is partly due to these concerns.

Notes on Text

(i) I have used Daniel Chandler’s or Roland Barthes’ definitions unless specifically stated otherwise. I have written these definitions from my notes but the intent is to generally use their  words wherever possible to ensure that I am recording a “recognised” definition. Therefore all the definitions included here are credited to Chandler (2) or Barthes (3).

(ii) According to Time magazine (6) in 2013 six billion of the world’s estimated population of seven billion have access to a mobile phone. Rather depressingly only four and a half billion have access to a toilet. 



(2) Chandler, Daniel (2007) Semiotics: The Basics (second edition, Kindle edition) Abingdon: Routledge

(3) Barthes, Roland (1977) Rhetoric of the Image (published as an essay within Image Music Text, translated by Stephen Heath) London: Fontana Press

(5) Ellis, Ainslie (1977) Introduction to Reading Photographs: Understanding the Aesthetics of Photography. The Photographers’ Gallery. New York: Pantheon

(7) Jeffrey, Ian ( 2008) How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers. London: Thames and Hudson.


(1) Hodge, Challis (2003) Semiotics: A Primer for Designers (accessed at Boxes and Arrows 5.7.15) –

(4) Chandler, Daniel Semiotics for Beginners (accessed at visual-memory 8.7.15) –

(6) Wang, Yue (2013) More People Have Cell Phones than Toilets (accessed at Time Magazine 8.7.15) –

This entry was posted in 2 - Reading Pictures, Research and Reflection and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Semiotics

  1. Catherine says:

    A good summary and I like that first quote!

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