Part 2: Tools for deconstruction – Semiotics

In the 1960s and 1970s theorists looked for ways of overturning the realism that was professed by the modernists and leading the way in this development was Roland Barthes who further developed the concept of semiotics (Bate, D. 2009:30), which had originated from the study of semiology conceived by linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, as a system for interpreting signs and applying meaning which could also be used to decipher photographic images. (Wells, L. 2010:31).

Barthes wrote his seminal essay Rhetoric of the Image in 1977 and in this he deconstructs an advertising image and effectively interprets it’s full meaning using a methodology still influential in 21st century photography theory (Bull, S 2009:34-37). Whilst Barthes’ semiotic tools are not the only method to interpret images, and current thinking in photographic theory has moved to include more psychologically derived concepts such as the effect of the image and personal response, these tools still provide an important framework for discussion.

A brief overview of these semiotics tools is as follows:

Sign = Signifier + Signified

When applied in semiotic terms:

Sign = the overall effect of the image

Signifier = the actual image, it’s formal and conceptual elements

Signified = what we see when we look at the picture, either as a straightforward referent or conceptually/metaphorically.

For the sign to be successful then the Signifier MUST add to the Signified to make the Sign.

Barthes uses several tools within his semiotic analysis as follows:

Denotation – This refers to what elements exist within the image. In other words, what is it? This concept is in essence one of translation.

Connotation – Interprets what the elements actually mean or connote. This interpretation will be subject to relevant cultural awareness and understanding.

Studium – Is what Barthes would assume to be the status quo of an image and the prevalent cultural, political or social meaning of an image.

Punctum – Is an element that disrupts the stadium or punctures the status quo. This might be through contradiction or by offering alternative meanings, it could be a point that gives the viewer a personal connection over and beyond other elements within the image.

Intertextuality was a term Barthes used to describe a situation where differences in a viewers’ social, cultural, economic, political and historical backgrounds effectively serve to create many different readings and interpretations which become interwoven creating a complex yet rich and colourful tapestry.

We can in effect share and allow our interpretations to become coloured and enhanced by a wider and more open study and reference to sources beyond our own individual thoughts.

To establish his system of interpretation Barthes purposely chose an advertising image because in his own words, “Because in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional” (Barthes, R 1977:32).

Final note

“Poststructuralists affirm, consciousness is not the origin of the language we speak and the images we recognise so much as the product of the meanings we learn and reproduce.” (Belsey, C. 2002:5)


Barthes, R (1977. (Image–Music–Text. London: Fontana Press.

Bate.D (2009). Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Berg.

Bull, S (2009) Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Wells, L (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed.) Abingdon: Routledge.

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