A Surefire Way to Improve Your Photography With One Critical Change

A Surefire Way to Improve Your Photography With One Critical Change

Roland Barthes was a theorist and philosopher whose literary contributions to photography are still discussed and hold relevance today. I believe he is mandatory reading for anyone who considers themselves a photographer in any capacity.

Barthes’ writing is expansive, its scope spanning beyond what a single article can confidently cover. In this article, I will focus on his essay "The Rhetoric of the Image" as a guide for finding meaning in images.

All images have meaning, but what that meaning is and how it is conveyed depends on the image. For example, a photograph of a loaf of bread in your local grocery store catalog might have a very different meaning to you than, say, an old image of a deceased family member. The former is indexical: it simply tells you what the product is or looks like. The latter, while still indexical, also has deeper meaning based on your connection to the person in the image.

So, how do you intentionally give meaning to images? Images, as per the example above, have meaning by way of two reasons. An image can denote meaning — that is to say, what is shown in the image holds literal meaning. A car photo has a car in it; it denotes a car. A burger photo has a burger in it; it denotes a burger. What is quite literally in the image is its denoted meaning.

To connote meaning means to hold meaning beyond the context of the physical or the literal image. This is better illustrated with some of the previous examples. For example, if we were to use the car or the burger mentioned earlier as advertising images, then how do you connote meaning to these objects? Advertising images trope this all the time; a typical car advertisement photograph might have a car in a landscape. The image denotes a car in a landscape; this same image connotes ideas of freedom or travel. A burger-advertising photograph might be a sexy up-close macro photo of the burger with melted cheese and glistening meat; the denoted meaning here is the burger. The connoted meaning intends to instill a hunger in the viewer as well as an idea of fulfillment if the viewer were to purchase and eat the burger.

With connoted meaning, a photograph of the thing has to be more than the thing itself. The photo has to hold meaning in its own right beyond the meaning of the objects in the photo. With the earlier example of the photo of the deceased family member; the denoted meaning is an indexical record of that person. The connoted meaning is intrinsic to your relationship with that person and the good times you shared. How that person made you feel is echoed in the photograph of the person; the photograph makes you feel how that person made you feel.

This all sounds amazing. But how do you apply any of this to your photography? Well, my advice would be to try to start with connoted meaning. Think first how you want your photographs to connote, and then, think of ways how you’d execute that into the image. What the image looks like or denotes is almost secondary to what the image feels like or connotes. This is easier said than done; you are changing the very way you approach image-making. I believe the resulting images will be leaps and bounds better, though!

Log in or register to post comments
Deleted Account's picture

"All images have meaning".

I don't know. Sure, we can place the huge number of photos posted to social media within some broader sociological context; from which current and future academics will draw inferences.

I can't help of be reminded of studying "Good fences make good neighbours" by Robert Frost in high school; my teacher was trying to infer all sorts of meaning, whereas I said it was literal. The author publically stated his work didn't carry hidden meaning.

My own view (of many of my own images) is that an image can just be a pretty image which has no deeper meaning.

The statement "all images have meaning" feels like a thesis statement, from which a complex and nuanced paper follows.

"Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar" ~ Sigmund Freud.

That said, I don't think art can be "great" if it is devoid of meaning.

Edit: I want to think about denoted and connoted meaning and come back to this later.

Thanks for posting, Ali

Ali Choudhry's picture

Definitely come back to this. In the meantime I'd also encourage you to read: http://williamwolff.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Barthes-Rhetoric-of-t...

Having said that, I think there is the nuance of just because it holds meaning doesn't mean it is meaningful.
It's similar to the rhetoric of "Is it art?" Well. Sure. But is it good art? These are two different questions.
You can be a part of a group but that doesn't necessitate that you're an exemplary member of that same group.

So to come back to your point, sure, you can have just a pretty picture. There's heaps of kitten pictures on the internet. But a picture of a cat and a picture of your cat will have different connoted meanings for you. Objectively they're both cats; subjectively I know which one you'd like more.

I'm not sure if that kind of makes sense? Maybe it doesn't. I guess my point was to kind of just introduce this as an idea and then try to help readers to elucidate how to work towards a broader connoted meaning within their own work (but also to think about it while viewing work which isn't their own). So to move away from the idea of "just another pretty picture".

Deleted Account's picture

Flashbacks to uni; I do recall it became easier with practice, but I never lost the feeling that there had to be easier way to say things.

What you say makes perfect sense, Ali. "Meaningful" and "good" are both entirely subjective, per your cat example.

I keep coming back to connotation of *feeling* being the crux of the question. I was talking to my wife this morning, and saying that in the same way that all hard sciences are subordinate to mathematics, all social sciences are subordinate to psychology. Accordingly, I think the solutions to these questions are ultimately to be found in psychology; after all, connoted meaning is ultimately a consequence of cognitive processes.

These are questions I've been thinking about for some time, maybe one day I'll be fortunate enough to achieve some sort of synthesis.

Thank you again, Ali. I look forward to reading your other articles.

Ali Choudhry's picture

Haha! I think it's definitely easier read and learn for fun, when you aren't under the pressure of passing assignments.

But in saying that, I think you've pretty much got the point of it. If you're thinking in terms of biology then it's essentially somatic vs psychological response.

Deleted Account's picture

I would suggest the somatic vs psychological distinction is largely semantic.

For example, say someone has a phobia of the ocean (psychological origin), and they have a somatic response after viewing the attached image (psychological driver of neurochemical response), that somatic response causes the release of certain neurotransmitters, which then influences cognition (psychological consequence).

Ultimately, somatic response exists within the superset of psychological processes.

Edit: I would assert similarly vis-á-vis the impact of disease, pain, or diet upon cognition; except causation is physical.

That then drives a return to the question re. some of the greatest works being driven by pain, loss, and suffering.

Ali Choudhry's picture

There is a Sarah Paulson interview (which I can't find now!) where she says that often, a character or their pain stays with her even after cut. The mind knows that it's over but the body is still tricked into thinking it's in danger.

Deleted Account's picture

I have never considered trauma sustained by actors. That feels pretty similar to the way some describe PTSD.

There's a thing called 'vicarious trauma', which court stenographers (and presumably other support staff) develop, because they hear terrible things every day.

Tom Reichner's picture

I see terrible things very frequently at my job, but I have had no such trauma because of it. I think that some people are able to detach themselves in certain ways, where they can feel empathy for, and engage with, those who have been victimized, yet not have it affect them at all personally. Others do allow it to affect them personally, and have trouble dealing closely with people who are going thru horrific things.

Deleted Account's picture

Yeah, I've seen some stuff too, Tom. Some people can.

renegrothmann's picture

I think that the connotation of an image strongly depends on the viewer. A simple cat image can have a big impact to a cat lover, while it is just any cat for me. Many of my images are taken with a meaning in mind. Disappointingly, this meaning is missed by many, and, even if explained verbally, may not rise interest. Am I a bad photographer? Am I unable to deliver my point in photography? Maybe. But often, the background of the viewer and the photographer are simply different, as well as their ideas about photography. Looking at the images in the posting, I can imagine some intention. But I am not sure if I see what is really intended. In any case, we should try to tell a story, awake an emotion, or simply be interesting.

Ali Choudhry's picture

You're right, it's absolutely about the individual viewer, but also about how to leverage that for your specific audience.

Tom Reichner's picture

So very true. I often have a specific audience in mind when shooting, and intentionally try to shoot my subject in the way that I think will connect with them in the best manner.

jim hughes's picture

The older you get, the less you'll worry about people not getting the point of your photograph. You'll never reach everyone. The key I think is to look back at that photo much later in time and see if it still hits you. You might decide it's spot on, or that the meaning you saw at the time really isn't in the image itself.

Deleted Account's picture

"I believe he is mandatory reading for anyone who considers themselves a photographer in any capacity."

I took this as an assignment and carefully read through the link you gave in your comment. It is not easy to read, it took a while. Thank you so much. You are so right. It is a must read.

"A Surefire Way to Improve Your Photography With One Critical Change"
But not at all an easy one.

My understanding of what Barthes tells:

The linguistic message limits the scope for interpretation, but at the same time is ambiguous (polysemous) and guides the reader through the meaning of the image and has a suppressing and at the same time sufficing effect. He cites the "still life composition" as an example. It is the "first degree of intelligibility". This is the "connoted image", the one part of the picture. Because it is almost always followed by a "denoted image" (level) and only in photography can the pure "denoted image" be realised, in contrast to painting, which is always connoted.

He separates the symbolic message from the literal one (deconstruction). "The denoted image" can appear as a final state, liberated from its denotations. The image becomes radically objective and innocent. His question is whether the encoding of the denoted message has consequences for the connoted message. And he says: "The relationship between the two messages is profoundly modified. It is now a relationship between two cultures.

He sees the literal and the denoted messages as different levels.

It is about perception, analysis, the understanding. It is very enlightening to read this text. I had to look up a few terms because the meaning was no longer sufficiently clear to me. The text is demanding. Thank you very much again, Ali.

A quote from the text:

"The photograph, message without a code, must thus be opposed to the drawing which, even when denoted, is a coded message." Roland Barthes.

Ali Choudhry's picture

I'm surprised and impressed! But also very glad you took the initiative and found it helpful.

I think you touch on an interesting point though that how these two meanings differ for the author of an image, whether through photography or painting, versus an audience member viewing the final image, again whether photography or painting. So it's a binary in three parts: denoted/connoted meaning, author/audience, and painting/photography.

Deleted Account's picture

I think the difficult thing for a photographer is that the consciously connoted message is opposed, sacrificed, destroyed or reinforced by the denoted message. The dichotomy of the two as a dance for the supremacy of opinion, of message. One can exist without the other, but acquires a deeper meaning through the juxtaposition. I will read the text again. Super thank you, Ali.

philip morse's picture

You can always look deeper than a pretty picture, if you have it in you, and that's saying a lot

All images get meaning assigned to them in the head, consciously or subconsciously, of whoever sees them. That is, if the image registers at all. But context plays a huge role in determining that meaning, both within the image and where the image is seen. Picasso's Guernica has a very different effect in a history book than it does up close and personal.

Coming back to the old man, I always loved his comment about meaning, and probably everything else, "I don't seek, I find."

Ali Choudhry's picture

I cried the first time I saw Rothko's "Untitled (Red) (1956)" in person.

Deleted Account's picture

Pretentious twoddle...?

Tom Reichner's picture

Ali Choudhry asked:

"With connoted meaning, a photograph of the thing has to be more than the thing itself. The photo has to hold meaning in its own right beyond the meaning of the objects in the photo.

This all sounds amazing. But how do you apply any of this to your photography?"


I approach every subject and every shoot with a conscious objective that is based on connoted meaning.

For example, I just spent 32 consecutive days photographing Whitetail Deer in Montana, from dawn to dusk every day. One of the first things I do when I see a deer for the first time is to observe what is special about that particular deer. What is it that makes that deer different from the others? Once I identify that, I then figure out how I can photograph that deer in the way that visually emphasizes its unique features.

If a large buck is dominant, and has a place atop the herd hierarchy, then I look for ways to photograph him that show his dominant physical stature, or that show him acting with boldness and confidence.

If a deer has a unique and beautiful physical feature, such as a white chest patch, then I try to photograph that deer in a way that puts visual emphasis on its chest, so that the unique patch will be readily visible. I will try to photograph that deer in the kind of light that results in good contrast between the white patch and the adjacent brown coat. If possible, I will try to photograph that deer when it is next to other deer that do not have a chest patch, to show it in the context of others of its kind that have more normal coloring.

If a deer is a real scrapper, and always looking for a fight, then I want to show him in a way that shows his aggressive and brutal attitude. I can do this by shooting him when he is assuming an aggressive posture around another buck. And I can shoot him in a way that clearly shows the damage he has incurred from fighting, such as a torn ear, broken antler tines, an open wound on his hide, an eye that is swollen shut, etc.

When the habitat that deer live in is particularly beautiful, then I look for ways top take environmental portraits of the deer. In these images, the landscape that the deer lives in becomes just as much of the subject as the deer itself.

When a deer is particularly energetic, or playful, or lazy and tired, or alert, then I look for ways to photograph the deer that will show its mood and behavior.

Lastly, if the thing about a deer that strikes me hardest is simply its beauty, then I will look for ways to photograph that deer that will accentuate its beauty and convey it to the viewer.

There are so many ways to photograph the same deer! When I see a buck over and over again, I see more and more of its life, and get a better grasp of its personality (or should I say "deerality"?). This will give me greater insights as to how to photograph that buck so that I can more thoroughly convey his traits to those who will view the photographs. Every photo is taken with a particular objective in mind ... it is as if there is a mini "mission statement" at work every time the shutter is pressed.

S M's picture

Great article, thanks Ali!

I shoot architecture/interior design. Often times I try to place models in photos to "activate" a space. I think the "connate" aspect of this article resonates with me the most in terms of how I want the viewer to interpret meaning beyond the image.

Also, this is like how my wife and I argue. Often times it's not what I'm saying, but how it's being said that I'm trying to present. Unfortunately, I've learned that she's always right regardless 🤣