Informing Contexts – Week Four (1/2)

Into the Image World

Delving deeper into the meaning of photographs, particularly in regard advertising has led to some interesting connotations and discussions.

How pervasive are images; dow e even notice them in our day-to-day existence, and if we do, how do we interpret them. Are they friend or foe. Provider of helpful information or bringer of delusional dreams.

They are probably both. And Savedoff1 has referred to images as not being their own objects but of objects – but our interpretation of them he calls a double vision. And is this something we automatically apply – our own double vision – when we look at advertising imagery in particular so we do not see the 2D before us but the actual/fictitious we are presented with? This week we considered whether photographs that are likenesses but used in a new way can be read differently. Do they become objects in their own right. Bronston Jones took part in the exhibition Missing, Last Seen at the World Trade Centre in a bid to not let the people missing following 9/11 be forgotten. The fliers used by loved ones to try and find friends and/or relatives were left out in the elements, slowly fading or cleaned up by city cleaning crews but Jones felt the need to spend four-weeks photographing the fliers as a means of keeping their memory alive. On the exhibition website it states: The exhibit is not a lament for lives lost, as much as a tribute to lives lived.  The image we saw showed the only missing man found by his family.

This was simply a tragic event. The reasons behind it are so complex but I’m not sure the ensuing renewed patriotism has been beneficial. Not ever having felt the need to identify with a nationality or particular place in the world, I find it hard to see how people can’t read between the lines or layers of the images they are presented with.

Margaret Olinhas said that the relationship between the image and its viewer is the most important – it’s all about how we read it, its symbolic nature of what it stands for or what it conjures for us as individuals and as cultures. And yes, she has a point. My MA work centres around human impact on the environment. It should follow that photographs with a for or against environmental viewpoint would elicit a certain response from me when I see them. But if I feel other’s should read between the lines or layers then I must do so too – whether I agree with them or not. By considering all sides, we can make informed opinions rather than resolutely sticking with what we know or believe to be true. Maybe by doing so we can leave Plato’s cave.

For me, despite recognising the poignancy of the Missing fliers, I do not feel Barthes punctum. Most recently I have felt that with the work of Mandy Barker. Her latest project Beyond Drifting illustrates microscopic pieces of plastic – I feel I can look at these images for hours with the one shown below seemingly striking that chord within.

Mandy Barker - Ophelia medustica. Specimen collected from Glounthaune shoreline, Cove or Cork, Ireland (Pram wheel)
Mandy Barker – Ophelia medustica. Specimen collected from Glounthaune shoreline, Cove or Cork, Ireland (Pram wheel)

And seeing the use of the American flag for me throughout this week’s session holds no power for me. Yes, I can see that this flag is still often seen as great symbol for Western freedoms and power but due to my personal politics, it now feels as though its original symbols are perhaps changing, and not positively. Therfore, I always try to look through the multiple meanings and contexts to be found in advertising photography. Having started out in a commercial studio, I learnt early about the tricks used to create a sense of the must-have. But if we are aware of the selling of the ideal, the hopefully we can see though it or buy into it as we choose.

Perfume ads are notorious for selling a fantasy – and if a whiff of your favourite scent transports you to the magical place they show you, even momentarily, then is that a bad thing? When I see adverts selling freedoms, family or glamour I guess I’m just not that way inclined, but show me an advert with a cute animal in it and I may pay more attention. One of the interesting points this session raised is the objectification of women, using the Wonderbra ad featuring Eva Herzigozva. Herzigova claimed it was empowering, and while I’ve never felt empowered by photos of women in their undies or that by being sexy makes you more enabled as a female, I imagine some women may think this way. But is it aimed at women or men? How many men bought Wonderbras for their partners after seeing this picture – and does it matter to anyone but Gossard.

In another advert, this time from Southern Comfort a man walks down the street carrying shopping bags with his female partner at his side. An illustration of a ball and chain is at his ankle and the text reads Hang on to Your Spirit. It implies without fail that by drinking Southern Comfort a man will be a man and regain the freedom he had before commitment. But perhaps if they used a stereotypical housewife the could say the same thing – that by drinking their alcohol the woman could regain her joie de vivre before household drudgery set in. In these image the text enhances the photographic message.

And in all the images we see, do we always pick up on the dominant meaning, do we see an oppositional meaning or are we perhaps now more akin to negotiating the meaning from all the intentions the photograph and text portray? If this balance between words and text is important, then how does it work in the context of say a sub-titled film? As you read the translation, do you miss the visual. Could you read from the visuals alone to gain an understanding of the story?


  1. Savedoff, Barbara (2002) Transforming Images: How Photography Complicates the Picture.
  2. Olin, Margaret (2002) Touching Photographs: Roland Barthe’s “Mistaken”Identification’ in Representations No 80 (Autumn 2002) p. 99-118.