An Introduction Connotations

Shoe Seduction. © 2012 Knut Skjærven

Roland Barthes was a French academic famous also for his writing on photography. He did not have the patience to take pictures himself, but he wrote quite extensively about them. Together with Susan Sontag and John Berger he is one of the top three in a rather exclusive club.

In 1961 he wrote an article which in French was titled Le message photographique. In English: The Photographic Message. Among other things it holds a chapter that Barthes called Connotation Procedures. It is these procedures that shall concern us in this toolbox section.

Barthes operates with six connotation procedures. To get a feel of what connotations are all about we will deal with all six. They are 1) Trick Effects; 2) Pose; 3) Objects; 4) Photogenia; 5) Aestheticism; and 6) Syntax.

To understand the meaning of connotation, you need to understand the meaning of  denotations, as well. The two always comes together. Both words derive from latin. Denote means to mark accurately, observe, indicate. Connote means to mark/observe/indicate along with. It is that little idea of along with that is important here.

If denotations are first layer content, you could call connotations second layer content.

Related to street photography denotations are the more objective elements of a content that is there for everyone to see and agree on. Connotations could be described as the psychological impressions that comes along. Often more subjective than what is denoted.

If you look at the photograph above the denotations would be the 4 shoes on the right hand side, their shadows on the wall, the wall itself, the floor, the woman in the background and another set of objects. You could do a thorough description of the photograph to get all the details that makes the first layer content of the image.

On the other hand, you could say that this image is not primarily about shoes at all it is about elegance, it is about exclusivity and the human isolation in a modern world. That would be the connotations of the image. Second layer contents are more subjective.

There are more layers than denotations and connotations. Such third layer content could be political, symbolical or even other types of contents.

If you ask if Barthes connotations procedures are all there is to it then the answer is: no it is not. There are much more to be considered when speaking about connotations, but Barthes’ procedures makes a good start. For instance there are connotations related to colors, typography, tonal range, grain structure, etcetera.

Good luck with this section.

09/04/12

Relates posts in this section:  Introduction; Trick Effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.

Street Photography Training Sessions: See Street University.

Library Thing: Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press, London 1977.


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  1. #1 by elisam75 on March 20, 2013 - 6:24 pm

    I need to read Barthes writting on photography now 😉

  2. #3 by flyfishertc on March 23, 2013 - 3:26 pm

    I found Derrida’s analysis of Barthe’s punctum as a duration rather than as a point very interesting, following Husserl’s “present instant” as enveloping both the past (remembering the past) and also the future (imagining he future). HCB’s interest in Herrigel and also the interest in Baudelaire and Proust in photographic critical circles is also fascinating, but complicated. Here, I think the essays by Jean Francois Chevrier are particularly helpful.
    🙂
    Tony

    • #4 by Knut Skjaerven on March 23, 2013 - 5:42 pm

      Great. Could you link to the essay, please?

      • #5 by flyfishertc on March 24, 2013 - 11:00 am

        will try – having to think very hard 🙂

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