Connotations At Work

Beware Of The Dog. © Knut Skjærven

Beware Of The Dog. © Knut Skjærven

Two notions are crucial for street photography. The first one is denotation, the second one is connotation.

Detonation refers to what is actually there in a picture and that most people can agree on.

Take a photograph of a horse in a field with a house and a mountain range in the horizon. The denoting elements would be horse, field, house, and mountain range.

Move into the city and take a picture of a car and two people in front of Central Station, the denoting elements would be car, two people and Central Station.

Looking closer at the two pictures it just so happens that the horse in the field is running fiercely, and the people in front of Central Station are embracing and even kissing.

In describing this we move into the connotative level. The first image could connote strength, force or freedom. The city shot could connote love, liking, kindness and the like.

While the denoted content of a photograph could be said to be fairly objective, the connoted content have a more subjective flair to it. People might differ in the way they describe connotations.

What interest us here is how connotations is build.

All the images on this site have a denotative and a connotative level. So have all the photographs you have ever taken and will take in the future.

Referring to the photo above it denotes two ladies  and a small dog in the foreground, parts of two people in the background. Two pictures on the wall.

When it comes to the connoted message that might be describes as interest, engagement, and curiosity.

Denotation and connotations represent two very different, although tightly connected, worlds.

You might say that the documentary photographer first and foremost deals with denotations e.g. getting things right, while the street photographer deals with connotations e.g. getting things interesting.

I am not saying that street documentation cannot be  interesting, only that it is not its prime reason for being.

Likewise, I am not saying that heftily connoted images cannot be pretty uninteresting, but it is not their prime motor for driving.

What I am suggesting, is that documentary street photography and creative street photography are fairly different ballgames.

© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved: Text and picture.

January 16, 2013.



  1. #1 by Bernard J. on January 16, 2013 - 11:28 am

    A third element could be the “interpretation”.
    Interpretation is perhaps always projective : through a caption if the photographer try to communicate his own feeling, sometime far away from the denotation (that is a big problem in EOS, where the photographer pastes his own words or meanings on a figure in the picture) or through the simple reading of the picture (that can lead to a misunderstanding of the raison to be of the picture).
    The american essayist Susan Sontag wrote a lot about interpretation. But there is still a lot to say, et a lot to discover if you make a parallel between denotation and interpretation, and between connotation and interpretation.
    You interesting article opens a wide array of explorations, Knut.

    • #2 by Knut Skjaerven on January 16, 2013 - 11:41 am

      Many thanks, Bernard. What you say is true.

      I deal with interpretation on a very basic level and understand it as an always there type of quality. Much along the lines of some phenomenologist, as you know.

      I like the distinction between interpretation as a method for understanding and as an integral part of being in the world. You can execute both, but the second will always tag along.

      Besides, I don’t think that a work of art has a fixed, but more of a floating content. That goes for photography too.

      Your reference to OES, I find that there might be a grey zone between street documentation and street photography :-).


  2. #3 by Bernard J. on January 17, 2013 - 10:58 pm

    The fixed or floating contents is, in my (not) humble opinion, a personal choice. In my pictures, I like too describe a situation or a story very fixed, with no other possible meaning that the meaning I want to express. But I undestand and I agree with a more open content. But, in this case I could feel that the content escape me. A fixed picture is perhaps no more than a tight control over this picture…

    • #4 by Knut Skjaerven on January 18, 2013 - 9:39 am

      Thanks for this comment, Bernard. I like it since it opens up for views of a more principle sort. I hope that you will allow me to come back with a more extended comment at a later stage.

      Have a good day in Paris :-).


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