Posts Tagged connotations

Note On Connotations

The Red Dancer  Knut Skjærven

The Red Dancer © Knut Skjærven

A quick word on connotations, and on denotations, for that matter. They often go together.

You can do definitions of the two very complex, or you can do them very simple. In this context, simple will do.

Denotation refers to the physical objects that you shoot. Connotation refers to the psychological impression those objects leave you with.

What you shoot, and the way you shoot effects connotations.

In The Red Dancer denotations are: shoes, dresses, floor, legs, human skin, body parts, trousers, and whatever you can find. If you guess the scene if from a dance floor, you are absolutely right.

As for connotations they are of a different sort and more subjective. Here are a few words I would use to suggest connotations in this picture: excitement, lightness, maybe eroticism, fun, happiness.  In this shot even jealousy. Is there an element of aggressions as well with the strong foot coming down? I will leave that for you to decide. These things are not fixed anyway.

The red colour is particularly good for connotations. It suggests excitement, strength, and dynamism. Possible danger. Not only, but also.

Here is more on colour psychology.

That’s all. Follow the links above if you need more information. Good luck with shooting connotations in the future.

This post is a Workshop Special.

© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved. Text and photo.

Copenhagen, May 26, 2013.

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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.

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Connotation: Aestheticism

Docklands. © Knut Skjærven.

This is actually one of the very few places where Roland Barthes refers to the great master of French street photography: Henri Cartier – Bresson. The article is written in 1961 and Bresson was at his peak of performance as a photographer.

In describing his fifth connotation procedure Aestheticism, Barthes uses these words: “Thus Henri Cartier – Bresson constructed Cardinal Pacelli’s reception by the faithful of Lisieux like a painting by an earlier master. The resulting photograph, however, is in no way a painting …”. /24 (Here is the photograph in question).

In the sentences before this rare reference to Cartier – Bresson, Barthes says: “For if one can talk of aestheticism in photography, it is seemingly in an ambiguous fashion”./24 When photography try to turn painting it could be a) either a trial or an aspiration suggesting that photography, like painting, indeed is an art form in its own right; or b) “to impose a generally more subtle and complex signified than would be possible with other connotation procedures”./24

This is then the ambiguity that Barthes is talking about: the aspiration to be art, or to invoke more subtle connotations. Fair enough.

The reference to Cartier – Bresson is very convenient. Cartier – Bresson’s dream in early days was, in fact, to become a painter, and he chose photography only as a second option having tried his way as a painter with no great success. Cartier – Bresson was indeed familiar with the rules of composition and he stuck to the classic guidelines all of his life. It is said, that he even had a little notebook with him in which he kept sketches of famous paintings as an ongoing inspiration for his photography. A brilliant idea if that is the road you want to take as a photographer.

The big question is: What could be the connotative effects of for instance Cartier – Bressons road to photography leaning as he did on classical guidelines for composition. Here comes the answer, or at least one of them: the connotations embedded in such a procedure is that of harmony, beauty and pleasantness. But also control. All of them Cartier – Bressons trademarks as a photographer.

It would be absolutely wrong to say that Cartier – Bresson was a copier of master painters, but is would be absolutely right to state that he indeed used classical rules for compositions in his photographic work.

To use a similar path to photography, or for that matter NOT to use a similar path to photography, both require knowledge of the matter. Knowledge of painters’ ways, knowledge of compositional structures. How else could one hope to connote anything bases on aestheticism.

This discussion brings us back to more practical matters: One of the ideas of Street Photographer’s Toolbox is, indeed, to disclose and discuss basic rules of composition. Not to become painters, but to stay photographers.

Have a good day.

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25/05/2012

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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Connotation: Photogenia

Cosmic Charisma. © Knut Skjærven.

It is a fascination notion. Maybe the most spectacular of them all. Speculative.

Ronald Barthes calls it photogenia and it is the fourth of his connotation procedures. But he does not really give you anything more than a clue as to what is to be understood by photogenia. He cleverly escapes the question by stating that “it will suffice to define photogenia in terms of informational structure. In photogenia the connoted message is the image itself, “embellishes” (which is to say in general sublimated) by techniques of lighting, exposure and printing.”/23.

“The theory of photogenia”, he states, “has already been developed (by Edgar Morin in Le Cinéma ou l’homme imaginaire) and this is not the place to take up again the subject of the general signification of that procedure”./23

Thank you Mr. Barthes. Thank you for this extensive explanation.

That is where he leaves his readers, in nowhere land.

What, however, after all is important is the clue that he gives you: in photogenia the connoted message is the image itself. I need to dive into the sources if I want a grip on this idea. And that is just what I will do. Therefore, I will come back with an update on photogenia. Pretty soon.

In the meantime you can work with me in solving the mystery of photogenia. Here is a sentence from an article by Jean Epstein called “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie”. It goes like this: “What is photogénie? I would describe as photogenic any aspects of things, being, or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction”.

Yes, Epstein talks about filmic reproduction, but we will talk about photography.  I’ll be back soon.

24/05/2012

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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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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Connotations Trick Effects

The Flying Dutchman. © Knut Skjærven.

I am going to treat Roland Barthes’ connotation procedures in the same order that they appear in his article The Photographic Message in the book Image, Music, Text.  And I am going to add a little to them to point out their potential for street photography.

The first procedure he points to is Trick Effects. By that he really means trick effects: doing trickery, or faking an image. He talks about inserting an object or a person that was not actually there when the picture was taken. We know this from political propaganda but most of the times when a person is removed from an image after having fallen out of grace. Removing is in the same visual vocabulary as inserting.

Barthes mentions an image where an American presidential candidate was faked to be in the same shot as a communist leader. Thereby connoting a positive connection and even friendship between the two. The communist leader was inserted into the photograph. (We are back in the cold war days.)

Today, we would say that an image like that was heavily photoshopped by inserting an object or a person in a frame where it/he/she did not actually belong. Like in concept photography where this type of manipulation is quite alright. It will, however, not be acceptable in street photography were documentation is an important issue.

You may rightly wonder what this connotation procedure is doing in toolbox for street photography? Particularly as we speak of street photography as straight photography. Straight meaning that we do as little post production or editing as possible. Surely there is no room for trickery and faking images when you define street photography?

You are absolutely right, but as our mission here is to be loyal to Barthes procedures we have to include trick effects as one of his connotation procedures.

There is another reason which is even more important. That reason has a direct relevance for our understanding of street photography.

Roland Barthes: “The methodological interest of trick effects is that they intervene without warning in the plane of denotation; the utilize the special credibility of the photograph ( … ) in order to pass off as merely denoted a message which is in reality heavily connoted; in no other treatment does connotation assume so completely the “objective” mask of denotation.”/Page 21.

What Barthes is trying to say, is that photography of all media have a special capacity to trick people because people or object inserted into a photograph, done well enough that is, really seem to be part of denoted reality. Thereby you also manipulate connotations as in the case of presidential candidate and the communist leader.

Is that it then? Are Trick Effects of no use in a street photographer’s toolbox? Off to the next procedure in Barthes cluster of connotation procedures? Not quite, because photograph’s capacity to blur the distinction between denoted and connoted content can also be used with great effect in proper, unmanipulated street photography.

How come?

Let’s switch the words insert with include, and fake with make. Then the situation becomes very different. We manage to hold on to photograph’s capacity to be truthful to reality. Now we no longer have faked denotations that produce false connotation. We have real denotation producing truthful connotations. By substituting insert with include and fake with make we manage this.

Why is this important? It is important because I never understood quality street photography as a plain and a mostly mechanical rendering of street life. To stress the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary takes a special effort of including or excluding (not inserting or removing) things that in the rush of passing (through life) are normally overlooked. That is the overall mission of proper street photography if it has any. That is its humanistic perspective.

NB: It can often be difficult to detect if a content is inserted or simply included. The difference is critical. In The Flying Dutchman above, the boy jumping in the background could have been inserted in the photograph. It is not. The connoted message could be described as lively, playful, positive.

Taking into account that the image is shot at Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the connotations takes on yet another layer of meaning. Maybe a symbolic one. One of reconciliation perhaps. You decide.   The image holds first (denote) , second (connote) an even third (symbolize) level contents.

Thanks for reading.

10/04/12

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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Connotations: Syntax

The Picture Story.© Knut Skjærven

Syntax is the last of the connotation procedures mentioned by Roland Barthes.

He says: “Naturally, several photographs can come together to form a sequence (this is commonly the case in illustrated magazines); the signifier of connotation is then no longer to be found at the level of any one of the fragments of the sequence but at that – what the linguists would call the suprasegmental level – of the concatenation”./24

The Free Dictionary defined concatenation as “a series of interconnected events, concepts, etc.” Or simply “To connect or link in a series or chain”.

In spite of the difficult words used by Barthes the idea is very simple. If there is more than one image you have a possible picture story. The connotative content is then based on all the images involved and not the single ones in isolation. I don’t think it is necessary to be more difficult than that? Call it suprasegmental if you like.

Henri Cartier – Bresson would have liked this since he 9 years earlier spoke about the same phenomenon. In his prelude to The Decisive Moment (1952) he speaks about the picture story and the need for having more than a single photo to illustrate a point: “Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is the whole story in itself. But this rarely happens.”/The Minds Eye/23

Often Cartier – Bresson uses more than one image to cover a story. As do most photo journalists.

There are different dimensions in this phenomenon. Both Barthes and Cartier – Bresson suggest that the syntax is within a single story in, for instance, a magazine. But what about the connotations that might emerge from all the images in a specific magazine? Or even more magazine. Could be called an editorial style. There certainly is a level of syntax there too.

What about the even more complex situations that emerges when both the viewer and the viewed, the perceiver and the thing perceived, are considered as segments in the same event? Just a question.

Definitely the last words on connotation procedures have not been said yet. That is another story. As for Roland Barthes, the story ends here.

26/05/2012


Training Sessions:
 See Street University.

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

Library Thing: Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press, London 1977; Henri Cartier – Bresson The Minds Eye, aperture, New York 1999.

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Connotations: Objects

The Restaurant.© Knut Skjærven.

You may have noticed that the progress of the toolbox does not follow any strict pattern. There will we more inching images later but right now we are heading back to Roland Barthes and his connotation procedures. We have already mentioned two of these, namely Trick Effects and Pose. The third connotation procedure he names Objects. Now, let’s look at that.

Barthes: “Special importance must be accorded to what could be called the posing of objects, where the meaning comes from the objects photographed (either because these objects have, if the photographer had the time, been artificially arranged in front of the camera or because the person responsible for lay-out chooses a photograph of this or that object). The interest lies in the fact that the objects are accepted inducers of associations of ideas (book-case = intellectual) or, in a more subtle way, are veritable symbols …”.

Now look at the image above. It consists of two types of elements: people and objects. The people are the three neatly dressed waiters preparing for the first dinner guests to arrive. The objects are the things that surrounds them: chairstables, a grillthe pavement, part of the street in the foreground, the doors and the windows, lampsthe facade that all functions as the wallpaper of the scene. You name the others.

There is something very disciplined over this image. The waiters have a good space between them almost as if they were places there by a director. But that which really makes the image disciplined is its overall structure, and the use of spaces and tones as a visual rhythm in the photograph.

How does that rhythm come about? If you look more closely at the photograph you will see that it is composed of rectangles and squares in a patchwork of blacks and whites and greys. There is also a good spread of black and white areas that adds to the discipline of the image. This, then, is the connotative content of the picture; discipline, control, precision, style.

I am sure that you can find other words that are as good as mine, if not better.

The curious thing about objects is that they tell a story that goes far beyond their denotative value in being chairs, windows, reflections, pavement, black and white rectangle and squares.  They induce or provoke a meaning that objectively is not really there in the picture if you look at the objects alone. This type of induction is the power of connotations. It goes far beyond what you see at the surface of things.

The importance of the use off objects in photography can be taken even a step further. Let me ask some simple questions: what does this picture tell you about the food served in the restaurant? Is it neatly arranged food or do your get messy plates with food spilled all over? What does the kitchen look like, the inside of their refrigerators? I am not going to answer these questions but there certainly are inductions at work based on the objects included. And of course, the photographer’s arrangements of them.

Expectations are built.

23/05/2012.

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

Street Photography Training Sessions: See Street University.

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Connotation Pose

K-Damm Couple. © Knut Skjærven.

The second connotations procedure Roland Barthes mentions is Pose. 

He talks about people pose which suits us well since we define street photography as having people as the distinct and bearing element. Barthes’ example is a portrait of President Kennedy. The example in this post is far from it. More on that below.

Let’s listen to what he says and expand on the theme just as we did in the post on Trick Effects.

Barthes:”Consider a press photograph of President Kennedy widely distributed at the time of the 1960 election: a half-length profile shot, yes looking upwards, hands joined together. Here it is the very pose of the subject which prepares the reading of the signifieds of connotation: youthfulness, spirituality, purity.”

A bit later in the same text: “The message in the present instance is not “the pose” but “Kennedy praying”: the reader receives as a simple denotation what is in actual fact a double structure – denoted-connoted.”/Page 22.

No one would argue that a shot like that was anyway near what we would want to do in street photography, but it stresses what pose is and what it can bring in terms of connotations. Pose is the direct or indirect arrangement of a scene to be photographed. Like setting up President Kennedy in the shot mentioned. Like setting up anything else under any circumstance you can think of. Pose is a broad and very important thing in any type of photography.

So also in street photography.

It is a good idea to dishinguish between three types of poses. First there is the posed pose, then there is the unposed pose and finally there is the provoked pose. 

For the photographer the different is that in the posed pose he directs the person or the people in question. Like in a studio he sets the light, brings the chair or whatever to sit on, etcetera. In professional cases such posing might well include laying the makeup and setting the hair. Male of female. For the street photographer the pendent would be that he asks people to take on a certain bodily pose, move to a certain location, etcetera.

The provoked pose is when you call indirect attention from people and you by that get them to act in certain way based on such a provocation. Could be that you in a street set up your tripod and photographed people when they came looking and wondered what you were doing. Could be you wanted to shoot people in their face using a flashgun. The last variant seems to be popular and would be a direct provocation quite literally.

These are three different ways of doing street photography sure, but the way we in Street Photographer’s Toolbox understand it is photography as unposed pose. In other words: Cases where you do not directly interact with the people you want to picture. No before you take the picture.

Maybe you say that unposed pose is an awkward expression? I agree with you. The reason why it is a good idea to use it is that is stresses the obvious fact the all photography to a certain extent is posed photography. Already being there  as a photographer under a certain sky; in a special location; at a time of day or night you have partly decided/posed the content of the shot. Call it pre-posing. You may not interact with people themselves but you model everything else. And by setting the camera you model that too.

All the decision you make in this respect have influence on the connoted content you will end up with. You may think that you are there as a spectator alone and that you render untouched reality. That is not the case I am afraid, but you can do your very best as a photographer of unposed poses. That will have to do because there is no other way.

Such a thing as a street photography untouched by man does not exist. By the way, the photograph above, K-damm Couple, is unposed pose, but not quite. I asked the girl to look into the camera, and that little gesture makes a big different. You might say that I was stretching the rules a bit. Hopefully Barthes would have liked it.

Thanks for reading.

12/04/12

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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