Research point: Semiotics

I studied semiotics (and structuralism, and post-structuralism) last year as part of Context & Narrative. I won’t reproduce the whole post here but will summarise my basic understanding, augmented by what I have learned since.

Bull (2009) and Bate (2009) give good summaries of the linguistic analysis work of Ferdinand de Saussure. The key point is that a sign is made up of:

  • The signifier (visual or verbal); and
  • The signified (thing or concept itself)


  • Both parts must be present for the sign to function as communication
  • There does not need to be a logical, traceable connection between the signifier and the signified, it can be arbitrary and vary between cultures (indeed this is most often the case with words as signs)
  • There is no ‘meaning’ inherent to a sign; ‘meaning’ is something that takes place in people’s minds, and is a function of the difference between the sign and other signs in the same ‘language’

In The Rhetoric of the Image (1964) Barthes extends the theory to distinguish between:

  • Denotation (the visual signifier/s) – what it ‘is’
  • Connotation (the cultural signified) – what it ‘means’

With written/spoken language the connection is a generally accepted one; with visual language there is a sometimes a clear consensus on the sign (e.g. red means “danger”) and sometimes a certain amount of scope for interpretation available to the viewer – in the visual arts for example.

Not all signs are consciously formed: “The appearance of a sign or symbol in a photograph may or may not have been a predetermined and orchestrated consideration of the photographer.” (Short 2011: 126). There is a continuum of intent, from highly deliberate to entirely unintentional. In the middle are the shots where the photographer didn’t consciously realise at the time why they pointed their camera where they did, but saw something in the frame afterwards.

And according to Barthes’ The Death of the Author (1967), the reading of a photograph is personal and so any ‘meaning’ intended by the creator is no more or less important than a ‘meaning’ read by a viewer.

Though I haven’t quoted directly from it here, the most useful book by far was Sean Hall’s This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics (2012). It is highly recommended for a simple and step-by-step explanation of many aspects of visual communication.


Barthes, R. (1977). ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ in Elements of Semiology [English translation]. London: Jonathan Cape.

Barthes, R. (1977). ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image/Music/Text [English translation]. London: Fontana.

Bull, S. (2009). Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bate, D. (2009). Photography: the Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.

Short, M (2011) Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA



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