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Research Point 1 – Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image

Works of mass communication all combine, through diverse and diversely successful dialects, the fascination of a nature, that of story, diegesis (narrative), syntagm (an orderly combination of interacting signifiers, e.g. a sentence) and the intelligibility of a culture, withdrawn into a few, discontinuous symbols which men ‘decline’ in the shelter of their living speech. Barthes 1977, 162-3. (the purple words are mine)


Panzani advert that illustrates Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image.

I’ve written a little before about the idea of anchor and relay in Context & Narrative, but looking back at what I said, it is only the bare bones. I did confirm though that I have read Rhetoric of the Image before. It is a pretty dense piece of writing, which requires full concentration and access to a dictionary and as always, Barthes used twenty abstruse words where five simple ones would do the same job, but I now think I have understood the gist of it.

I will talk relatively briefly about Anchor and Relay, as required for the Research Point, because I think there are more interesting ideas which are explained later in the essay.

Barthes opines that one can combine text and images in two different ways:

  • anchors – where the text  which accompanies an image is directive; it focuses the viewer’s understanding of the image down a particular pathway, thus limiting the image’s potential range of meanings.
  • relays – the text alters or advances the meaning, by adding other possible ways of reading an image. The resulting understanding might still be tied down, but it is much more open to interpretation than the anchoring text.

In the coursework lead-up to this exercise, we are referred to Scott’s break-down of the relationship, which is directional and orientational (both are anchors in Barthes’s terminology) and complementary, which equates to Barthes’ relay. I explained these terms, with examples, here. The notion of relaying text is very popular in current photography, with seemingly unrelated pieces of text co-located with images, in a completely undirected way which requires to viewer to derive his/her own meaning from the pieces. More of this later though.

Barthes then goes on to introduce another semiotic concept – connotive and denotive signs using an advertisement for spaghetti as a springboard for his theories. Connotive refers to the literal part of the image, in this case, a shopping bag which holds a number of cookery ingredients, while the denotive part of the image is the symbolic signs that are held within that image and which are what makes it an advert rather than simply an image of some shopping. He goes into some detail about how these are presented in the image, through signifiers and what they signify. A basic example is the various traffic signs that we see on our roads. The signs are simple but they hold larger messages about particular safety issues we should beware of, such as this below.

no right turn

Here, we “know” that the red circle with a line through it means Don’t Do Something, and the black arrow indicates what that Something is – No Right Turn.

That is simple, but one can apply the same concept to much more complicated situations, particularly when using text alongside an image. Barthes writes that the specific signifiers in an image are underlain by an infinite range of potential signifieds – the meanings that the signified might refer to. The idea that limits those signifieds are each person’s cultural and personal experiences, i.e. those things that lead the person to associate a particular object or sight with a specific idea. Naturally, there are some general ones which are widely understood, such as generic toilet signs, for instance, but surprisingly few are globally understood. With each person’s own experiential assumptions laid on top of this, it is clear that every person who looks at the same image may draw different conclusions about its meaning (See Death of the Author for more on this), and this is why advertising needs to be very general and directive in its signifiers – to avoid misunderstanding of the messages that the seller wants to say.

This is where we return to the idea of anchors and relays, as most usually text is used as an anchor, to tie down/limit/repress the potential signified meanings of the image, as in advertisements. However, by using a piece of text as relay instead, a much more open relationship with the image is produced, allowing and even encouraging the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions about what the artist means, and potentially producing a gap between the words and the image for the viewer to fill in with his/her own interpretation, based on a very personal understanding of the ideas and themes the artist is exploring.

There is considerably more to the article along the lines of how the photograph differs from all other art works as it simply records a scenario, rather than transforming it into a representation of the scene, but that is for another post. In the meantime, the course question asks us how this might help my own creative approach to working with text and images? I am actually quite comfortable with the idea of non-explanatory text alongside images, and my current project on nude photography and the gaze is using it. Fellow student Stefan513593 taught me a new word today which references my thinking about how the project is progressing – ekphrasic – a vivid, often dramatic verbal description of a visual work of art, real or imagined (Wikipedia, 2017), which in the case of my project, involves sewing words which have significant meanings upon the image to subvert our initial understanding of it as a signifier and to question the history behind it.  The current state of that work can be seen in this post here.

More important though is the idea that the connotators within the image are discontinuous, scattered traits, which hint at a lexicon, without detailing the whole of it. Barthes (1977)

diegesis – narrative


Barthes, Roland (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press (accessed on 20 August 2017)

Barbara Kruger, Sarah Sense and abstract layers of meaning

You know how it is – when something new and specific comes into your mind, then suddenly evidence of that thing seems to be everywhere. I recall that feeling when I was pregnant the first time, and evidence of pregnancy and babies that I had not noticed before suddenly came into sharp focus. I am having the same experience with the idea of Text and Images at present. It’s as if suddenly my eyes have been opened to the significance of something I’ve never thought about before.

The course text refers us to Barbara Kruger, as a photographer who uses advertising conventions to subvert their messages. Her work is political in nature and asks us to question prevailing thinking. Her images fit in well with the current zeitgeist and I notice that she has been using Trump in her work recently, reflecting the so-called “Fake Media” view of him. Her work fits in well with the low-level trolling and poking fun at the new American President which is aimed at needling him into making a fool of himself. (Go, Barbara! I’m right behind you. The man is a menace.)

For example, this image below is brilliant – funny, scathingly truthful and covertly taking a swipe at Trump and his alt-right fans.

Barbara Kruger 2

© Barbara Kruger

There are reminders of the work of other political photographers, such as Peter Kennard, whom I heard lecture back during TAOP. Both use collage and iconic images to make their points in clever, easy to grasp ways.

The interesting thing about Kruger’s work is that she takes a piece of text and pastes it over a seemingly entirely unconnected image, and the result is a space where the viewer has to work to fit the two messages together. The photographer provides clues, but the viewer has to join the dots, as it were. In the image above, we have the following elements:

  • an image of a person, who we assume is Hitler because of the moustache and uniform, although his eyes are covered.
  • two bits of text (well, three really, but the upper two are connected)
  • a message about mind control
  • another message about not believing internet trolls
  • a third message, which sits in the notional gap between text and image (not the physical gap) about Hitler’s use of psychological warfare and disinformation during WW2, and
  • a fourth message (also within the gap) warning people to beware of current re-use of those techniques to direct the population’s thinking via the internet. i.e. don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and attempts to direct our thinking may well be organised and coordinated. The small type point of the “If” at the beginning of the text also implies that the default position is that our minds are controlled, and only clear-thinking people can see above this to the wider point.

All this in one image. It is a very powerful way of making a point quickly that is much more complex to explain in words.

Our coursework text argues that there are three ways an image and some text can be related:

directional – the words are explanatory of the image. One thinks of basic reportage in this category, where the pictures are an illustration of the words, such as this below from today’s BBC website.         Directional text
The image illustrates the words and the words explain the image. I very much doubt whether anyone was commissioned to make the image. It was simply lifted from a stock photo library of happy, smiling girls. (Why is it always girls?)

orientational – the words give some general information about the image, such as the place it was taken, such as this image below, taken from the Landscape Photographer of the Year website. The text explains the location of the image and who it was by.

John Gibbs

complementary – the text and the image together produce a space into which a third idea is placed. Each of the elements has value on its own, but together they produce another idea altogether. That idea relies on the viewer taking enough time to work it out for his/herself, and it is a concept that is currently very popular in Art Photography.

Which brings me to Sarah Sense. I found her work while I was doing research for assignment 3 of Context & Narrative, and was struck by her method of deconstructing and reconstructing images to say something about her mixed heritage roots and in particular some of the symbolism used in basket-weaving by different groups. Yesterday, I returned to it, in relation to my post on Thomas Kellner, and discovered that she has move on since I last looked at her site. An example of her recent work is shown below, and it combines both the physical re-weaving of the image she is known for, but also integrated and external text. It is part of a series called Remember, which along with its predecessor Chocktaw Irish Relation, takes the words of her grandmother’s memoirs and reproduces them both within the image and as accompanying text, both handwritten. (Both can be viewed on her website here). The result gives a sense of her relationship with her grandmother, and their shared heritage through what are on first sight fairly straightforward landscape images. But like the Barbara Kruger image above, once can unpeel the ideas of the image like an onion, to find others beneath them which are more abstract.

Sarah Sense-Remembering

© Sarah Sense, 2016

From a personal standpoint, I am intrigued by the idea that one can use physical layers to produce abstract layers of meaning, and would like to try it out in some of my own work.

More thoughts on subverting the male gaze – NSFW

WARNING – this post contains images of nudity. NSFW

Several of my fellow students have been extremely helpful in sorting out how I should take the idea of working with a feminine or ungendered gaze on the nude male. My thanks to Stephanie, Micahel, Stefan, Kate and Gesa particularly and all the other poeple who have commented here on my blog and on the OCA Photography Students Facebook page – for me, the group feedback is a massive part of my thought distillation process and a part I could not do without. Their comments can mostly be seen under the Comments section in my previous post on the subject. The long and the short of it is that my original photos were actually quite traditional in their style and content, and that I needed to subvert them in some way to bring in the feminist perspective. Returning to my interest in C&N of using thread and cutting to alter images, I have been trying out a few different ideas and there is definitely something that I can work with here.

In the images below, I have firstly stitched the (Google Translated) Chinese word for womanly/obedient across the model’s rear and in the second, I have used a cross stich generator program to pixelate his genitals and then photoshopped the cross stitch colur chart in place of the real thing.

There is much research to do yet, on both the importance of tattoos (w/r to Image 1) and for both on the role of feminine arts such as sewing as acts of subversion to the genreally male-oriented artistic paradigm. (Note to self: look back at the concept of  Subversive Stitching as a political statement)

Additionally, it has been suggested that I consider using Greek or Latin rather than Chinese to stitch words on the model’s body, which would reference the Ancient World’s obsession with sculpting the naked male figure. So much to think about, but I am moving this work onto Preparation for Assignment 4 in Coursework, as I will almost certainly be using it for the Assignment itself.

Thomas Kellner – Fractured Architecture

Yesterday I met Kate 513284 at Lacock Abbey, for a catch up and to see Thomas Kellner’s exhibition called Fractured Architecture, Cubist Photographs, which is currently showing in the upstairs gallery. There is a short video here explaining his technique, but from a practical point of view, he re-images of well-known buildings by taking a series of images of the parts and putting them together. He does this by glueing his analogue negatives together to form a physical sequence, which he then make prints from. The whole process is initially like looking at the buildings through the reflection of a series of windows, but then you start to look closer and discover that the negatives are actually sequential, and so Kellner knew exactly the effect he wanted before he took a single shot.

At first glance, the images seem to fit into the genre of Cubist Decontstructivism, but Kellner has coined the phrase Radical Constructivism to describe his work, and he uses an artistic method he calls “visual analytical synthesis”. His aim is to take well-known viewpoints and reproduce them in a non-linear way – the way the eye flits around a view – rather than the basic two-dimensional view we are used to.

High res copies of most of the images we saw are shown in this Lenscratch article (2017) and a little more explanation of his technique is discussed here.

FL: You mention on your website that your work is all about playing with your viewers’ perceptions of what is real, landmarks that they consider to be constant and unchanging. Why is it that you think this is such an important message to spread?
“Kellner’s contact sheets give bodily form to our scattered, animated and animating act of viewing. In doing so, they reclaim the individual’s central position to the formation of image and building alike.” Pappas, Allison, MFA Houston in: Houston, we’ve had a problem! (The Hippo Collective, 2014)

One has to admire the precision and forethought that Killner uses to produce his work. It is startling and one inevitably gets drawn into thinking about how he made it. He says that initially he began nwith the idea of using a single 36 frame roll of film for each image, but that this has expanded now and he often uses two. For my own part, the image I liked best was one where he did not use the constraint of the rectangular format, but something a little looser in contruction.  IMG_3948v2

His work has echoes of that of Seung Hoon Park, David Hockney and Sarah Sense, both of whom I have reviewed before in Context & Narrative, but the techniques of deconstruction and reconstruction are all completely different. There’s plenty to think about in relation to my own work.





The male art nude – a workshop

WARNING: This post contains nudity

and is NSFW.


Yesterday, I attended a workshop on the male art nude. It was led by Jo Suthurst, who is an MFA student at the University of Falmouth, and the workshop was part of her degree course. Jo is interested in the human body, and the parts that are usually hidden, particularly in people who do not conform to the current norm of beauty, and her blog is here. The timing of the workshop fitted in perfectly with some research I am currently doing on the male and female gaze (more of which I will address in a separate post).

I had two aims in mind for my own participation in the workshop. The first was to practise studio lighting, at which I am still an absolute beginner, and the second was to question the idea of the Female Gaze and how it might affect a photography shoot where the subject was a naked male.

Firstly, I will explain the practicalities of the day. It was held at a small studio near Cricklade, with which I have become familiar as a result of a Facebook group for local female photographers. We meet monthly to try out different concepts in a non-threatening environment and to share our collective experience. The attendees range from near beginners to commercial photographers, so there are plenty of different ideas to discuss. They have started to do regular workshops recently, and I signed up for this, as well as an Creative one at the end of the month, as I find studio work intriguing.

Jo explained the etiquette of nude photo shoots and referred us to some literature on poses for men, and also the model release form, which I have posted about here before our model, Clint, turned up. We were two students, Jo, and two other ladies, one of whom was the studio owner and the other a female model whom I had already met. The latter two were around, but did not take part in our activities. We started with a range of slighting situations for upper body nudity, and as the day progressed and we all felt more comfortable with the situation, moved on to full nudity.

I have never been to a female nude shoot before either, and have nothing to compare the experience with, so I asked Clint and Gemma (the female model, who does nude work, but was not involved in this day) how our approach differed from a shoot where the photographers were mostly men. Clint’s response was that an all female group was less threatened by his nudity and that there was a lot more conversation than would have been the case with male photographers. He is very experienced in nude shoots and was entirely comfortable without any clothing, so very soon his nudity became irrelevant from a social point of view and an outsider would have been startled to see three middle-aged women and an overtly naked man all huddled up together looking at a camera screen to see if a shot had work and discussing what might be improved.

Clint has done a lot of modelling for top shelf female magazines, and  his natural range of poses tended to reflect that. We also tried various ideas from David Leddick’s The Male Nude (2015), which includes an extensive series of images right through the history of the genre. The great majority of these fell into the category of “tasteful”, rather than “explicit” but Clint told us that he has been asked to pose for everything right up to extreme porn. This was well outside our remit for the day though, thankfully. Below are three images which give a flavour of our day. I won’t post any more for now, as I am planning to use them later in Part 4.


So, where does a day like this sit in the gap between the Male and Female Gaze? And what did I get out of it?

Laura Mulvey (1999), who coined the term The Male Gaze in 1975 to convey how through many centuries our viewpoint on practically everything has been that of the white heterosexual male. It is tripartite, and consists of a) the director, b) the actor’s performance and c) the viewer, all of whom are traditionally assumed to be male. (I am writing another post on this subject too, so won’t go into a great amount of detail here.) In this scenario, women are considered as the Object – largely silent, and something for the male to view and/or own, as John Berger said in Ways of Seeing.

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” (Berger, 1972)

Berger talked about The Gaze, but his gaze was the Male Gaze, and amazingly, he seemed to think that it was women who put themselves in the position of being objectified.

The response to this came with Jill Soloway’s lecture on the Female Gaze in 2016 (see my other post on this for details) where she asks society to move away from the male way of looking at the world, towards something more inclusive of many minority groups. This she characterises as the Female Gaze, which she argues consists of  a) a feeling-seeing on the part of the director, b) the actor is fully aware of being seen and can choose to agree to it, i.e. having a sense of agency in the transaction and c) returning the Gaze, as in I see you looking at me and I don’t want to be an object any longer.

Along the way towards this, feminists and sympathetic men made several less than successful attempts to subvert the Male Gaze, through notions like the Female Combatant, in which the female heroine plays what is essentially a faux-male role, including leadership, violence and super-strength, and the Objectified Male, in which the Male Gaze is twisted back on itself, with women supposedly looking at men as men have looked at women.

This workshop might potentially fit into this last category, but I would argue that it does not. Taking each of Soloway’s elements in turn, Clint said that he could tell from an image of himself whether it was taken by a straight man, a gay man or a women, as those taken by the latter two categories have a different feeling about them. The great majority are not what we would consider objectifying, but are using his body to express other ideas and/or feelings. He was aware of what we were doing and why, and I don’t think there was any question of him not having agency in the process. He was as fully involved in the making of the art as we, the photographers were. (It’s interesting to contrast this process with that of life drawing, as a quick diversion. In life drawing the model is simply there to be looked at, while in the photographic process we undertook, our model was an active participant with opinions and personal rights.) In some of the images I took, Clint has chosen to present himself as an object of desire, but that was his choice and wasn’t requested by me, and I am not intending to use those images as they do not convey the messages I want to examine.

Overall, it was a fascinating and very creative day, and I must thank Jo again for her teaching and knowledge on the subject of the nude. Finally, you might like to know Jo’s thoughts on the subject of Clint’s tattoos, which are something I have made no reference to in my own post, as for me, they were just something that was part of who he was. Jo puts a more considered academic viewpoint to the subject. From my own aesthetic point of view, the images I like best are the minimalist ones I took with rim lighting, like the top one, although the masked images are also interesting. (Jo does a lot of work with masks, and it is something I too have looked at before. She has access to a much wider range than me though).

Edited to add:

Following discussion on the comments thread below about the importance of the model’s tattoos and whether the work really does have a non-traditional viewpoint , I’ve now started to stitch Chines symbols for female words onto the photos, in the style of tattoos. I think this has some potential for assignment 4. Here’s an example below.


Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Leddick, D. (2015) The Male Nude. TASCHEN GmbH

Mulvey, Laura.(1999) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44. [online] At: (Accessed on 13 August 2017)

Soloway, J. (2016) Jill Soloway on The Female Gaze | MASTER CLASS | TIFF 2016. At: (Accessed on 13 August 2017)

Suthurst, Jo. (2017) Surfaces and Strategies – Shoot Mod3#7 – Male Art Nude – “Clint” At: (Accessed on 13 August 2017)

On the subject of model release forms

Today I attended an art nude studio day, more about which I will got into in a different post. However, the subject of model release forms came up and how they are necessary for this type of work. First of all I went to the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) website, to see what they say about it.

Bath, 18 May 2015 – With increased public concerns over privacy and the need for photographers to protect themselves and the people they photograph The Royal Photographic Society has produced a generic model release form which it has made freely available for all photographers to download here:

The RPS has worked with a top UK law firm to produce a RPS Model Release Form template with supporting notes to give guidance to amateur and professional photographers over how to use it.  A model release forms specifies how pictures can be used and is there to protect both the photographer and his/her subjects. Properly completed a signed form will protect the photographer in the event of any future claim. (RPS, 2015)

The principle behind the model release form (MLF) is that if one is using a photograph for commercial purposes, then there is the possibility that the model may sue for invasion of privacy. You and I might think that because the model has been paid to come along and pose for you, they have given their permission implicitly, but legally they have only agreed to the taking of the photograph at that stage. If you then decide to sell it to a stock library, for example, you need their permission again.

There seem to be three types of circumstance where MRLs are advisable

  • where you plan to sell the image to a stock photo library
  • where you plan to use it for advertising purposes
  • where there is a more diffuse promotional element to it.

The last is the one that applies to this blog, Facebook, Instagram etc. Because my pages are public, and can be viewed by anyone who finds them, I should really be covered by an MRF if I am making staged photos with a paid model.

As a general rule, MRFs are not necessary in the following circumstances:

  • if you will only be using the image for personal use
  • if you are shooting in a public space, and are not planning to use it for commercial purposes, although it is often better to get one signed where any individual is easily identifiable and is the subject of the image.
  • if it for editorial purposes, although this is a grey area again, and one needs to watch out for potential pitfalls. The one most easily accessible for a general photographer is probably the Royal Photographic Society’s one, which is available here: The RPS Model Release Form.

Thinking this through, initially I thought a form might be a bit over the top for many circumstances, but a few situations where one could get into trouble without one are:

  • paparazzi images, where the subject does not know they are being photographed on private land.
  • an image which the subject hates, but which is made publicly available. (This makes me wonder about the legal position of photos on social media where the subject is in a private area, e.g. school and has not given permission for the shot.
  • where an image taken in a public space is used for advertising, and the subject was unaware that it had been taken. We occasionally hear of situations where members of the public find their faces on billboards as part of advertisements, and they knew nothing about it.
  • Finally, one needs to think about those situations, such as the previous case, where potentially the model would have been able to make a commercial gain if they had known about the use of their image.

In the art photography world, an example of where a case has been taken to court is outlined in this article. It refers to Arne Svenson’s series The Neighbours, where he has taken images through the windows of his neighbours’ flats, without them knowing. In all cases, the person is not identifiable, but a lawsuit was made for invasion of privacy. It was an American case, and Svenson won on the grounds that the series of images was protected under the First Amendment, which is about freedom of speech. My own, non-legal opinion would be that in the British legal system he should also have won, as the subjects were unidentifiable even though they were in private spaces. Contrast his work, for example, with a similar series by Sharon Boothroyd, The Glass Between Us  where people are again photographed through their window, but in this case their faces can be seen and Boothroyd has asked each of them to sign a model release form.


When Does Photography Become an Invasion of Privacy? Perhaps Never

Exercise 4.1

In this exercise, we are asked to pick one of Dawn Woolley’s blog posts from her series Looking at Advertisements and to comment on it. I have chose No 16,  which is about this advert by L’Oréal. In her review of the advert, Woolley does not include a link to the original work, but paints a picture of the ideas and messages it portrays, and questions how the “selfie” has become such a fundamental part of our culture.

In the advert, which is short at 20 seconds, a young woman who is dressed to go out partying is initially shown in a football goal, failing to stop any of the many balls that are thrown at her at once. The caption “I may not be infallible…. but I am always selfie-ready” overlays it. The action then moves on to show how wearing this make-up makes the wearer selfie-ready for “up to 24 hours”, and we see her surrounded by selfie sticks, ready at a moment’s notice to take her own photo.

So where does one begin to unpack all this? Firstly, the colour scheme of an eye-hurtingly loud yellow appears to have no relevance to the advert, except perhaps to make one remember the colour. Then the footballs. Why the footballs and goal net? It is utterly ireelevant to the storyline. I could think of a hundred ways of portraying the idea of fallibility that are better than a woman in a party dress and stilletos.  It makes no sense at all. The action then moves on towards a fairly unremarkable explanation of how to apply the makeup, followed by the short, but admittedly quite funny, selfie-ready scene. The whole thing is accompanied by muzack, the intention of which seems to be to indicate that the woman is constantly in a hurry, and a man’s voice doing the voice-over.

There are two particular points of interest to me in the advert. The first is how much the selfie has become a part of our culture that it is considered to be a good vehicle for explaining the product. Everyone knows about selfies – they are ubiquitous and people do it all the time. I have posted previously about the selfie here and how it is a form of self brand promotion – how people want other people to see them. I’ve also asked my two step-daughters why they take selfies, and was told that they are a way of making them look their best to people who they are friends with. That may well be the case, but there is also something in there about wanting other people to see you, and about projecting a persona that might have little to do with who you really are. As an example, people who use dating sites usually moan about how nobody looks like their photos in real life. The posted photo is a combination of them at their best (even if it was 10 years ago) and what they think other people will find attractive. The truth is an inevitable disappointment.

Then there is the intrusion of the male viewpoint into the advert. The footballing reference and the voice-over. These produce a subtle message that looking beautiful is for them, not the woman concerned, and also that men expect women to be a) fully party ready at all times and b) ditsily taking selfies everywhere. There is no sense whatsoever about a woman being a strong individual who doesn’t need outside praise – the advert is all about looking for external approbation and a striving for perfection to please other people. I find the whole thing disgusting. Surely L’Oreal can do better than that!