Conceptual Levels of Meaning in Photography.

Reference: Educating Artists for the future: Learning at the intersections of Art, Melvin L. Alexenburg.

Roland Barthes was a French Philosopher and Semiotician and below is an extract from his essay ‘Rhetoric of the image’, he talks of connotation in the form of Advertising.

(The Factual meaning)”Here we have a Panzani advertisement: some packets of pasta, a tin, a sachet, some tomatoes, onions, peppers, a mushroom, all emerging from a half-open string bag, in yellows and greens on a red background.” Let us try to ‘skim off’ the different messages it contains. The image immediately yields a first message, whose substance is linguistic; its supports are the caption, which is marginal, and the labels, these being inserted into the natural disposition of the scene, ‘en abyme‘. The code from which this message has been taken is none other than that of the French language; the only knowledge required to decipher it is a knowledge of writing and of French. In fact, this message can itself be further broken down, for the sign Panzani gives not simply the name of the firm but also, by its assonance, a additional signified, that of ‘Italianicity’. The linguistic message is therefore twofold (at least in this particular image): denotational and connotational. Since, however, we have here only a single typical sign, namely that of articulated (written) language, it will be counted as one message.

Putting aside the linguistic message, we are left with the pure image (even if the labels are part of it, anecdotally). This image straightaway provides a series of discontinuous signs. First (the order is unimportant as these signs are not linear), the idea that what we have in the scene represented is a return from the market. A signified which itself implies two euphoric values: that of the freshness of the products and that of the essentially domestic preparation for which they are destined. Its signifier is the half-open bag which lets the provisions spill out over the table, ‘unpacked’. To read this first sign requires only a knowledge which is in some sort implanted as part of the habits of a very widespread culture where ‘shopping around for oneself’ is opposed to the hasty stocking up (preserves, refrigerators) of a more ‘mechanical’ civilization. A second sign is more or less equally evident; its signifier is the bringing together of the tomato, the pepper and the tricoloured hues (yellow, green, red) of the poster; its signified is Italy, or rather Italianicity. This sign stands in a relation of redundancy with the connoted sign of the linguistic message (the Italian assonance of the name Panzani) and the knowledge it draws upon is already more particular; it is a specifically ‘French’ knowledge (an Italian would barely perceive the connotation of the name, no more probably than he would the Italianicity of tomato and pepper), based on a familiarity with certain tourist stereotypes. Continuing to explore the image (which is not to say that it is not entirely clear at the first glance), there is no difficulty in discovering at least two other signs: in the first, the serried collection of different objects transmits the idea of a total culinary service, on the one hand as though Panzani furnished everything necessary for a carefully balanced dish and on the other as though the concentrate in the tin were equivalent to the natural produce surrounding it; in the other sign, the composition of the image, evoking the memory of innumerable alimentary paintings, sends us to an aesthetic signified: the ‘nature morte‘ or, as it is better expressed in other languages, the ‘still life’; the knowledge on which this sign depends is heavily cultural.

(Barthes 1977, 33)
There are three types of meaning in a photograph, which are:

Factual Level

The factual level means listing the facts of the physical in the piece. Such as this extract from Barthes’ essay:”Here we have a Panzani advertisement: some packets of pasta, a tin, a sachet, some tomatoes, onions, peppers, a mushroom, all emerging from a half-open string bag, in yellows and greens on a red background.

Interpretive Level

The interpretive level is deciphered by breaking down what the facts mean. This is a relevant extract again from the Barthes’ essay to give an example: “the only knowledge required to decipher it is a knowledge of writing and of French. In fact, this message can itself be further broken down, for the sign Panzani gives not simply the name of the firm but also, by its assonance, a additional signified, that of ‘Italianicity'”. 

Conceptual Level
The conceptual level is finding what the deeper meaning of the piece is,  it could be determined by finding the answer to what is the essential meaning for the piece.

How has this helped me progress in relation to my own project?

From researching different levels of meaning it has helped me to understand how the audience will interpret my video and how I can improve on aspects such as composition and sequencing to reveal the intent. As my intentional message is to give the audience an insight on the experiences of youth migration, such as challenges faced, feelings and the additional factors that come with uprooting from a home and starting completely fresh, i will aim to show this by taking in to account the timing of the frames alongside the audio to best deliver the message to the audience. Looking into different levels of meaning has taught me that by using different elements it can change the meaning of the piece, factors such as the environment, colours used and objects all play part to this. In order to communicate what I intend to I will take in to consideration different social contexts, that different life experiences will mean that it will vary in respect to who the audience is and what it means to them.

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