Some rough notes on semiotics

These notes are from Reading Photographs by Richard Salkeld in the Basics Creative Photography Series, Fairchild Books, 2014.

The relationship of signifier to signified determines the type of sign it is.

Arbitrary or symbolic sign – there’s no natural connection between signifier (the sign) and signified (the mental concept triggered by the signifier). eg verbal and written language and traffic light colours.

Indexical signifiers are produced by what they signify. eg smoke, a footprint. Photographs are indexical signifiers because “the image in a photograph has a direct causal link with the scene that existed in front of the camera at the moment of exposure”. (p52)

Iconic signifiers resemble what they signify. My favourite of these is the fire hose sign in a Greek hotel we stayed at. Not only does it look like a fire hose, it looks like a Greek fire hose. We can see that it also contains text in two languages (arbitrary signs) and it’s in a photograph which is itself an indexical signifier.


Photographs can contain some or all of these signs.

Denotation – the literal meaning of a photograph, what everybody sees (eg a middle aged man dressed in trunks and loafers and jewellery, with his little finger in his mouth, looking directly at the camera, seated on a stack of white plates on a bare floor in front of a breezeblock wall.

Connotation – “the associated ideas that are suggested by the image but which are not explicitly denoted”. These meanings really depend on the individual viewing the image “Individual and subjective experience, knowledge, taste and emotion will all contribute to the particular associations”. Connotation is most of my pencilled comments on the ad above.

Referent – the thing that is indicated by the sign but that is not itself there.


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