The need for an immanent analysis of photographic structure

Barthes acknowledges the work that was then (in 1961) being done on the sociological analysis of photographs, but feels that we must provide a specific method, prior to sociological analysis: the immanent analysis of that original structure which the photograph constitutes (4). He first defines the structure of the photographic message as independent of the text, then discusses their interaction. 

The photographic paradox

Pure denotation: inescapable connotation. Barthes defines the photograph as a perfect analogon, a perfect analogical depiction of reality, continuous with the reality it would depict.  A photograph does not translate reality into a sign system, like language, or even a connotative system, like the brushwork of painters. A photograph is pure denotation; the denoted message is "absolutely analogical"ˇthat is, deprived of "any recourse to a code" (8). 
    Barthes notes that there are ways to focus connotative meaning upon a photograph. One might use trick effects in the developing of the photograph (so common in this computer age) (9), or manipulate the pose of the photographed (10). A photographer might add connotative value to a photograph through the incorporation of symbolic objects, "discontinuous and complete in themselves" (for example, "bookcase = intellectual") (11). One might alter the photogeny, the informational structure of the photo, through lighting, exposure, and printing manipulations (12).  Photographs carry connotational value when offered as aesthetic objects (12), or when placed in a sequence (13). 
    Most importantly, however, is the use of text with the photographic image. To add descriptive text to a photo would be to add connotation to pure denotation (7). Words come to sublimate, patheticize, or rationalize the image (14). Such connotation effects vary with the distance from the words to the text: the closer the words are to the image, the less they seem to connote it; caught up by the iconographic message, so to speak, the verbal message seems to participate in its objectivity (15). 
    Given that an image can come to carry connotative meaning, Barthes notes that thanks to its code of connotation, the reading of the photograph is therefore always historical (16). Barthes then looks for the levels of connotation: the perceptual connotation, at which point we identify the object depicted; the cognitive connotation, at which point we recognize more specific aspects of the photograph, like the language of signs in the background, or the clothing style of individuals in the background, as keys to more exact  cognition of the scene depicted; and the ideological connotation, which introduces reasons or values into the reading of the image (18). Though Barthes started his discussion of the photograph with the assertion that photographs are uncoded messages, of pure denotation, we now see that connotative value is almost unavoidable. 

The moment of trauma in photography

Barthes defines the conditions for an image without connotation: at the level of strictly traumatic images, because trauma is just what suspends language and blocks signification (19). This position would later be shared by Susan Sontag and by John Berger in their texts on photography. (David Beard.)

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Michael Hancher

Department of English, University of Minnesota

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Created 23 December 1997