"Everyone who looks at a photograph will literally see the same thing. In the case of image 2.7, everyone will see the same graphic pattern, and most will recognise the creature signified as one classified as 'dog'. This is denotation, the literal meaning of a signifier, and it is the first stage of reading.
However, although we can agree that the animal signified is a dog, how we then interpret the meaning of 'dog' (beyond the classification of a particular sort of mammal) will be subject to a range of variables. Some may be reminded of a loved pet and project their memories and affection onto this representation; those who have been bitten or chased by such a dog may project their dislike or fear onto it; those with expert knowledge will identify the breed and attribute associated characteristics onto the representation. The design of the picture lends itself to anthropomorphic interpretation: we project human characteristics onto the dog - we read its 'expression'
This is connotation - the associated ideas that are suggested by the image, but which are not explicitly denoted. Individual and subjective experience, knowledge, taste and emotion will all contribute to the particular associations. Nevertheless, although we are all individuals, we are reasonable predictable in many respects, and so a skilled writer, artist, copywriter or photographer can encourage or nudge us towards a particular response.
Consider, for example an advertisement for perfume: how do you represent an invisible commodity? Typically, such an advertisement will include a bottle, a person nd a brand name; the person may be a celebrity. These elements are denoted, but the actual commodity, a fragrance, cannot be visually denoted. The visual elements - words, colours, faces, bodies - will be more organised to connote pleasure, glamour and sexiness, which will then be associated with the product."
R Salkeld. (2014). Dennotation and Connotation. In: Reading Photographs. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. 53.
In this text, Salkeld offers an explanation on how we all read an image differently. It is exactly this notion that I am intrigued by. You can show 50 people this image of a dog and 50 people will see an acutely similar compilation of lines shape and form that we all recognise to be a dog, but every one of the 50 people will potentially have a different reading/reaction to it based on their prior experiences.
I'm slightly fascinated by the idea that actually 50 people won't all see the same lines shape and form, because even what we actually see is in some way preconditioned by our experiences, that is to say we are all taught to recognise the basic shape of a dog and therefore recognise this as a dog. But if there were somebody who had never heard of, seen or had any kind of experience or association with the concept of a dog or its recognisable shape; and if that person was shown this picture what would they see? Surely not a dog?
So far I have shown several of my photographs of people doing their daily thing on the streets to several friends, family and colleagues and recorded them 'reading' the narrative or sharing the experience they feel connected to the image. This is proving to be an interesting format in which to test this theory of looking, seeing, reading and experiencing.
The question I keep coming back to now is, should I be using the same image to ask the same question or continue using several images to ask the same question? Obviously using the same image with lots of different voice recordings tests the theory in a more 'scientific' way, however is it more engaging to the viewer and also myself to have the opportunity and listen to people describing many photos and to leave the comparison just between your own thoughts and the thoughts of the recording?
"Pictures and Text; Pictures As Texts
It is relatively rare to encounter a photograph without some accompanying words, even if it is only a caption. The semiotic approach proposes that we treat photographs as texts; that is, as a collection of signifiers to read and be interpreted. However, given that the word 'text' is more familiarly used to denote the words that might accompany a picture rather than the picture in itself, this can at first seem a little confusing.Nevertheless, the relationship between words and pictures is hugely important.
Because of a photographs iconic nature (its resemblance to what it represents), what the photograph shows often appears as self-evident. Nevertheless, that instant recognition is immediately articulated in terms of names, labels and descriptions. However, what the photograph means remains potentially ambiguous and could spin off in many directions. Roland Barthes termed the photographs capacity for generating multiple meanings 'polysemy'.
In Rhetoric of the Image (1964) Roland Barthes explains how the potential for the meanings of an image to float off in any direction can be 'anchored' by words: captions, advertising copy, accompanying articles, gallery labels – all of these functions to tell the viewer more about what they are looking at. People and places are named, contexts are identified – the viewer is directed towards receiving a specific image.
However, words are signifiers to and do not simply denote what is in the picture, but will connote a further set of associations; words may not just a company a photograph, but they might also be part of the picture, either part of the photograph subject or written onto/scratched into the surface of the photographic print. In the latter case, the effect may be to draw attention to the photograph as a material object, as a sign in its own right."
Duane Michals http://www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/duane-michals