Project 2 – Reading Pictures

Project 2: Reading Pictures


Rip out an advertising image from a newspaper supplement and circle and write on as many parts of the image as you can. Comment on what it is, what it says about the product and why you think it’s there. You could us this as the basis for you assignment if you feel its taking you somewhere interesting. Or you could adopt this method for your assignment preparation. Come back to this exercise when you’ve reached the end of Part Four and see if you can add anything to your analysis. 

For this exercise I choose a Volkswagen advert for their Park Assist function.IMG_20160729_0001

I have decided to use this image for the assignment. In preparation I have read several books on analysing adverts. A lot were very general but I found one that went into detail about analysing images in adverts. Gillian Dyer’s book Advertising as Communication has a section on analyzing photographic advertising.  I have listed the others below.

Bignell, J. (2002). Media Semiotics. 2nd edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Dyer, G. (1982). Advertising as Communication (Studies in Culture and Communication). New Edition. Routledge.

Williamson, J. (2010). Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. Marion Boyars.

Research Point 

Visit [Accessed: 24/02/14]. For a blog about Jeff Wall’s, Insomnia (1994). Interpret using some of the tools discussed above. 

Jeff Wall is a Canadian photographer, who was born in 1946. He graduated the University of British Columbia in 1970 with a Masters degree. Wall’s images were critical in the shift to view photography as art.

Deciphering an image can be challenging but is important for a photographer, there are several techniques to use. Looking at the denotation and connotation of the image is a start. Observing the obvious things in the image is known as denotation, but it doesn’t give the meaning of the things. This is where connotation comes in, as it refers to the associated meaning of the image. jeff-wall-insomnia

In 1994, Wall created the image, Insomnia. He created this image in reference to the quote ‘When a Prince doesn’t sleep well, a nation doesn’t either’. It is was staged and everything in the image was there for a reason, all of Wall’s images are set-up exactly how he wanted them and all have a deep meaning, that is not necessary seen at the first glance. Many of his images are hectic and seem to have a lot going on, whilst being quite claustrophobic in the picture. This image, along with others in the series was exhibited using large-scale backlit light boxes. This emphasizes his cinematic tendency seen in his work. Insomnia the image was displayed quite large, at 1722 x 2135mm. It drew attention being this large, and his unique display method would emphasize the image and make it memorable to the viewers.

I will start by looking at the denotation of the image. We can see straight away that this room represents a kitchen. We can see the fridge, the cooker, the sink, table and chairs, and cabinets, all features of a kitchen. The walls are a cream colour. The cupboards are teal. It has a feel of an old kitchen, something from the 1960s. It has a well-worn feel, which would support the age of the room; the style and age of the cooker and the fridge also support this. The appliance, though there are few of them, are all old even for when this image was created. This has led me to the conclusion that Wall wanted to create a sense of age in this image. There is a simple table in the center of the kitchen, with an ashtray and a saltshaker on it. Two mismatched chairs are also present, but are in an awkward position. There is a tea towel discarded on one of the chairs. There is washing up on the side of the sink, this reminds me of Shafran’s Washing Up series, mainly due to the location and the objects present. The kitchen light, which is illuminating the image, can be seen in the window as a reflection. It is dark outside, which supports the name of the image, as you wouldn’t have insomnia in the daytime. The cupboards are open and there is an open brown bag on top of the fridge, this suggests there has been a search, but the person hasn’t shut the doors, possibly a frantic search. There is a man lying on the floor. The look on his face is disturbing, he looks frantic and worried. The man brings ‘motion’ to what would be a still life image. These are the facts of the image.

The meaning goes a lot deeper. Even though it is a staged environment, it shows the psychological state of the man on the floor, which I believe is what Wall intends. The lighting is bright almost; in addition to the colours of the cupboards and walls it makes the room look sterile. The shadow created by the light that covers the man gives an eerie feel to the image. It has no warmth to it; it doesn’t feel like a home, which would provide safety and security. The search through the cupboards and brown bag could indicate that the man was searching for something to help him, to provide some comfort to which he was unsuccessful. The chairs have been positioned oddly, they could have been used in the search, for example to stand on, or has he moved them and left them out of desperation, not caring where they are. Then we come to the man himself. He is laying on the floor, which is unexpected, personally I wouldn’t think of someone with insomnia trying to sleep on a kitchen floor, maybe this represent the desperation which he has found himself in. This positioning could also relate to a struggle he is going through, psychically and mentally. He looks worried, something has lead him to behave in this way, what it is we don’t know, but all we can see is the effect it is having on him. He appears to be in a laxed featal position, which could mean he is looking for comfort and protection. I find the image quite busy, and I can’t seem to focus on one part of the image, the composition I find is causing this. There are a lot of vertical lines, but also horizontal lines, which don’t seem to lead anywhere; it keeps the viewer searching the image.

I find that Wall’s image has been taken at a point where it is showing the result of what has happened to this man, and doesn’t show us what exactly has happened, so it leaves it up to the viewer to make their own minds up. He stated that the point of his images are, “mid-way between the ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’” (Wall). The subject of his images follow a narrative right up until the camera takes the picture.

Jeff Wall: Realism and Artifice. [Online]. <> [Accessed: 15th July 2016].

Dictionary. Connotation. [Online]. <> [Accessed: 15th July 2016].

Dictionary. Denotation. [Online]. <> [Accessed: 15th July 2016].

OCA. Beneath The Surface. [Online]. <> [Accessed: 15th July 2016].

Tate. Jeff Wall Photographs 1978-2004. [Online]. <’s-on/tate/modern/exhibition/jeff-wall> [Accessed: 15th July 2016].

Tate. Jeff Wall: Room Guide, Room 6. [Online]. <> [Accessed: 15th July 2016].

TLRU. Photographers you should know: Jeff Wall by Eugen Sakmenko. [Online]. <> [Accessed: 15th July 2016].

Research Point 

Read and Reflect upon the chapter on Diane Arbus in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth (2005, London: Tate Publishing). This is out of print but you may be able to find it in your local university library: Some of the chapters are available as pdfs online. You’ll find the Arbus chapter in the student website. 

For the next research point, I was required to read and reflect on the chapter on Diane Arbus in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth (2005, London: Tate Publishing). It is out of print, I wasn’t able to find a psychical copy but I did find the chapter as a pdf file online. 1899

The chapter starts with an image that Arbus took in New York, and featured a Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing in 1966. Liz Jobey, who wrote this chapter, states that she can see Arbus’s photographs are ‘parallel’ in other art forms such as in literature in particular Raymond Carver’s stories. Jobey writes a lot about what will become of the family in the photograph. Specifically, ‘What tragedy is waiting to happen?’ It bothers me slightly that the assumption is that there is going to be a tragedy, they could just live out their lives with no problems. Yes, you might wonder what has happened to them, but it might not necessarily be bad. I find Jobey, is looking for a deep meaning of the photograph, she is trying to figure out what life has planned or how they are feeling by one photograph, this can be done with any photograph, as a photograph is just a capture of one time, it does not necessarily reflect or give anything away about the future of the subjects, it is all up to the viewer to make up their own mind and usually this is effect by the viewers own personal experiences.

Jobey also states that she pities the family for their compliancy. She asks why did they agree to be photographed, one could say why does anyone agree to a stranger photographing them, we don’t know what Arbus said to them, this could have had a big influence in their discussion. One point Jobey makes is that the viewer see the family as victims because of the way they look, I disagree with this. Why must they be victims? What makes them a victim from their appearance, or is it because they agree to be photograph, Jobey sees them as a victim. She goes on to describe the family. The man is looking shyly towards the camera, holding his boys hand ‘protectively’. His expression seems nervous. Jobey describes the woman as having ‘an armoury of self-protection clutched in front of her the leopard-skin coat, the leatherette handbag, the camera case with the strap wound round her fingers crossing out her wedding ring, her bland white baby’. Personally I think Jobey is making to many assumptions, she could just be carrying the items and not using them unconsciously as self-protection. The woman is not looking gat the camera, with a bleak defiant look on her face. Their baby looks in distress, probably because this is new and he doesn’t understand what is going on. Jobey states that ‘In posing for the traditional family shot, they have unwittingly under-minded all the positive values that formation represents’. The text that accompanied the image by Arbus stated, “They live in the Bronx. I think he was a garage mechanic. Their first child was born when she were sixteen…They were undeniably close in a painful sort of way” (Arbus). Going by this text it seems Arbus is judging the family by this encounter, leading the viewer to believe that the couple being close was very unlikely. Jobey suggests that they could have been nervous of the camera hence their expressions and body language and believe Arbus could have mistaken their background (married early with a retarted child and a baby) as a reason for their look. There is a tendency of using your own personal experiences when looking at others; maybe Arbus was using her own life to reflect on this couple. The main problem is the viewer does not know how Arbus approached them, how she communicated with them or how she made them feel. They could have felt nervous just by her way with them and thus creating the uneasy look in the image, we shall never know.

Arbus provided some information regarding the family. Their names were Richard and Marylin Dauria. Richard was an immigrant from Italy who worked as a mechanic; he married Marylin when she was sixteen years old. They have three children, but only two are present in the photograph. The elder child, in the image is called Richard Junior who was mentally retarded. The baby’s name was Dawn. Arbus goes on to say that Marylin often got told she looked like Elizabeth Taylor. She also states that Marylin colours her hair black to make herself seem Irish, the reasons for this remain unknown. Richard Junior was born when Marylin was sixteen; she believed that this indicated a hasty marriage.

Jobey then goes on to talk about Arbus but not in depth. She mainly discusses her other work she did in the 1960s, one of which was ‘freaks’, which included portraits of people who were different due to their mental, sexual or psychical appearance. Susan Sontag stated that Arbus fascination with the ‘freaks’ ‘was an expresses a desire to violate her own innocence to undermine her sense of being privileged, so [sic] went her frustration at being safe’. If you compare the way the subject behave in front of the camera a clear distinction is seen. The Brooklyn family didn’t look directly at the camera whereas the ‘freaks’ look directly at the camera. The difference may simply be that the ‘freaks’ may earn their living by the way they look so may not feel uncomfortable being photographed, but the Brooklyn family were spending time as a family and are private and may have felt uncomfortable. “An Arbus photograph is more than a record of a person at a certain time in a certain place it is, more often than not, a record of a moment of personal anxiety, of a sudden identity crisis awakened and then captured by the camera”. I personally think this sums up Arbus images quite well. It appears as the subjects are not comfortable with her photographing her, and this leads to the camera capturing an image that would not necessarily represent the subject well. Maybe Arbus couldn’t put people at ease being photographed. Many people do not like being photographed and as we do not know how Arbus approached these people, or how she interacted with them, it is difficult to draw an accurate conclusion. I believe that she didn’t put people at ease when photographing them and thus they were wary and nervous and this is visible in the results.

Jobey’s chapter is interesting but I feel it lacks certain things. Whilst she does talk about Arbus’s life she doesn’t go into must detail, even a small paragraph about her life, her schooling, her career would have been helpful. I agree with a few things she said but others I felt she was being over judgmental, similar to what Arbus said about her subjects.

If you haven’t yet read any of Judith Williamson’s ‘Advertising’ articles (see introduction), now would be a good time to do so. See: 

I read Judith Williamson’s ‘Advertising’ articles again. I have seen these before and have studies them when I was in school. Williamson has written a book about advertisement, called Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. Her book is an explanation of how she analysis adverts she sees. She looks into the hidden meanings in adverts. She looks at the wording they used, the imaging including what they show and what they do not show, and she also looks into the history of the company and how their history and their methods may contradict what and how they are trying to advertise.

In Gillian Dyer’s book Advertising as Communication she has a section on analyzing photographic advertising. She looks at the technical side of the image, at how the photographer has positioned the item and the make-up of the image. For example, what props have been used, as usually they are functional and reinforce the idea of the product. She assesses how the lighting has been used, the focusing and depth of field, any close-ups, the angle of the camera, and how the image has been cropped. She also looks at the use of special effects and how creative the advert is. Dyer also looks at the impact of the adverts, how they affect us culturally, personally and socially. She has a chapter dedicated to analyzing how words in adverts are used, and the effect they have on the success of the advert.

Another books which explains how to analysis adverts is Media Semiotics by Jonathan Bignell. Similar to the other books Bignell, looks at how to approach these advert but he also looks at some him self and goes through them step-by-step on how he has analyzed them.

For this research point, I looked at Judith Williamson article on an Apple advert. This advert was for an iPad, and features a young girl holding it up whilst lying in bed. The text read:

This is it.

This is what matters.

The experience of a product.

How it makes someone fell.

Will it make life better?

Does it deserve to exist?

If you are busy making everything,

How can you perfect anything?

We spend a lot of time

On a few great things.

Until every idea we touch

Enhances each life it touches.

You may rarely look at it.

But you’ll always feel it.

This is our signature.

And it means everything.

Williamson stated that the image is one of illumination. The screen of the iPad is the only light and is illuminating the girls face and surrounding area. Williamson describes the scene as one of annunciation, as the child is being ‘touched by something ethereal, even godly’. She describes the positioning of the iPad as being like a skylight window. She states, “This illumination from ‘above’ feeds into the central connotation of being touched by some kind of pure, heavenly power”. This is referred to in the text.

Whilst analyzing the text, Williamson looks at how the company manufactures the iPads and the working conditions. For example, the workers in Asia have to work 12 hour days 6 or 7 days a week, under difficult working conditions. Williamsons seems to be concentrating on the hypocrisy of the advert and it’s wording. She does look at the image itself but the majority of her analysis is aimed at how the company operates and how they are demonstrating the opposite in their adverts.

The adverts are designed to sell products, the imaging is just as important as the text. The image should advertise the product but make people want to buy it, make people think it is necessary and they need it. In this advert, Apple are using the ‘experience’ of the iPad, as its selling point. The wording suggests that they have perfected this product and states that it will enhance your life. The image of a young child using the item with it illuminating her gives the impression that it will help and enhance her life. When seeing an advert like this or buying the product, people do not think about the actual company and how they manufacture this product, how they have exploited workers over the world. If you were aware of this, would you buy their products?

Bignell, J. (2002). Media Semiotics. 2nd Revised Edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Dyer, G. (1982). Advertising as Communication (Studies in Culture and Communication). New Revised Edition. Routledge.

OCA. Advertising. [Online]. <> [Accessed: 4th July 2016].

OCA. Advertising. [Online]. <> [Accessed: 4th July 2016].

Williamson, J. (2010). Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. ReIssue Edition. Marion Boyars.



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