Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs

In Sophie Howarth’s, Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs (2005, London: Tate Publishing), I read the chapter of an Essay by Liz Jobey of Diane Arbus’, A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing.

Jobey’s initial approach is to draw parallels between Arbus’ work and the work of other artist using different mediums, for instance, Raymond Carvers stories of ordinary people with flawed fates.  Using this idea as a spring board Jobey found her introduction into a comprehensive analysis of an assuming ill fated family.

Using French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s base model for the Deconstruction of a photograph: Essentially, in order to fully comprehend how something has been made, you have to take it apart before you can put it back together; Jobey sets about doing exactly that.

Whilst reading the essay the first thing that strikes me is how accurately Roland Barthes use of semiotics come across from beginning to end although not in the clinical way I approach things.

Jobey begins by questioning the motives of the subjects ‘why did they agree to be photographed?’, ‘Will they fight, separate, divorce, marry other people?’, ‘Will they die an early death?’.  A lot of assumptions have been made purely based on the look of these people, however this is recognised as our natural reaction to judge people based their appearance.  I like how Jobey is questioning the viewers reaction to the photograph taking us out of the realms of what sits within the frame.

Following this is a description of the photograph (signifier) itself ‘the leopard skin coat, the leatherette handbag, the camera case, her wedding ring’ etc.  Different viewers will pick out different things from the photograph and Jobey certainly mentioned things that I didn’t see.  She mentions the boy grabbing his crotch and the mum mimicking this behaviour with the baby.  These parallels are looking deeper into the photograph than a first glance.

Jobey then continues to interpret what she sees in the photograph, a down trodden family with problems who may not even be together for much longer.  A woman who’s past her sell by date and a man who’s gripped with anxiety (Signified).  None of this may be true however, it’s what Jobey interprets the image as signifying.

Jobey goes on to work her way through Roland Barthes theories of semiotics in photography using Denotation, connotation, punctum, stadium and intertexuality describing the elements of the photograph, theorising on what they mean and making assumptions on cultural, political and social standings.  Also drawing on her own experiences to interpret the photograph in the way she has leads me to believe she is of quite a negative mind, assuming that alls not well and the people in the photograph are poor and living difficult lives.  The way we see things is dictated by our own culture and background and by the experiences we have throughout our lives.


Wells, L. (2015) Photography A critical Introduction. London: Routledge.



Deconstruction 2

Having reached the end of my ‘Deconstruction’ studies I can can now break down the elements even further.


The French Philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term ‘Deconstruction’ and beleived language to be polysemous.  He thought that to understand how something is made, you have to take it apart before putting it back together.

In photography language the tools for deconstruction were produced by Roland Barthes, through his study of semiotics.  In this study of signs of language that, Barthes provied us with the terms and tools that can be helpful in interpreting photos.

Using the above advert as a focus point, I have deconstructed it as follows:


Signifiers (whats in the photo)

A baby dressed in pink in a ballerina pose looking towards the sky.

An adult ballerina mimicking the pose.

A baby’s nursery.

A blue teddy bear.

A blue footstool.

Product images with nutrition information.

Signified (what it means)

A healthy start in life provided by Aptamil with aspirations of becoming a ballerina.  The baby is pointing to the milk with her toes suggesting its what she wants.  She is also looking and pointing towards the sky meaning the sky’s the limit with this formula.

Aptamil helps the baby become a professional ballerina who’s healthy, fit and happy.

A milky coloured nursery full of milky dreams.

The blue bear placed next to the cot reiterates this milk is also for boys.  The blue footstool is sending the male message across whilst offering support to a vulnerable new walker.

Its a healthy formula and full of all those important nutrients.

Denotation (objective translation)

A baby of standing age in a ballerina pose with an adult ballerina in the background. Both situated in a baby’s nursery with baby formula shown and text saying ‘Their future starts today’.

Connotation (subjective interpretation)

If the baby drinks this formula she can be healthy and strong enough to fulfil her dreams.

Punctum (disrupting elements)

The UK Law prohibits advertising and promotion of infant formula only (marketed for use from birth). Follow-on formula (marketed for use from 6 months of age) and milks for older babies can be advertised and promoted – BUT this must not cross-promote infant formula through similar branding or by it not being obvious the product is for older babies.

This advert states that breast milk is best for your baby, in contrast some of the products made by Aptimil.

Stadium (cultural, political and social meaning)

This is a baby who lives in a nice home and is cared for.  She has nice furnishings in her room which suggests that the consumers of Aptamil formula are working/middle class families.  The advert also suggests this baby was breast fed up to six months old in line with the governments efforts to promote the benefits of breastfeeding.  The furnishings look quite neutral but predominantly British or of a Western Culture.  We can see beyond this frame and imagine the family of this baby with a professional father and caring mother.

Intertexuality (individual perception)

Memories and experiences of my own upbringing and bringing up my own children will will fill in all the gaps in this advertisement.  I can picture mum and baby going to baby yoga classes and being strapped into the latest car seat of the latest mpv to get them there.  The baby smells of Johnsons baby powder and her clothes all smell of it too.  All these things from my own experiences filling in the gaps of the story even though they’re not present.



I found this advertisement in BBC Good Food magazine and chose it because it’s not a typical ‘good food’ item.  The mere nature of using BBC good food magazine for this product is suggestive of a good quality food product.


This particular product (not the brand) has a caveat of advertising restrictions due to the governments promotion of breastmilk for newborn babies.  Currently in the Uk the guidelines for advertising formula milk are:

The UK Law prohibits advertising and promotion of infant formula only (marketed for use from birth). Follow-on formula (marketed for use from 6 months of age) and milks for older babies can be advertised and promoted – BUT this must not cross-promote infant formula through similar branding or by it not being obvious the product is for older babies.

Despite this law I can see a less obvious sign of promoting formula for newborns within the photograph.

A neutral background was used which is typical of the colour choice of expectant parents who don’t know the gender of their unborn baby.  This is a contradiction to the product on offer ‘follow on’ milk’.  The colour of the room suggests a product in readiness for a newborn baby.  As subtle as this suggestion is, it’s still there.  We can see small print at the bottom of the page in line with the UK Law of ensuring it’s clear that the advertisement is strictly for older babies.  What do you see first?  The neutral suggestive colours or the small print?

When deconstructing the elements of the photograph in greater detail I noted the following:

  • Although the background is neutral, the baby is suggestive of a girl.  This image isn’t very clear but she’s actually wearing pink, the ballerina is pink and also the netting on the cot is pink.  This is consistent with the story and could be in danger of creating a female brand.  To counteract this blue items have been added, and are more prominent so they’re noticed,  and there seems to be a gender balance.
  • The story is about a little baby girl who starts to dance like a ballerina and with the help of ‘Aptamil’ her health and good start in life she will fulfil her dreams.
  • The babies head an hand are pointing to the sky suggesting ‘the sky is the limit’.
  • The adult ballerina is a picture of health (thanks to aptamil), physically fit, very happy, successful.
  • The story is strengthened by making the adult ballerina opaque suggesting she’s not real but a representation of the future meaning the baby has aspirations.
  • In case were not clear on whats making the baby so healthy and lively, her toes are pointing to the product in the advertisement.

Theres a lot going on in that advert but ultimately it’s promoting a good quality product for babies to make them healthy and turn them into fit, happy and successful adults.

Elliott Erwitt – Dogs

Elliott erwit 4Elliott Erwitt, New York, 1974

The first things that me about this composition is the symmetry.  It makes full use of the rule of thirds in both horizontal and vertical.  I can almost picture a measured grid with an important element in each square.  It has a good equal balance and is very pleasing to look at.

Erwitt has chosen to shoot this scene from the viewpoint of the dog with places him (the dog) as the main focus.  From Erwitt’s introduction to his book Dog Dogs, he says that his images are “not pictures of dogs but pictures with dogs in them” and this is evident when we look at what is also included in the frame.  Next to the dogs is two pairs of legs, similar in size and equally spaced apart.  Its takes a while to see that the legs on the left are of another dog and the balance is suddenly even more symmetrical.

Whats interesting with this crop is that we can start to imagine what sits beyond the frame due to the clues given within it.  We can see a pair of dogs front legs but his body and hind legs must be attached even though we can’t see them.  It’s a big dog too, do people see him from their natural eye level and fuss him first before noticing theres a small dog way down there, close to the ground.  The look on the little dogs face is quite telling as he’s looking directly down the camera lens in a quizzical way as if to say, ‘what you are doing down here, this is my world’, adding humour to the narrative.

The way this image is structured makes me think that the story is about how dogs live and how they see things, almost like they live in a different world to humans.  Of course the size of the dog alters their perspective so theres an endless stream of variations.  With a dog so small Erwitt would have had to lie flat on his stomach to gain the perspective of his little world.

What links this little dog to the human world?  His clothing of course.  Dogs have fur to keep them warm however this little dog is wearing a hat and coat.  It’s clever to see that Erwitt has include the bottom part of the ladies coat in the frame too which gives them a connection.  This also gives more of the story away too as it indicates it was cold and we can start to imagine at what time of year this photograph was taken.  Does the big dog also have a hat and coat on?  Thats left to our imagination.

Expression and communication

I’ve been asked to think of any photographs that aren’t used as a means of expression or communication.

I immediately decided that such photographs can’t exist.  I have undertaken a similar exercise previously in the guise of discussing objective photography and even then concluded that this cannot exist.  For a photograph to be taken it requires an action and actions are born from responses to feelings or emotions.

I feel the same about the subject of a photograph without expression or communication.  If we look at non art types of photographs then were we have candid, commercial and radio graphical to name a few however, they all have something to say within them.  Theres a communication between photograph and viewer.  The viewer is gaining information from a photograph no matter what it’s subject matter.  The only photograph I can think of that doesn’t communicate or express anything is a blank one.