Another Blog Post in Which Sonja Contemplates the Theory of Portraiture in Photography

Have I shocked you with my long post title? I am in historical mood today, for various reasons, some of which I cannot disclose here yet, some too embarrassing. I will admit, however, that I have been reading too much fanfiction recently, and that is seriously impeding my communication skills – at least when it comes to 21st century communication. What better way to overcome that but to attempt a little Barthesian picture analysis?
There, there, have you recovered from the shock? I know, I did not expect it myself – given that I am not a fan of post-structuralist narrative exploration in the vein of Foucault and Derrida. Somehow, however, my brain seems to crave a bit of intellectual stimulation. You would think that I have had enough of that after nearly three years of college. But no, it actually could have been a bit more academic for my taste, I have to say, and that is why I am volunteering today to death-defyingly plunge myself into a semiotic analysis of a photographic portrait. (Also, I want to stimulate the old grey matter a little bit, so there…) I will have to cut my post into two halves, however, because I have too much to say, as usual. So let’s get the theory out of the way.
The images that we are confronted with on a daily basis, are everything but coincidental – they are carefully composed. That is particularly blatant when it comes to advertising images – which try to appeal to the viewers’/buyers’ basest instincts in order to sell a product.  Portraits are also carefully composed – the location, lighting, props and composition of portraits are used by the photographer to convey elements of the sitter’s person(ality). At first sight they may not come across as a commercial product, but in the case of celebrity imagery an element of advertising can not be denied: Celebrities depend on their name being well known. They are, after all, selling their image and thus a celebrity portrait becomes and ad for their product, be it acting, music or any other “talent” they possess. A semiotic analysis of an image – as dry and boring as it sounds – is actually a great eyeopener. When you look at all the picture elements closely, you will be shocked to realise how much we get manipulated visually by the images that are fed to us – and thus “sold” the person/product in the image.
I must prefix this with a short explanation of the Barthesian idea of myth – as this has a lot to do how we view and interpret an image. Barthes separates his analysis of (advertising) images into two distinct (interpretative) levels of meaning. The denotative level of meaning is the actual meaning of a sign. Example: The presence of a painting as an accessory in an image denotes “piece of art”. However, on a second level, the piece of art has also connotative meaning: Artwork in our culture is usually interpreted as a sign of cultured-ness, education, intellectualism as well as a visual expression of wealth and (good) taste. When you look at the connotation of the example, you find that there is a ideological quality to this. Barthes called this the myth – a culturally pre-defined set of ideas, rules and conventions. And as such they represent and support the ideology of the ruling class.

Phew, still with me? If you have read this far, I will reward you with a glimpse of the picture that I am discussing so you can get acquainted with the object of my desire interest. We’ll plunge into him in the next posting… Cliffhanger…

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