Category Archives: 07. Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface

While browsing the Photography link on the OCA website, I came across an entry by Sharon Boothroyd, titled ‘Beneath the Surface’. In the article Sharon stresses the value of a photographer being able to decode images, as the meanings the images contain are fundamental to how successfully the photographers intentions are conveyed or received.

To demonstrate how the process of ‘reading a photograph’ could unfold, she introduces Insomnia, 1994 by Jeff Wall.  

Before deciphering the image, Sharon uses the terms ‘denotations’ and ‘connotations’ to describe the two different levels of reading a photograph. I had previously been introduced to these terms when reading Clarke (1997). Clarke notes that Roland Barthes suggested that ‘denotative’ is the literal meaning of elements within a photograph while a second level of meaning can be reached, ‘connotative’, by considering the series of visual languages or codes which are themselves the reflection of a wider, underlying process of signification within the culture. I could understand the denotative level of reading but was having difficulty is imagining what the process of decoding an image at a connotative level may look like.

However, as I read on, Sharon explained this simply and clearly as she gave her interpretation of Insomnia. Of how on a denotative level the setting for the image is a kitchen, complete with stove, cupboards and a fridge while looked at closer the connotations of the kitchens are stark, cold and uneasy.

I also found it helpful to read her personal reading of the image, how it sparked memories of periods of insomnia and questions it raised for her about why the man may be unable to sleep.

I shared Insomnia with a friend and asked for their interpretation on what they saw. They, too, noted how cold and harsh the scene looks and commented on a general feeling of disarray with the cupboards ajar and chair to one side. Perhaps the disarray is a reflection of the man’s state of mind?

Reading this article and studying this image has made the photographic theory on decoding an image clearer and I feel better equipped to write in my learning log about the photographs I view.

I enjoyed ‘reading’ Jeff Wall’s Insomnia (with Sharon’s guidance) and intend to research his work further.

Clarke, G (1997) The Photograph New York: Oxford University Press