Photography professor and media scholar of Sunderland and Queensland Universities, David Campbell has argued, “A narrative is an account of connected events. To think about narrative, however, involves more than reflecting on how a series of events become connected” (Campbell 2010). In other words, Campbell is stating that the idea of narrative is about how experiences flow into one another to form one larger story. To decipher narrative, Campbell is suggesting there are factors at play more significant than the sequence of events and their order.
This statement opens the debate of ‘can photographs narrate’ by inferring how can a single frame, without context, from external sources such as text tell a story? Within art there is a concept known as anchorage and relay. Anchorage and relay is a useful frame with which to understand how photographs narrate via the introduction of text and additional contexts. The concept of anchorage was introduced to the literary world by Roland Barthes and is expanded upon in the Peter Trifonas’ book Barthes and The Empire of Signs. Trifonas quotes Barthes when he describes the concept of anchorage as “the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image … It remote controls him towards meaning chosen in advance” (Trifonas 2001:8). This theory of direction through signified elements is Barthes’ argument that the pre-established meanings within the texts are pushed towards by the creator, sometimes even without the audience recognising this. Relay, then varies as rather than being about the image itself, relay refers to the text-based elements that aid the photograph in this case fulfil its intended purpose, however, could also refer to other visual mediums. Later in Barthes and The Empire of Signs Barthes states “the text and image stand in a complementary relationship; the words in the same way as the images, are fragments of a more general syntagm and the unity of the message is realized at a higher level” (Trifonas 2001:8-9). This statement not only defines relay but also suggests that a relationship is then formed between the anchorage and the relay, leading to the inference that each furthers the other with the goal of an encoded message.
“Self-portrait as a drowning man” (Hippolyte Bayard, 1840)Hippolyte Bayard’s self-portrait as a drowning man demonstrates the concept of anchorage and relay. This image accompanies a lengthy caption that outlined Bayard’s apparent death. By having the text written on the reverse of the image, the developing form of photography gave the audience a level of understanding that they may not have had without this accompanying text. This example explains that anchorage can be an addition to a visual text, and in Barthes’ own words – “The text helps to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself; it is a matter of a denoted description of the image” (Barthes 1964:156).
Alongside this, it can be inferred the fact that if the caption was not included, there would be a lack of narrative within this particular image. With the use of text, there has to be an understanding of what these denotations mean in the context of images. These resulting connotations or the implied meanings, is what is referred to as relay. Summarising C.S. Peirce’s writings on semiotics, every representative image can be broken down into 3 succinct categories; iconic – these are based upon a physical resemblance, indexical – correlates to the object a footprint in the snow for example, and symbol – this is an arbitrary representation of someone or something in question (Indiana University Linguistics Department 2000).
Using each of these forms of semiotic symbolism, interpretations can be made on many elements of narrative from photographs. Whether these are examples of cultural iconography, personality, or emotions. Despite the fact that to a modern audience this theory can be seen as related to photography it must be remembered that at the time that Pierce was writing these definitions, photography wasn’t invented yet or at least was in its very early infancy. So, to apply these to the medium of photography may not be entirely accurate. However, when approached with a level of open-mindedness it is an excellent way of turning photographic elements into a platform for analysis and in this case the understanding of an application of narrative of a visual art form. If the additional context of text or captions is removed, to be able to “read” photographs in an educated way, the literary practice of semiotics can be used.
Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols. Liz Wells described it as, semiotics “At its extremes, it aimed at establishing an empirically verifiable method of analysis of human communication systems. Thus, codes of dress, music, advertising – and other forms of communication – are conceptualised as logical systems” (Wells 2015:36).”Eddie Anderson; 21 years old; Houston, Texas; $20.
from Hollywood (Philip Lorca diCorcia 1990-1992)”Take for example Eddie Anderson; 21 years old; Houston, Texas; $20. from Hollywood (1990-1992) from Philip Lorca diCorcia’s “Hustlers” series. If an audience were just to look at the denotations of the photograph, all they would see is a young male adult looking in through a shop window with food in the foreground.
With semiotics and reading the image more in-depth, it can be seen that the setting of the image is an American diner and that the subject is desperate or hungry. To have drawn this conclusion we look to the use of mise-en-scene that diCorcia has employed. For example, the arrangement of food, the jukebox and the “model” in the centre of the frame, signifying their importance to the encoded message. Wells’ interpretation of semiotics is particularly relevant to photographers. Photography to artists isn’t just a medium for creating “pretty” images; it is a form of presenting an idea, concept or message visually through means of recording light onto a photosensitive surface.
Our cultures and circumstances strongly influence the narratives that are encoded. This can be one of the major points of contention for academics when discussing semiotics as it leads to the debate of whether the signifiers and the signified can actually lead to one single encoded meaning if the differing people interpret various messages from the same image. “Raising the flag on Iwo Jima” (Joe Rosenthal, 1945)Shown above is Joe Rosenthal’s Raising the flag on Iwo Jima, for an American audience at the time the image was a symbol for victory, patriotism and a destruction of an evil.
Yet for the Japanese audience at the time seeing these images caused utter outrage and anger due to the American flag being raised on what prior to that date had been proudly held Japanese soil. Here is where it can be argued that photographic images, visual art forms and many other forms of media don’t convey a singular narrative. Rather, a vague theme that can be interpreted by an audience as a narrative influenced by their cultures, beliefs, and prejudices. Taking each of the elements discussed here, it can be seen that there is a multitude of individual components that determine whether photographs can in fact narrate. Campbell’s approach to the theory of narrative holds true, in that the sequence of events can’t just be looked at, but context, semiotics, anchorage and relay must be taken into account, to understand what is indeed within the frame. In addition to this it must be understood that the intended narrative set out by the artist isn’t always the one that is interpreted by the audience.
This is due to the multitude of differing backgrounds of the people who view it, their political beliefs, biases and attitudes towards art in general. This interpretation of the evidence presented leads to the thought that stories are not a simplistic transfer of a message or idea. But rather, a complex interweaving of many elements that each person or group will respond to uniquely and sometimes unpredictably. ?