What happens when we look at an image?
Do we suddenly just KNOW, through some mysterious, automatic reaction that at a red light, we should stop?
Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. The way we read images, or ‘signs‘ is dependent upon many things, such as cultural factors, upbringing and prior knowledge. Any image is a representation of the thing it depicts. In this way, viewers of the image may interpret it different ways. The study of this is called:
To explain this in more detail, I’m going to dissect this image:
There are two parts to analysing an image:
This is what is actually present in the image, or the ‘signifier’. In this case, there is a woman with closed eyes pressed against an unseen surface. There is red text beside and below the figure.
This is what is evoked in the mind, or what is ‘signified’.
Someone who is unfamiliar with the TV show ‘the goodwife’ may register that this is an advertisement for a television program. The way the woman (some will recognise her as Julianna Marguiles) is positioned, what she is wearing, the light upon her skin, the clear view of cleavage and how her image is grayscale, all combine to give the impression of sexiness, seduction and allure. The text “Don’t let the name fool you” refers to the title “the goodwife” suggesting this woman is married, but is not being a ‘good wife’. The text and image together suggest sexual drama.
I, as “the goodwife’s” greatest fan, associate this image differently. I see Julianna’s character ‘Alicia’ and understand that she is rebelling against her husband who cheated on and humiliated her. I remember the whole background and previous two seasons.
As such, the way I interpret this image and its connotations will be different than to someone who has never watched ‘the goodwife’ and only seen this ad.
This is semiotics, the study of signs, at work.
Bowles, Kate. ‘Representation and Textual Analysis’ in The Media and Communications in Australia, Stuart Cunningham and Graeme Turner (eds), Allen and Unwin: Crows Nest NSW. 2010 pp. 49-63.
Hobbs, Mitchell, ‘Semiotics: Making Meaning from Signs’ in Communication, New Media and Everyday Life, Tony Chalkley et al. Oxford University Press: Oxford, pp. 83-95.