Research point: Contemporary awareness 4

As directed, I have looked at a range of contemporary advertising photographers, and have picked out half a dozen that I felt were noteworthy.

Looking at advertising photographers is interesting in as much as it’s not always clear how much to credit the creativity of the photographer for the end result. Is it more the concept of a genius creative director, adequately executed by an able photographer? Or is the look of the ad as important as the concept? Or did the photographer contribute to the concept as well as the visual execution? One can draw some conclusions if enough of a photographer’s work is available to see – a consistently engaging visual style, regardless of commissioning agency or brand, is a good sign.

A few words on the ones I didn’t write about in detail, and why. Some had little or no advertising work in their online portfolio. Some were straight product photographers more than advertising photographer. Some had some really interesting non-advertising work in their portfolio but quite pedestrian advertising work. Some had unforgivably bad web sites. Some just didn’t stand out in any way so I moved on.

Final observation: compared to the other genres I’ve been looking at on this course, advertising is very male-dominated…

James Day

As well as working on lots of very clever campaigns (re my point on conceptual credit in the intro), Day has a distinctive and pleasing visual style. He errs towards very clean, light, often pastel-hued backgrounds.

James Day

His work is a mix of good quality explicit messages and the cleverer implicit work that I find more interesting. He is good at either creating or interpreting the underpinning ideas that make implicit messages work successfully, such as the ‘packed with extras’ VW Golf sinking into the studio floor.

Andy Green

Green works more outdoors, though there is clearly a significant amount of lighting and post-processing used to get the looks he achieves. Some of his work is a little too artificial-looking for me – the kind of shots where I notice the over-processing before anything else, though maybe the aesthetic is intentional.

He produces some visually interesting, often witty, images – but rather maddeningly his portfolio doesn’t state who his clients are, so it’s difficult to judge the success or relevance of the images to the client’s product or brief!

John Lamb

Lamb produces high quality, stylised imagery. His ‘special effects’ work in particular is interesting.

This is the kind of work that I admire but have no real desire to emulate. The bulk of the work to produce such images will be done on a computer rather than with a camera. These are images that are visually striking but not necessarily conceptually interesting.

Peter Lippmann

Lippmann has an distinctive portfolio in that he very clearly delineates his commercial work from his fine art work, while others seem to blend them a little more. Much of Lippmann’s work is editorial rather than advertising, but theres enough overlap in terms of the visual language and intent, especially in the luxury goods markets that he tends to work in.

His is a rich, opulent style that suits the brands that he mainly works with. Now and again he takes on a more everyday commission like the Mikado chocolate one, and the execution is more light-hearted and reasonably witty.

George Logan

Logan is a photographer with a distinctive style in terms of the content of his images: very outdoorsy, often involving wild animals. He’s applied this approach to a number of disparate brands and concepts. It’s only when you see his body of work together that you see the pattern.

George Logan

He stood out as a great example of someone who specialises in a content type, which could be vey commercially-savvy. If you know you want a wild animal in your campaign, who you gonna call…?

Dan Tobin Smith

I really liked his work, probably most out of all these recommendations. He works in a more formal graphical (sometimes verging on abstract) way than the others. He finds ways of seeing products in interesting ways, using shapes, colours, lines, patterns.

His work appeals to me not just for the pure visual cleverness, but for the way it helps to get across brand messages using semiotics. They are more subtle than the deliberately ‘clever’ implicit ad; they’re more about lending an atmosphere or characteristics to the brand via the visual language, rather than getting across a feature/benefit message.


James Day (accessed 14/09/2016)

Andy Green (accessed 14/09/2016)

John Lamb (accessed 14/09/2016)

Peter Lippmann (accessed 14/09/2016)

George Logan (accessed 14/09/2016)

Dan Tobin Smith (accessed 14/09/2016)


Exercise: Implicit and explicit, pt 2


Part 1 is here.

Use the analysis techniques that you’ve developed during this course to produce your own images for a product of your choice. The images must have a message that this is delivered through interpretation of the image. How will they do this?

  1. Produce an image for a product of your choice that is implicit. Choose a product that has currency and a history that can help feed your ideas and approach to the project.
  2. Produce an image for a different product which is explicit. Choose a product that is quite new and has a very limited history, preferably none. Develop your idea for an explicit message-based campaign.

Do some research into the market for your chosen products and include this in your learning log or blog. Provide evidence of the development of your ideas and the decision-making behind the final images. Produce one image for each product.



Perhaps one of the best-known users of implicit advertising at the moment is Specsavers, with their ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’ campaign. They employ humour to imply that the subject of the ad has poor eyesight.

My attempt:



I went with the Leica Q, a relatively new (2015) camera with no current advertising material. When Leica does advertise, it tends to emphasise its heritage and engineering quality.

My attempt:

Leica Q


Exercise: Implicit and explicit, pt 1


I’ve split this exercise into two parts: the analysis of existing ads, and the creation of my own examples.

Take a look at recent advertising that involves photographic representation of the human body. Choose two ads where the message is explicit and two where it is implicit. Can you find any that are a combination of the two? Analyse these images in your learning log.


Explicit examples

The ‘Beach Body Ready’ campaign caused an understandable stir when it hit the London Underground in 2015. Accused of ‘body shaming’, the ad went for a very straightforward message of implying that women need to look like this to go to the beach.

By comparison, the Harley Medical Group ad is uncontroversial but also unremarkable. The advertiser is aiming to reassure the viewer, though this is mostly done with the text. The photo is there simply to depict a satisfied customer for the viewer to identify with.

Implicit examples

Both of these ads employ sexual imagery, specifically erect body parts, but for quite different reasons.

The Skoda ad is one of those very ‘clever’ ads that car makers are known for, implying a feature of the product without showing the product at all, rather by showing an outcome that stands in for the product. It’s cheeky and subversive, if objectifying. To be overly pedantic though, the imagery contradicts its own internal logic – it implies that one seat in the car can have two temperature zones (which is not the case), or that the cold air from one side of the car can impinge on the other (which diminishes the feature message). Yes, I’m overthinking this, but it becomes a negotiated reading – I look at it and I think “so as a passenger in a Skoda Octavia I’m going to be half-cold?”.

While the Skoda ad chose to use sex to sell an unrelated product, the Lloyds Pharmacy ad is a very unsubtle attempt at overcoming the fact that the ad is about erectile disfunction, something that can not be depicted directly and must be implied by whether or not one has to hold onto one’s hat…


Exercise: What are they selling?


Take a range of advertisements from magazines or billboards and see if you can attach them to any of the above groups. You may find that some of the images you’ve chosen fall into two or more of Packard’s categories.

  • What are they selling?
  • Who are they selling it to?
  • How are they selling it?
  • How does the advert work in semiotic terms? What is denoted? What is connoted? What gestures are used and how does this contribute to meaning?

Write no more than 250 words for each advertisement.


I tend to pick ads from my wife’s magazines for these kind of exercises, as I’m not a big magazine buyer myself. So for this I made an effort to research beyond the usual and I bought a copy of GQ for the first time in many, many years. My goodness, what a load of alpha male nonsense that magazine is! Anyway, a few ads caught my eye for different reasons.


  • What are they selling?
    • Ego gratification: viewer as extreme sports dude
    • Creative outlets: viewer as cameraman
    • Sense of power: viewer as winner
  • Who are they selling it to?
    • Men up to and including middle-aged (mid-life crisis)
    • Competitive ‘extreme sports’ fans (whether they participate in such sports or not)
  • How are they selling it?
    • Identification/mis-recognition: ‘viewer creates themselves in the ad’ (per Williamson 1978)
    • Placing viewer in position of powerful, masculine, winning sports hero
  • How does the advert work in semiotic terms? What is denoted? What is connoted? What gestures are used and how does this contribute to meaning?
    • Angle = edgy
    • Vantage point = I am leader, they are followers
    • Crowd = I am popular
    • Shadow bottom right = viewer as rider
    • Studium: the sense of excitement and danger
    • My punctum: the shadow that places the photographer into the shot

The graphical use of typography is interesting: the slogan ‘Capture Different‘ (which is ungrammatical and most likely a clumsy ripoff of Apple’s old ‘Think Different‘ line) is contrived to be ‘behind’ the foreground tyre, which slightly overlaps it. This has the visual effect of delineating the foreground rider (/viewer) from the background subject – further emphasising the ‘winner / hero’ impression. It also serves to identify the foreground character as a ‘creator’ and the background riders as their ‘subjects’.

The vantage point, added to the visual delineation described above, allows the viewer to effectively see themselves in two positions at once in this ad: this is both a photo of the second rider (who the viewer can identify with) and a photo of the first rider filming the second (who the viewer can now imagine as themselves, resembling the second rider but – crucially – being in front of them).

Hive Home Automation

Hive Home Automation
  • What are they selling?
    • Emotional security: look after the home even when you’re not there
    • Reassurance of worth: luxury item / early adopter
    • Immortality (metaphorically): look after the home even when you’re not there
  • Who are they selling it to?
    • Male homeowners
    • Gadget geeks / early adopters
  • How are they selling it?
    • Identification/mis-recognition: ‘viewer creates themselves in the ad’ (per Williamson 1978)
    • Idealised, minimalist – almost-blank canvas to allow viewer to project themselves onto the ad
  • How does the advert work in semiotic terms? What is denoted? What is connoted? What gestures are used and how does this contribute to meaning?
    • White elements = purity, goodness
    • Orange elements = positivity, extroversion, energy, taste
    • Hair straighteners = homeowner has a partner
    • Guitar = homeowner is creative / artistic / cool
    • Shoes = viewer, put yourself in my shoes
    • Studium: how much of your house you can control with Hive
    • My punctum: the cat climbing the curtain (probably the intended punctum)

The overall visual style is a little 2001: A Space Odyssey I think, quite retro-futuristic. This harks back to old 50s/60s depictions of ‘the home of the future’ so I think they may have been aiming to evoke this particular trope.

It also references the automation that 2001 introduced into popular culture with HAL the ship’s computer; the irony however is that HAL turned on its humans (“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.“), so it may turn out to be an unfortunate allusion. I think I’ve found an example of a negotiated reading!

Dolce & Gabbana

Dolce & Gabbana
  • What are they selling?
    • Reassurance of worth: via tribalism
    • Ego gratification: via a sense of superiority
    • A sense of power: via a sense of superiority
  • Who are they selling it to?
    • Young, affluent, fashion-conscious males
  • How are they selling it?
    • Totemism / social differentiation: ‘viewer takes meaning from the ad’
    • Interpellation: ‘viewer is created by the ad’ (use of ‘U’ on shirt, signifying ‘you’)
  • How does the advert work in semiotic terms? What is denoted? What is connoted? What gestures are used and how does this contribute to meaning?
    • Street photography style = ‘keeping it real’
    • Gang youths = the in-crowd
    • Man at back looking on admiringly = reinforcing how ‘cool’ these lads are
    • Nun = authority figure
    • Nun’s white wimple = goodness, purity
    • Youths’ black clothes = bad boys
    • Bowing youth = pretending to respect her (it’s a very mocking gesture)
    • Height of youth to far left = emphasising superiority over nun
    • Shopping bag from ‘trendy’ store = nun is trying to be fashionable
    • Old photo next to nun’s head = she’s comparing these youths to real gentlemen
    • Studium: a bunch of pretentious dicks mocking a nun
    • My punctum: the man at the back, most ridiculously dressed of them all

Unusually for a fashion advert, this uses a street photography (or maybe snapshot) aesthetic: blown highlights, cropped body parts, uneven focus. It is however clearly staged. Not unusually at all for a fashion advert, the main figure is very skinny – emphasised by the pole next to his identically-proportioned legs.

Of all the ads I looked at, I found this the most distasteful. It’s very sneery and superior, and borderline menacing. It says ‘be in the in crowd, take the piss out of old people’. The way they are surrounding her is vaguely threatening. The way the man at the back looks on, smirking, making him complicit.

So for me this becomes an example of oppositional reading – to me it comes across as if it were designed for me to think badly of the brand. If I had ever been inclined to buy Dolce & Gabbana, this ad would put me off.

Philipp Plein

Philipp Plein
  • What are they selling?
    • Ego gratification: appealing to aggressive masculinity
    • A sense of power: via weapon imagery
  • Who are they selling it to?
    • Young, affluent, fashion-conscious males with low self-esteem
  • How are they selling it?
    • Identification/mis-recognition: ‘viewer creates themselves in the ad’
  • How does the advert work in semiotic terms? What is denoted? What is connoted? What gestures are used and how does this contribute to meaning?
    • Tattoos = hard man
    • Smoking = hard man
    • Gun = gangster
    • Smoke, juxtaposed wth gun = he’s just shot someone
    • Halo = good guy (contradicts rest of imagery)
    • Shooting being acted out behind him = a memory of a real shooting
    • Women acting out shooting = male fantasy
    • Studium: alpha male oozing power
    • My punctum: the halo, only because it’s so laughably incongruous

This is the most hilariously over-the-top ad I found, to the point where I wondered if it’s deliberately parodic (it’s so hard to tell sometimes). It comes across like they got a randy undergraduate to direct the campaign.

The signifiers of ‘bad boy’ are highly stereotypical – young black male, tattoos, smoking, gun. The juxtaposition of the smoke and the gun in particular seem to signify that he has just shot someone, and the scene being played out behind him implies that this is what he is thinking about. Given that the advertiser couldn’t show this in a realist setting, the stylised, sci-fi setting and retro ‘laser guns’ are clearly standing in for the real thing.

The halo is what made me laugh – it’s almost as though they got as far as the finished ad and thought ‘Hang on, we haven’t made this guy look too sympathetic, have we? What can we do to say that he is really a good bloke?‘.

So the whole thing is saying: ‘Wear Philipp Plein and you too will be a gangster! A nice one though‘. Hilarious.



  • What are they selling?
    • Tricky one, this! Emotional security? Reassurance of worth?
  • Who are they selling it to?
    • Fashion-conscious, affluent outdoorsy types, male and female
  • How are they selling it?
    • Identification/mis-recognition: ‘viewer creates themselves in the ad’ (per Williamson 1978)
    • Via surreal, evocative imagery
  • How does the advert work in semiotic terms? What is denoted? What is connoted? What gestures are used and how does this contribute to meaning?
    • [Left hand ad first]
    • Red = danger
    • Blanket = Moncler clothing (= warm, protective)
    • Snow = outdoors
    • Cage = protection
    • Tree in torso cage = ‘I have tamed nature’ (or ‘I am at one with nature’?)
    • [Right hand ad]
    • Tree = umbrella (= protection)
    • Dress = Moncler clothing (= warm, protective)
    • Rock = alone in vast wilderness
    • Pale skin = coldness
    • Studium: Nordic fairytale
    • My punctum: the face I can see in the left hand pic

This double page ad really jumped out at me. Compared to the rest of the ads in the magazine, it’s so surreal and ambiguous. No copy, just the logo and URL. It intrigued me. I searched online and discovered that the campaign was photographed by Annie Leibowitz.

The combination of the snowy landscape and the surrealism evokes an overall feeling something like a Nordic fairytale. The left hand image in particular is striking: the red blanket partly resembles a hood, making the body resemble a face. Once you start seeing it like this, the snow separated by the cage bars starts to resemble gritted teeth. It reminded me a lot of Charles Fréger’s project Wilder Mann (2011).

This was the hardest to analyse using the Packard categories and the Williamson list of techniques. Maybe the world of advertising has become more sophisticated in the last few decades, and the list of ‘selling’ approaches can be expanded to include more ambiguous, conceptual executions.


Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.

Packard, V. (1981) The Hidden Persuaders. London: Pelican

Williamson, J. (1983) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (4th ed). London: Marion Boyars.

Exercise: Making the message clear


Imagine that you’ve been asked to create a public awareness campaign about the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy and that you’ll be basing your campaign around this image. You want the image to do as much of the work as possible.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 15.41.30

Look carefully at the image. Identify the signifier, the signified and the sign. What is the punctum? What is the studium?

Does this image do the job? How might you modify it to put the health message across more effectively? Try to give your answer in semiotic terms.


If I was asked to base a campaign around this image, the first thing I’d do is challenge that and ask for a reshoot.

If the intention is for “the image to do as much of the work as possible” then it is difficult with this image as the message is (in my opinion) very vague and weak. The only way I can conceivably see this working successfully is with some anchoring text.

At first I thought I was missing something. Was there a pattern on the dress that signified something? In the end I came to the conclusion that the only real signifier was the hand on the bump – as though this is supposed to signify concern about the unborn baby. But how does that work, if she has a glass of wine in her other hand? Are we supposed to infer that she’s just been told that drinking in pregnancy is bad for you? This might have made more sense if there was someone else in shot. And there’s no discernible facial expression to signify a thought process or emotion. She is clearly nearing the end of her pregnancy – are expected to believe that she’s just found out that drinking is bad for pregnancy? The whole thing just doesn’t ring true.

The studium is simply ‘pregnant woman drinking’. There is no punctum for me. Maybe other people think that the hand on the stomach is the punctum.

So no, I don’t think it does the job as it stands.

The more interesting part of the brief is therefore the closing question: How might you modify it to put the health message across more effectively?

If I had to work with this image

I’d fire up Photoshop and create a composite image. Maybe something like an illustrated overlay on the bump to depict the baby holding up a glass of wine? In semiotic terms this signifier (albeit fictional) would produce the signified of the connection between the mother’s drinking and the effect on the child’s health.

If I could reshoot

(and was working with a purely photographic image) I would carefully set up the shot to incorporate signifiers – what kind of signifiers would depend on the objectives, audience and tone of the campaign. (On the question of the audience, one might think this is obvious: pregnant women – but this is not necessarily the case, as a campaign could equally be targeted at those around pregnant women. One could target the campaign at friends, partners, parents of pregnant women – making it about influencing the influencers, if that makes sense).

Anyway, some suggestions:

  • If the tone is one of ‘alerting to the dangers’, use symbols of danger, risk, ill-health – for example the dress could be red (a classic signifier for danger), or the pattern on the dress could be symbolically significant (something harmful like barbed wire, maybe)
  • If the tone is more judgemental, vilifying pregnant drinkers as ‘bad people’ then imagery signifying ‘bad’ could be employed, such as background props (cigarette in ashtray, junk food, messy room), clothing (a black hat?) or body adornments (tattoos, piercings, hair fashioned into devil’s horns…)

By the way, before I get any grief for the stereotypes in my second example above, please note that they don’t reflect my own views but are indicative of some elements of advertising imagery over the years!

An odd exercise, this. I’ve come away from it thinking that whoever set the exercise knew that the image was less than successful and wanted us to improve it. Either that or I’m being very harsh (sorry).

Research: the Grammar of the Ad

The course notes ask us to read and comment on ‘The Grammar of the Ad’ by Anandi Ramamurthy in Wells (2009: 221–236), in particular its analysis of the transfer/attachment of meaning and the commodification of the body.

After giving us an example semiotic analysis of a telecoms ad, the essay gets more interesting when it discusses the ‘transfer of meaning’. I was reminded of a similar explanation and several examples in Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements (1983: 20-39) that helped to illustrate how advertisers perform this ‘correlation’, such as colours, shapes, gestures and even simple juxtaposition – just placing a perfume bottle alongside a celebrity will suggest that the perfume shares characteristics with the person, although the arbitrary nature of the connection is apparent under any remotely questioning analysis.

‘Transfer’ is an interesting and highly appropriate word, as there is a movement of ‘meaning’ from encoder to decoder, and sometimes the intended meaning can get lost in translation.

Ramamurthy’s essay quotes from Stuart Hall’s ‘Encoding/Decoding’ essay of 1993, which posits three potential readings of an image (Hall 1993):

  • Dominant (or preferred, or hegemonic): read as intended and ‘encoded’ by the creator
  • Negotiated: read partly as intended but with some slippage/contradictions, often down to cultural context and norms
  • Oppositional: in total conflict with the intended meaning

As Hall puts it in his original essay (my emphasis):

“It was argued earlier that since there is no necessary correspondence between encoding and decoding, the former can attempt to ‘prefer’ but cannot prescribe or guarantee the latter, which has its own conditions of existence. Unless they are wildly aberrant, encoding will have the effect of constructing some of the limits and parameters within which decodings will operate. If there were no limits, audiences could simply read whatever they liked into any message.” (Hall 1993)

What I took from this is that the tricky task of the advertiser is to make the correlation between the elements of the advertisement sufficiently clear, without being too overt. The ‘rails’ on which the message needs to run must be consensually understood by the audience.

Examples of negotiated and oppositional readings often occur when an advertiser misjudges the prevailing norms and inadvertently offends a portion of the audience – which sometimes happens when global campaigns are insufficiently localised, but also can happen simply due to the cultural ‘blindness’ on the part of the ad producers. Who, with an ounce of diversity awareness, could have approved the UNICEF ‘blackface’ and the Nivea ‘afro’ executions below?

In other instances, events overtake the production of the ad and new connotations arise that are contrary to the original intention, such as the Dior ‘Sauvage’ ad above produced before but viewed after Johnny Depp was accused of domestic abuse.

Ramamurthy notes that commodity culture imagery exacerbates the voyeuristic gaze by objectifying women, including a highly interesting analysis of the trend in advertising over the decades to objectify parts of the female body, in a way that further depersonalises the subject.

In these ads, women aren’t ‘people’ but collections of bottoms, legs and breasts.

Linking the concepts of body fragmentation and meaning transfer gives us some great examples of where the cultural norms of the (predominantly male) image producer are completely misaligned to a significant portion of the viewing population. The ad producers may argue that the legitimately offended female viewers are ‘not the target market’ but that stance is disingenuous in an environment where ads are viewable by a wide demographic.

Body fragmentation has quite rightly led to something of an oppositional backlash, as collected in the graffiti photographs of Jill Posener in Spray it Loud (1982).

Born Kicking, 1982 by Jill Posener

To summarise: what reading this chapter has brought home to me is the polysemic nature of advertising imagery, and the accompanying care that advertisers must take to ensure that the message they have encoded is appropriately decoded by the recipients. It has shone a light on the underlying cognitive processes that lead to what the digital age calls ‘advertising fails’.


Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

Williamson, J. (1983) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (4th ed). London: Marion Boyars.

Hall, S (1993) ‘Encoding/Decoding’ in The Cultural Studies Reader (ed: During, S). London: Routledge

Exercise: the strapline


Your brief to is to illustrate photographically three different advertising strap lines of your choice. The images are for use as a double-page spread magazine advertisement and also in a bus shelter campaign. You can use existing slogans but, if you do, you should avoid replicating the imagery that currently accompanies them – do something quite different. Alternatively, you could make up your own slogans – or ask someone to make some up for you. Or use a combination of the two. The important thing is to get the imagery and the text to work with each other.


For reasons too dull to go into here, I’m stuck indoors at the moment and so unless I wanted to postpone this exercise I had the choice of either shooting new pictures indoors, or using archive shots. I chose the latter.

Red Bull

  • Signifier: extreme sports
  • Signified: energy
  • Studium: general scene of diving board and young people
  • (my) Punctum: how far away the jumping figure is (Photoshopped BTW)


  • Signifier: continental cafe scene
  • Signified: simple, relaxed lifestyle
  • Studium: customers enjoying their coffee in a relaxed ambience
  • (my) Punctum: the far away look in his eyes


  • Signifier: lone, static man in busy scene
  • Signified: the moment a journey starts
  • Studium: the bag stands out clearly as the subject of the ad
  • (my) Punctum: slight rightward tilt of his head (looking where he’s moving towards)

Research: semiotics

This is a quick post – little more than a link and a brief mention of a book really – but I wanted to demonstrate to tutor/assessors that I haven’t completely overlooked the Semiotics section of the course notes!


Last year on Context & Narrative I spent quite a lot of time getting to grips with semiotics, followed by some further investigation into structuralism and poststructuralism – detailed in this post. Rather than repeat or summarise here I thought it best to refer back to this analysis.


The best book I have found that explains semiotics in a straightforward way is Sean Hall’s This Means This, This Means That (2012). Every concept is given a visual example and clear explanation.

My current reading (Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements and Packard’s Hidden Persuaders) is helping me to apply these concepts to advertising in particular.

That’s all I intend to write up specifically around semiotics in this section, although it will no doubt be relevant throughout the rest of this part of the course. I just wanted to document that I have a reasonable understanding of the subject!


Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.

Reflection: studium and punctum

I don’t like criticising the course notes but sometimes I just can’t help myself…

The section on semiotics opens with an explanation of Barthes’ studium and punctum.

After defining the two terms pretty well, the course notes then go on to give some examples such as the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile, the handshake in a medical ad, the gap-toothed smile in a Benetton ad.

Here’s my problem: the punctum is by definition personal to the viewer.

There is no objective punctum. There is no deliberately placed photographer’s punctum. There is only my punctum, your punctum, his punctum, her punctum (or no punctum)

Barthes is clear on what he is describing: “A photograph’s punctum is that which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” (Barthes 1993: 27).

Barthes goes to explain further that the punctum cannot be intentionally planned by the photographer:

“Hence the detail which interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; it occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful; it does not necessarily attest to the photographer’s art; it says only that the photographer was there, or else, still more simply, that he could not not photograph the partial object at the same time as the total object.” (ibid: 47)

So in the examples given above, my punctum might not be the smile, the handshake and the smile; it might be the winding road over the right shoulder, the skewed angle of the shelves in the medical ad, the depth of the shadows in the Benetton ad.

The course notes compound my frustration on this subject by linking to a YouTube video intended to explain the concepts of studium and punctum with examples – including a photograph of an overturned car where the maker of the video says that their punctum is the overturned car. That seems a lot more like a studium to me…

I’m very clear in my understanding that the punctum is a subjective concept in the reading of photographs. In Barthes’ world view, readers are authors too…

So when the notes talk of identifying the punctum, it would make more sense if they referred to the potential punctum, or the photographer’s intended punctum (Barthes’ view on this matter notwithstanding, I do think some photographers try to engineer a punctum in some of their images).

/ rant over


Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Classics.

Exercise: Get your work seen


In this exercise, you’re required to submit 10 images to Alamy and have them passed by the company’s quality control so that they appear on its website. It’s up to you to select a category for your series of images but you’ll need to shoot approximately 50 images for your chosen category, with a view to submitting the best 10. Ensure that there are no flaws in your image.

Before you shoot:

  • Check out Alamy’s terms and conditions and the standard image file sizes
  • Search the Alamy site to investigate the current stock in respect of your defined theme or area of interest and think about how your proposed imagery can have an ‘edge’ over it. Alamy is a high image quality agency so you’ll need to take this into account when you shoot imagery for submission to them

Document all your research in your learning log or blog along with reflections on your choice of imagery and its placement within Alamy’s stock.

Finally, imagine that an advertising agency is looking for suitable images for an ad campaign. What might your images be used to advertise? What would you add to the images to make them an effective tool for advertising the products you’ve suggested?


This exercise fell when I was about to spend a week and a half in the south of France (Nice and Arles) so I decided to pursue ‘Travel’ as the category, and for the most part use Mediterranean town scenes as the content – shutters, warm colours, narrow streets etc.

The Alamy site has an excellent and informative quality control (QC) document that explains common failure reasons. According to the site, they do not judge the aesthetic quality or saleability of images but are solely focused on the technical quality of the images submitted. While some of these failure reasons were obvious (blemishes, blur, colour casts, noise etc) a couple were noteworthy, such as suggesting no sharpening (let the customer do that) and specifying black point and white point should be 0 and 255 respectively (with only a 5% tolerance).

The Alamy process specifies that the first upload should only contain four images, which will all be QC checked before allowing further uploads. Subsequent uploads are subject to only spot-checking.

The four images I chose for the initial upload:

These passed QC first time, so I uploaded the remaining six which also passed:

Potential uses

The fairly obvious uses of these images would be in the travel industry. Whether they are suitable as main images for ‘pure’ advertising, I’m not sure, but they could serve as secondary images in an ad, or to illustrate an advertorial, promotion, online feature etc.

At least three of them (Three Wheeler, Negresco and Blue Chairs) have enough blank space to overlay text onto if needed.

What I’ve learned

Whether I do any more stock photography or not, this has been an enlightening exercise for a few practical reasons:

  • Technical quality criteria are more wide-ranging and more precise in their requirements than I’d expected
  • I understand image licensing better now, e.g. the difference between royalty-free and rights managed, the need for model and property releases for commercial uses etc
  • It’s made me think much more about why someone might want use a particular image _ what message they want to communicate and what visual language they might be looking for to do so – so in effect it’s introduced an extra layer into my thinking about visual language: the client!


Alamy QC Failure Reasons (accessed 13/09/2016)