Glossary & Words of Wisdom

Connotation. Connotation refers to the additional meanings or interpretations viewers attribute to an image beyond its literal depiction. Various factors can influence this, including:

  • cultural background,
  • personal experiences
  • socio-political context.

Connotation in photography aids visual literacy, helping viewers interpret images based on their understanding of visual cues, symbols, and conventions,  allowing viewers to engage critically with its underlying messages, themes, and cultural implications, enriching their interpretation and appreciation of the photograph.

Deconstruction Deconstruction is a form of criticism first used by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1970s which asserts that there is not one single intrinsic meaning to be found in a work, but rather many, and often these can be conflicting (Tate:https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/d/deconstruction accessed 12/05/2024)
Denotation Denotation refers to an image’s literal or primary meaning, without considering any additional interpretations or associations. In other words, it is a book, a shelf, a table…it’s concerned with what is explicitly depicted in the photograph, without taking into account any symbolic or subjective meanings that viewers may attribute to it. It is upon this that connotations and interpretations are built.
Genre The term “genre” refers to a category or classification based on shared characteristics, themes, styles, or conventions. Genres provide a framework for understanding and categorizing creative works, meeting viewers’ expectations based on convention and allowing them to navigate and explore different types of artistic expressions more effectively.
Phenomenology Phenomenology in photography offers a framework for exploring the rich and multifaceted ways in which viewers perceive, interpret, and engage with photographic images, highlighting the subjective and embodied nature of visual experience.
Photography codes Photography “codes” refer to the visual elements, conventions, and symbols used to convey meaning and communicate messages within an image. These include :

  • Composition,
  • Lighting
  • Color
  • Perspective
  • Focus
  • Symbolism

Collectively, they shape the visual language of photography. Understanding photography codes allows viewers to analyze and interpret images more effectively, recognizing the deliberate choices made by photographers to communicate ideas, evoke emotions, and convey narratives through their work. 

Portrait In photography, a portrait is a representation of a person or group of people. Portraits aim to capture the likeness, personality, and character of the subject(s), often focusing on their facial expressions, gestures, and emotions. Portraits vary widely in style, from formal studio portraits to candid snapshots, environmental portraits, and conceptual portraits. The primary goal of a portrait is to convey a sense of the subject’s identity, mood, and individuality, allowing viewers to connect with them on a personal or emotional level. some photographers push the conventional boundaries using a mix of mediums and sometimes leave the person out of the image entirely.
Poststructuralism Post-structuralism in photography refers to a theoretical approach that challenges the structuralist perspective by emphasizing the instability, ambiguity, and plurality of meaning within photographic images. Building upon structuralist theories of semiotics and cultural analysis, post-structuralism posits that meaning is not fixed or determinate but is instead contingent upon the context of interpretation and the subjective perspectives of viewers.

Key concepts within post-structuralism in photography include:

  1. Deconstruction: Post-structuralism advocates for the deconstruction of binary oppositions and hierarchical structures within photographs. It questions the notion of fixed meaning and instead emphasizes the multiplicity of interpretations that can arise from the same image.
  2. Intertextuality: Post-structuralism explores the intertextual nature of photographs, considering how images are influenced by and reference other images, texts, and cultural contexts. It highlights the fluidity of meaning and the ways in which photographs engage in dialogue with broader cultural discourses.
  3. Multiplicity of Voices: Post-structuralism acknowledges the diversity of perspectives and voices that contribute to the interpretation of photographs. It emphasizes the importance of considering multiple viewpoints and experiences in understanding the complexity of photographic meaning.
  4. Power and Representation: Post-structuralism interrogates the power dynamics inherent in photographic representation, considering how images can both reinforce and subvert dominant ideologies and structures of power. It calls attention to the ways in which photography can be used to challenge hegemonic narratives and amplify marginalized voices.
  5. Identity and Subjectivity: Post-structuralism considers how identity and subjectivity shape the interpretation of photographs. It recognizes that individual viewers bring their own personal experiences, biases, and cultural backgrounds to their engagement with images, influencing the meanings they attribute to them.

By adopting a post-structuralist perspective, practitioners of photography can explore the complexity and contingency of meaning within images, opening up new possibilities for interpretation and understanding. 

Reality and realism.  

Rhetoric in photography involves strategically using visual elements and techniques to persuade, inform, or provoke viewers, shaping their understanding and interpretation of the image. helping them create images that effectively communicate their intended messages and resonate with their audience.

Semiotics Semiotics refers to the study of signs, symbols, and their meanings within the context of visual imagery. Semiotics examines how photographs communicate messages, convey ideas, and evoke responses through the use of visual elements such as composition, lighting, colour, and subject matter. Key elements include the signifier (the visual elements within the photograph) and the signified (the meaning or concept conveyed by those elements), as well as the cultural, social, and historical contexts that shape interpretation.
Structuralism By applying structuralist principles to the analysis of photographs, scholars and critics (or anyone with a lot of time on their hands- its mind-numbing boring…) can gain insights into how images are constructed, interpreted, and imbued with meaning.

Structuralism refers to a theoretical approach that examines how photographs are structured and organized to convey meaning. Drawing from the fields of structuralism in semiotics and cultural theory, structuralism in photography focuses on analyzing the underlying systems, codes, and conventions that govern the production and interpretation of photographic images.

Key concepts within structuralism in photography include:

  1. Signs and Signifiers: Structuralism explores how signs (visual elements within the photograph) and signifiers (the physical form of those signs) are structured and organized to convey meaning. 
  2. Binary Oppositions: Structuralism often analyzes photographs in terms of binary oppositions, such as light/dark, presence/absence, or inside/outside. 
  3. Narrative Structures: Structuralism examines the narrative structures present within photographs, including how images are sequenced, framed, and presented to convey a particular story or message. 
  4. Cultural and Ideological Codes: Structuralism explores the cultural and ideological codes embedded within photographs, including how images reflect and reinforce broader cultural norms, values, and beliefs. 
Tableau Tableau is used to describe a painting or photograph in which characters are arranged for picturesque or dramatic effect and appear absorbed and completely unaware of the existence of the viewer (Tate:https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/t/tableau accessed 12/05/2024)
August Sander

“Photography is by nature a documentary art.”

 David Bate

…in the same way that a [film] poster creates an expectation for the film, so a genre in photography – portraiture, landscape, still life, documentary etc. – creates an expectation for the meanings to be derived from that type of photograph. Each genre creates an expectation for particular types of understanding. Whether the photograph gratifies that expectation is another matter. ( Photography: The Key Concepts )

Diane Arbus

“For me, the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture.” 

 Henri Cartier-Bresson

In a portrait, I’m looking for the silence in somebody

Philip-Lorca diCorcia

A person’s interiority is very different to their exterior appearance, and to some degree, life is a performance.


Oscar Wilde

“every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.”

Ricard Avadon

A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he is being photographed.”

Wim Wenders


‘…photography is more alive than ever, and at the same time its more dead than ever…