Photography: Social Practices and Understandings through the Ages

Layan Jawdat

In “The Rhetoric of the Image,” Roland Barthes dissects the various levels of meaning and signification attached to an image. He focuses his analysis on photography, and more specifically on advertisements. This is because of the intentionality associate with the creation and use of photographs: “the signifieds of advertising messages are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible…the advertising image is frank, or at least emphatic” (Barthes 152-153). Barthes analysis of an advertising photograph calls to mind questions about the way in which we understand systems of meaning around all photographs. He explains the uniqueness of viewing photographs because of the new “space-time category” they create. The photograph is wedged between the “spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then” (Barthes 159). Understanding this duality is key to understanding the various ways in which photographs have been used, created, and interpreted over time.

Pierre Bourdieu, in discussing the social definition of photography, explains that photographs, through their social use, “can be seen as the precise and objective reproduction of reality”(Bourdieu 77). In view of this popular understanding of photography, Cindy Sherman’s works are a particularly interesting postmodern questioning of this norm. Her works are self-portraits in which she is dressed and posing as someone else (in different settings): “the images reproduce what is already a reproduction–that is, the various stock personae that are generated by Hollywood scenarios, TV soap operas, Harlequin Romances, and slick advertising”(Krauss 59). Sherman’s self-reflexive works are a comment on photography and the way in which it is used and understood on a societal level. The fact that Sherman’s photographs are staged, posed, and planned so deliberately makes us as viewers question the principle that photography is a reproduction of reality. Her series of photos of herself as a reclining figure in what is known as the “The Centerfolds” are an example of this. The three photographs here, all distinctly different from one another in terms of costume, hair, pose and setting, show Sherman mimicking and embodying a certain type of modeling and type of photographs of women found in erotic magazines (MOMA). While the photographs do capture Sherman in certain clothes and in certain poses at a specific moment (the here-now and there-then), they do not necessarily reflect truth or accuracy or “authenticity”: they are contrived, just like the Hollywood scenarios and other “types” she is imitating.

sherman3 sherman2 Cindy Sherman's "Centerfolds," 1981





Moving back in time, the work of the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), also pushed the way in which people made and understood photographs.  First, his photographs and his publication Camera Work pushed the boundaries of what constituted photography and created an understanding of photography as an art form, rather than simply a mechanical process of representation (Irvine). Stieglitz’s photos combined capturing some reality with an aesthetic sense guided by painting and drawing principles (Irvine). His photographs can also be understood in the context of modernism, as commenting on the fragmented nature of identity and in highlighting various subjectivities.  According to Lisa Hostetler of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his series of photos of Georgia O’Keeffe and his series of clouds (Equivalents) are examples of this; they exemplified the “realization that truth in the modern world is relative and that photographs are as much an expression of the photographer’s feelings for the subject as they are a reflection of the subject depicted (Hostetler). The two examples of portrait photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe, below, are a reflection of this understanding of subjectivity and of the fact that her identity could not be captured by one photograph or representation. Each photo frames her in a different way, and clearly displays a fragment of her–her face and hands in the 1918 portrait, and parts of her hands, mouth, chin, ear, neck, and chest in the 1921 portrait. They are taken from different angles and are entirely different compositions of the same woman. These photographs, too, like those of Cindy Sherman, call into question our social understanding of photography as a mechanical means of documenting some truth or reality.

o'keeffe2 Stieglitz's "Georgia O'Keeffe," 1918 and 1921






Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Rhetoric of the Image.” from Image, Music, Text. 1964.

Bourdieu,Pierre. Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Extracts from Bourdieu, Photography.

 Hostetler, Lisa. “Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and American Photography”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004).

Irvine, Martin. Introduction to Photography: From Optics and Photography to Post-Photography.

Krauss, Rosalind “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,” October 31 (1984),

“MoMA | Cindy Sherman |Gallery 4.” Museum of Modern Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <>.