belle infidèle (frantom) wrote in pretty_theory,
belle infidèle

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understanding brassai's images, pt.II

So, last week we left off with me asking where a "formal" reading Brassai's portrait would get us. I guess that was a somewhat leading question, as from my perspective, a formal analysis gets us nowhere, for a formal analysis requires that we imagine that this photograph has no context. Actually, a formal analysis can get us somewhere, in that it leads us back tot he question of context.

{{{I'm not sure if I need to actually do a formal analysis or if I just need to go straight to Barthes. If I were to do a formal analysis, my reading of the photograph would always already be determined by (my access) cultural codes, and access which is determined by the fact that I am a) queer and b) live many years after the photographs were taken and c) am american and d) have been studying these photographs for over a year now. I can pretend to take them out of context, but for me, describing the photograph is very difficult. (See below.) Also, there is a way that the "formal" becomes contextual, in that it is part of the intertextuality of photographs. The pose, the fact that fig. 3 is a portrait, the kind of pose the subject effects (it makes me think of that brewer's son photograph by august sander and what m. shapiro wrote about it in the politics of representation)}}}

In "The Rhetoric of the Image", Roland Barthes posits that the image has two levels of meaning: the denoted (or literal) the connoted (symbolic). For Barthes, these cannot be removed from a third layer of meaning, the linguistic message. The denoted is the "real" thing that the image represents. It is a syntagm, close to speech, and therefore aligned with nature and thus outside of cultural determination. It is the essential, unchangeable meaning of a photograph. Barthes posits the connoted meaning as that which is determined by culture. The connoted is paradigmatic, systematic, and discontinuous. The symbolic meaning of a photograph is, as he says, "polysemic," but not infinite. Rather, potential symbolic meaning is limited by access to cultural code (i.e., a nationally, sub-culturally, or regionally informed knowledge base). For Barthes, it is less important to attempt to catalogue all of the possible connotated meanings of an image than it is to recognize that "they constitute discontinuous or better still scattered traits. (Barthes 118-123)

Like Allan Sekula, I disagree that such a separation between the connoted and the denoted can exist "in the real world" ("On the Invention of Photographic Meaning" 87). That is to say that within its discursive system, a photograph cannot be separated from its use, or as Sekula says, "representational task" (87). Barthes approaches a theory of contextual meaning in his inclusion of the "linguistic message" in his rubric for the reading of photographs and his insistence that interpretation depends upon the viewer's access to certain cultural codes. The linguistic message is the text found on, near, or around the image. In an advertisement it could be the slogan or the name of the product. In a museum it is the placard containing the title, artist's name, and any information about the image. In a book or album of photographs it is the legend, the caption, and the accompanying text. In a newspaper article it is the text that the photograph supposedly illustrates. Barthes postulates that the linguistic message anchors the denoted to the connoted, guiding the viewer's interpretation of the image. The linguistic message "holds the connoted meanings from proliferating" (118). It is in the linguistic message that ideological investment may be located: "the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others; by means of an often subtle dispatching, it remote-controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance" (118).

But Sekula extends the meaning of textual to really mean contextual. Alone, out of context, the image is but the possibility of meaning. Embedded in a "concrete discourse situation" a photograph renders a "clear semantic outcome." This formulation works if we can actually locate a stable (concrete) discourse situation for a photograph, but this hardly seems possible. Sure, I could look at this photograph as it appears, say, in the 1976 collection of photographs and see what it is doing there, but that would be to ignore other discourse situations. This leads me to conclude that there is no "clear semantic outcome" for a photograph, and that meaning is always both contextual in the immediate sense (publication, caption, etc.) but also in the intertexuality of past and simultaneous contexts.

The most stability we can hope for, is to, as Sekula attempts in the case of Steiglitz and Hine, to search for the "original rhetorical sense" of a photograph, or to imagine that such a thing exists. In the case of Brassai, there are several representational tasks that are being performed by the images in question, and taking my cue from both Barthes and Sekula, I begin my analysis with the "linguistic message" of the images in an attempt to develop a notion of context.


In the next installment, I will attempt to describe the photo as well as document my resistance to providing a description. Then I will try to move toward my original stated goal of linking this back to queer exoticism by showing how the various contexts (and thus various meanings of this photograph) are part of a larger way of seeing lesbians. Stay tuned.
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