Project 2: Reading Pictures

Deconstruction, a concept by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, controversial in his time, but of great importance in postmodernist thinking. Derrida used almost 40  publications to clarify and share his ideas.  Break down a concept (text) into the elements from which it is constructed and define the meaning of each element by its relation to the elements to define what it is not. Find the inter-elemental contradictions, flowing therefor into meaninglessness and find the new and underlying meaning.

Deconstruction takes place; it is an event that does not await the deliberation, consciousness, or organization of a subject, or even
of modernity. It deconstructs itself. It can be deconstructed. (Derrida, 1985)

Derrida tries to clarify, destruction is not a method or critique. It simply is. If something is deconstructable, it already was. He continues to clarify using the translation dilemma to his Japanese friend:

To be very schematic I would say that the difficulty of defining an therefore also of translating the word “deconstruction” stems from the fact that all the predicates, all the defining concepts, all the lexical significations, and even the syntactic articulations, which seem at one moment to lend themselves to this definition or to that translation, are also deconstructed or deconstructible, directly or otherwise, etc. And that goes for the word deconstruction, as for every word.(Derrida, 1985)

Touching here the essence of his thinking, that meaning of a word can only be described by other words that have their own meaning; hence the flaw is intrinsic in any language.

Tools for deconstruction – Semiotics

Indeed, Derrida’s deconstruction seems less connected to photography as being no more than another language than the thoughts of Barthes that specifically address the l results of photography, specifically being a method of communication.

If the effect of a photograph is a Sign, being the overall presence/effect, it is the result of the Signifier, being the image itself in his physical appearance and the Signified, our perception on that what is signified.

Denotation and connotation seem to lay in line with this thought, where the denotation is what we actually and objectively see and connotate what we mentally or better subjectively do with what we see, how it forms a perceived meaning, our interpretation.

What I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training. (Barthes, 2010)

This is what Barthes tries to explain on his term “Studium” as the generic base of the image, the average effect, does it get close to SIGN? Beyond that, he defines a “punctum”. It is the element that rises from the scene without any scrutiny by the viewer.

“A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (Barthes, 2010), elements in the image that disturb the stadium. If I interpret it correctly, it can be anything, either a contradiction to the stadium or sharp articulation. The stadium defines the cultural position of the image; the punctum awakes the viewer.

It seems overdone to make a summary of the framework for interpretations by Terry Barrett. Still, it provides me with this overview to be with me in my digital environment on all devices and as permanent reference and reminder:

In the Weight of photography(Swinnen and Luc Deneulin, 2010), Terry Barrett sums up some further principles for interpreting photographs:

I have put the principles into a set, but it is a loose set. The set is intentionally eclectic, but I think non-contradictory, although some of the principles are drawn from theories that resist one another. (Swinnen and Luc Deneulin, 2010).

The summery of Barrett in the appendix:

  • All images require interpretation
  • photographs carry more credibility than other kinds of images and especially require interpretation
  • To interpret an image is to respond to it in language
  • Photographs and photographers alter what they picture
  • Photographs should be seen as opinions
  • Feelings are guides to interpretations
  • Photographs are made from light reflecting off of people, places, and objects in the world
  • photographs are factual and fictional; factual and metaphorical
  • photography is a subtractive medium and painting is additive
  • The subject matter of a photograph is always cut from a larger context
  • Photographs are instantaneous
  • Photographs have unique properties of selectivity, instantaneity, and credibility
  • Subject matter + medium + form + context = meaning
  • Language accompanying a photograph can over-determine the photograph’s meaning
  • Photographs mean through use
  • Judgments of an image can preclude alternate interpretations of that image
  • The critical activities of describing, interpreting, judging. and theorizing about photographs are interrelated and interdependent
  • Images attract multiple interpretations, and it is not the goal of interpretation to arrive at single, grand, unified, composite interpretations
  • All images are in part about the cultures in which they emerged
  • All images are in part about other images
  • Interpretations imply world-views
  • There is a range of interpretations any image will allow
  • Meanings of images are not limited to what their makers meant them to mean
  • Interpretations are not so much right as they are more or less reasonable, convincing, informative, and enlightening
  • Some interpretations are better than others, and some are simply wrong
  • A good interpretation tells more about the image than it tells about the interpreter
  • The objects of interpretations are images, not image-makers
  • Good interpretations have coherence, correspondence, and completeness
  • Interpretation is an endeavour that should be both individual and communal
  • The admissibility of an interpretation is determined by a community of interpreters, and the community is self. correcting
  • Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and continue on our own

In his book Criticising Photographs (Barrett, 2006), Terry Barret continues and defines some interesting strategies as a starting point for interpretation:


At some point, it seems he tries to be as complete as possible or at least might fear he forgets an option. I’m not sure this numeration is limited, to begin with. It would be possible to add any background as a beginning for an interpretation. Nevertheless, it concentrates the matter to the most obvious ones. It provides a handhold in defining from what angle an interpretation can start.

Interpretation comes after the description of the photograph and relates closely to the deconstruction and semiotic functions to be defined. Describing what do I see:

Descriptions are answers to the questions: “What is here? What am I looking at? What do I know with certainty about this image?” The answers are identifications of both the obvious and the not so obvious. (Barrett, 2006)

But there is more. To describe the object, information can include: “statements about the subject matter, medium, and form, and then more generally about the photographer who made it, the times during which it was made, and the social milieu from which it emerges” (Barrett, 2006).

Barret lines it up in a form, a framework almost for criticising and interpretation a photograph:


Descriptive statements about subject matter identify and typify persons, objects, places, or events in a photograph. When describing the subject matter, critics name what they see and also characterize it.

The subject matter is different from the subject. Subject, however, is synonymous with theme or meaning and is more of an interpretive than descriptive endeavour.


Form refers to how the subject matter is presented. Descriptive statements about a photograph’s form concern how it is composed, arranged and constructed visually. They are called “formal elements”.

From the older artforms of painting and drawing, photography has inherited these formal elements: dot, line, shape, light and value, colour, texture, mass, space, and volume. Other formal elements identified for photographs include black and white tonal range; subject contrast; film contrast; negative contrast; paper contrast: film format; the point of view, which includes the distance from which the photograph was made and the lens that was used; angle and lens; frame and edge; depth of field; sharpness of grain; and degree of focus. But again, it is a list of optional elements but not limited to those. He continues mentioning “principles of design” with scale, rhythm, balance, directional forces, emphasis and subordination.


The term medium refers to what an art object is made of. Identifying or describing medium is important because medium significantly inflects meaning or expresses the medium itself. Its physical presence.


The style indicates a resemblance among diverse art objects from an artist, movement, time period, or geographic location and is recognized by characteristic handling of subject matter and formal elements. Neo-expressionism is a commonly recognized recent style of painting, and pictorialism, “directorial” photography and the “snapshot aesthetic” are examples of styles of photography.


A common method of critically analyzing a photographer’s work is to compare and contrast it to other work by the same photographer, to other photographers’ works, or to works by other artists.


critics often go to external sources to gather descriptive information that increases understanding of that photograph. This information comes from a variety of sources, including press releases, interviews with the artist, the exhibition catalogue, and knowledge of photography history.


It is probably as impossible to describe without interpreting as it is to interpret without describing. A critic can begin to mentally list descriptive elements in a photograph, but at the same time, he or she has to constantly see those elements in terms of the whole photograph if those elements are to make any sense. The relationship between describing and interpreting is circular, moving from whole to part and from part to whole.


In published criticism, descriptions are rarely value-free. Critics colour their descriptions according to whether they are positive or negative about the work, and they use descriptors that are simultaneously descriptive and evaluative to influence the reader’s view of the artwork.

A summary is provided and very helpful in this part of the course if only to keep some structure:


  • Description is criticism.
  • Descriptions are factual.
  • Description can be a data-gathering process or a data-reporting process.
  • When gathering descriptive data, everything matters.
  • Facts about artist, title, medium, size, date, and place or type of presentation are meaningful descriptive data.
  • Formal analysis is a combination of description and interpretation.
  • Description, interpretation, and evaluation are interdependent activities.
  • Reported descriptions should be based on relevancy to interpretive, evaluative, and theoretical ideas.
  • Description is especially dependent on interpretation.
  • Interpretations and descriptions are meaningfully circular.
  • Descriptions should offer information drawn from within and outside of a photograph.
  • Descriptions can be (productively or nonproductive!/) infinite: Relevancy is the determining factor.


Barrett, T. (2006). Criticizing photographs : an introduction to understanding images. Boston: Mcgraw-Hill.

Barthes, R. (2010). Camera lucida : reflections on photography. New York: Hill And Wang, A Division Of Farrar, Straus And Giroux.

Darrida, J. (2010). Derrida’s experience in school (interview). [online] YouTube. Available at: [Accessed 23 Nov. 2020].

Derrida, J. (1985). “Letter to a Japanese Friend.” [online] Parousia Press, pp.1–5. Available at:

Derrida, J. and Caputo, J.D. (2008). Deconstruction in a nutshell : a conversation with Jacques Derrida. New York: Fordham Univ. Press.

Derrida, J. and Chakravorty, G. (1997). Of grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, , C.

Swinnen, J.M. and Luc Deneulin (2010). The weight of photography. Brussels: Academic And Scientific Publishers.

Turner, C. (2016). Jacques Derrida: Deconstruction. [online] Critical Legal Thinking. Available at: [Accessed 25 Nov. 2020].

Zhai, J. (2018). Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction – Not Even Past. [online] Not Even Past. Available at: This is an example of deconstruction provided by Niall Lucy in A Derrida Dictionary and it makes a good starting point for us to discuss deconstruction.