While reading the last two chapters in Sean Hall’s This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics, I was surprised by the number of different notions he utilized to extract meaning from the visuals he presented. As I continued reading the chapter, I realized that I had been applying these same principles when analyzing books and texts, but I had no idea where to begin applying these terms to visuals. I was grateful for the step-by-step process Hall briefly defines for the reader in the opening pages of the chapter and explores more in-depth throughout the chapter.
The notions and ideas Hall explored include “semantic unit (the item that expresses meaning), genre (the category of expression), style (manner of expression), stereotype (cliches or norms of expression), institution (place or site of expression), ideology (ideas and values that are employed to justify, support, or guide expression), discourse (uses of expression that create or reflect different aspects of social order), myth (stories that represent and shape individual or collective expression), and paradigm (theories that configure expression)” (133). That’s A LOT to consider every time you look at a photograph or see a print ad in a magazine.
While having all of those terms defined did help me to better understand the mechanics of applying them to visuals, I didn’t necessarily agree with his idea of successfully communicating through a particular genre. Hall defines genre as “categories that conform to a certain division or subdivision of a particular medium” and that “the genre chosen [to communicate a semantic unit] will tend to set up a series of codes that allow the communicative act to take place successfully” (138). However, Hall suggests that these communicative acts can only be successful if they completely adhere to the rules of the genre in which they are presented.
While understanding the rules of the genre is a necessary step in communicating a message, I believe that breaking the barriers of those genre conventions can be be just as, if not more, effective.
For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s essay entitled “The Daguerreotype,” featured in Classic Essay on Photography edited by Alan Trachtenberg, Poe admires the “truth” that a photograph could capture and went on to say that “the Daguerreotyped plate is infinitely, infinitely more accurate in its representation than any painting by human hands” (38). While Poe may have viewed photography as “the most extraordinary triumph of modern science,” (37) he believed it could also be counted among the fine arts.
Others had difficulty in equating photography to other stereotypical mediums genre conventions of art, such as Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, who in her essay, “Photography,” was troubled by the often unflattering nature early photographs had on the subject, Poe thought otherwise. He argued that “if we examined a work of ordinary art, by means of a powerful microscope, all traces of resemblance to nature will disappear – but the closest scrutiny of the photogenic drawing discloses only a more absolute truth, a more perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented” (38).
Here is “View from the Window at Le Gras” (1826) by Joseph Niepce.
As you can see, the entire image is difficult to make out (I admit, I had no idea what this was supposed to be a picture of until I read the title), but the fact that this photograph did manage, however poorly, to capture Niepce’s view from his window was an extraordinary feat.
Even though the semantic unit wouldn’t be classified with a painting or a drawing as it is a photograph, the invention of photography did push at the artistic genre and stereotypical conventions of the early nineteenth century and still continues to do so today. When the film development process finally stabilized, photography was able to capture life in such a different capacity that painting, drawing, and sculpting would not be able to exactly replicate.