OCA preloader logo
Beneath the surface
To find out more details about the transfer to The Open University see A New Chapter for OCA.
Beneath the Surface thumb

Beneath the Surface

Decoding images is an important aspect of being a photographer and understanding photography.  It has been written about extensively because the meanings behind images are of vital importance for the context they are used if they are to be successful communicators.  Advertising, news pictures, fashion, the family album; they all depend on the connotations they contain if they are to convey the intention of the author (or the intention of the user at least).
We all know the phrase “a picture says a thousand words”.  I’m going to use some photographic theory to deconstruct one picture and decipher some of the levels of understanding that can be applied to one single image. I’m choosing Jeff Wall’s Insomnia.

Insomnia, 1994 by Jeff Wall

The first level is the formal level.  The ‘denotations’ in other terminology.   What I am referring to is the specific meaning that is commonly applied to a thing or word.  For example a classic and unambiguous denotation of the word home is a building made of brick and stone compared to the connotation of the word home which is a place of warmth, familiarity and comfort.  It tends to strip things of their poetry and operates on facts and functionality.  For this image I see a kitchen, denoted by the cooker, fridge freezer and table and chairs.  That much is communicated clearly by the use of props.  However what we miss in the denotation is the connotation of the type of kitchen that it is.  The cold colours of the cupboards and the starkness of the scene, the harsh lighting and the hotspots, give a kind of eerie feel.  It connotes a place of discomfort; of coldness and unease which we can sense even though we cannot actually be in that kitchen.  This information has been delivered to us via a series of signs and signifiers carefully selected and utilised by the photographer.
Which brings me to my personal reading of this image.  When I was pregnant I went through a period of insomnia, I was a frequenter of my kitchen at night.  The open cupboards to the left of the still scene allude to the frenetic activity of searching for an unfound snack to satisfy some unmet desire.  Although I didn’t attempt to sleep on the floor, I can certainly empathise with this man’s frustration.
In another part of my brain it reminds me of a kitchen in a basement I used to walk past often in Oxford at night. (I like looking through people’s windows…) The light always seemed to be on but no-one was in.  It reminded me of this scene, a kind of psychological state of unrest.
Then I must position this work in the context of the wider canon of art, literature and film to gain a fuller understanding.  We know from his writings that Wall places an importance on creating a dialogue between his works and those of other historical and contemporary artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Diane Arbus, Eugène Atget, Walker Evans, Dan Graham, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gurski among others.  He makes overt references to other artists in other works, (like ‘A sudden gust of wind, After Hokusai‘) so we must recognise this deliberate intertextuality.  So what does Insomnia refer to?
Shakespeare used insomnia and madness in correlation to portray guilt and a sense of regret, for example Macbeth and Henry IV.  Perhaps we are to wonder what wrong this man has committed or in a more innocent manner what has been committed against him?  Insomnia seems to be a modern anxiety, with the pressures of work, stress and financial collapse.  Perhaps it’s tapping into the zeitgeist and remains a statement of our times? Or perhaps he was simply an artist sharing in the age old connection between insomnia and the creative process.
In real life this image is big.  Approx 2m x 1.75m so Wall is clearly asking for our attention.  He says this image was made in response to the saying When a prince doesn’t sleep well, a nation doesn’t either.  He wondered what happened when people of no importance undergo the same torments.  Although he doesn’t attempt to answer the question this work was made as part of the desire to depict unimportant people in his images and in doing so he makes the narrative transcend culture, class and success.  He speaks to us all.
There, that was over 500 words.  Perhaps you could keep going to 1000. Or as an optional bonus assignment you could write a blog post of 1000 words on your favourite image or pick an image that appeals and see where it takes you.  If you do, I’d love to read them so perhaps you could post a link in the comments.  Of course David Campany went one further and wrote a whole book about one of Walls pictures.
For more like this keep an eye on Judith Williamson’s ‘On Advertising’ section which appears each issue in Source.  She deconstructs a current advertising image and always has something unhinging and insightful to bring.

Posted by author: Sharon
Share this post:

30 thoughts on “Beneath the Surface

  • It is interesting that you related the open cupboards to searching (unsuccessfully) for food. For me they suggested that the owner of the kitchen (the man on the floor we think) is distracted,untidy, preoccupied….maybe this shows how we interpret pictures in relation to our own experiences…my wife is always asking me to tidy up!!! Happily I am usually positively distracted by my obsession with photography!! thanks for the reference to Judith Williamson’s contribution to Source magazine.

    • That’s all we can do Keith, interpret photographs according to our own experience. You will have noticed, for example, a shift in conflict and disaster photography in the last few years. Tim Hetherington was sporting this approach; he was doing that as far back as 2004, on this coverage of the tsunami in Indonesia. If you think about it, most of us have no direct experience of mass destruction or death. But we all have certain notions of the beauty and order of things. Images tapping a disruption of the latter are likely to trigger more complex thought processes in us.
      I went off topic a bit…back to the open cupboards and kitchen door…to me they hint of a way out, of improvement…a cure?

  • Thanks for the pointer to Judith Williamson’s writing. Years ago I think she used to do something similar as a regular Guardian feature, and it did more to help me understand semiotics than anything else I’d come across. On her website there are links to several pieces of her work which look interesting, such as the images used in reporting and discussion of climate change.

  • Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements is a must read if you are interested in this subject
    There is a web published ‘book’ thais freely available here that eventually has become a paper book, Semiotics in the “Basics” series published by Routledge.

    • I started out in media studies / communication*, in the days when Marshall McLuhan was set reading, but when I later came across Judith Williamson, I thought her writing and approach was so much more down to earth and straightforward. She has a wonderful unpretentiousness in the way she presents things.
      *I’ve finally seen the light, of course, and moved into the world of art.

    • Peter, It was in ‘Semiotics: The basics’ that I saw this: “semiotics tells us things we already know in a language we will never understand” – attributed to Paddy Whannel, (cited in Sieter 1992, 1). It was Howells/Negrieros’ Visual Culture published by polity that opened the door with it’s chapter on Semiotics which made it much more accessible and allowed me back into the “..basics”. Something else that came out of Leeds, thanks!

  • Thanks for this Sharon.
    One of the things that is interesting about this process is the connotations that you are asked to give the image once you know the title of the piece.
    So far as I can see the only thing that contextualises the image specifically to insomnia is the title. This is often the case.
    Does the image take on a whole new meaning if I title it ‘Divorce’ or ‘Debt’ or does still communicate pretty much the same thing?
    Seems ‘choosing titles’ is an important part of the photographer’s art. Should that be so?
    Be interested to hear what you think.

    • But of course. The title is part of the ‘text’ as it come to the ‘reader’ and so will be part of the sign that needs to be decoded.
      Given that the creator of the text only has limited control over the meaning that the reader takes from it, titling can be part of the way that, that creator attempts to restrict its readings.
      If it is the case that “all images are polysemous”(Barthes 1977:38-39), then to maximise any possible remnants of the authorial role, the creator must use every means at their disposal but in the end, if Barthes et al are right these efforts may well prove fruitless!
      Barthes, Roland (1977) The Rhetoric of the Image in Music Image Text London: Fontana.

      • The polysemous aspect of photographs is a central part of their joy and value.
        I think this links to the ‘labels’ debate in exhibition curation where too much reading the label can intrude on the viewer’s experience of the work.
        Whilst I may really enjoy their work, I sometimes find the accompanying Artist’s Statements, which I guess they mean to be read as part of the ‘text’ to be positively unhelpful. Of course that may say more about me than anything else!

    • Hi Eric,
      Yes I like your point that we are directed by the photographer about the reading through the title as well as the signs within the image. And yes the reading does take on a slightly different narrative if given the name of the anxiety (divorce for example) What I like about the title Insomnia is that it leaves the narrative open enough for us to bring our own anxiety into it. Divorce is perhaps too specific to reach a wide audience but insomnia is suggestive and therefore more able to resonate with a lot of us.
      But what about all those ‘Untitled’ pictures??!

  • Thanks, Sharon, very helpful – Wall’s work seems to prompt thousands of words (often from him!). Michael Fried’s “Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before” takes a number of them apart and was helpful to me in understanding how an image can be deconstructed (albeit a tough read at times!).
    Half a step ahead of Amano on PwDP, I have already completed the exercise to write (about 1000 words, as it happens) on an image – here is my effort – http://stansocapwdp.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/writing-about-photography-research-and.html

    • Hi Stan, thanks for sending the link. I enjoyed reading your review! I like how when we start to look deeply at a picture and meticulously write down every aspect of it, as you have clearly done, we start to see it fully and properly, when we thought we did at first glance. A good practice when learning to look at photographs.

  • Thank you Sharon. This is a very well constructed piece of literature, that I have gained an immense amount of information from. Thank you also for the link, a great resource for now and future use.

  • Thanks Sharon, a really helpful analysis. It’s particularly useful in that it’s picture specific and provides a route into analysing other works. Coincidentally I was reading Cotton’s “the photograph as contemporary art” just before I came across your article,and was already much taken with the ideas of tableaux photography. The depth of detail in the works illustrated in her “Once Upon a Time” chapter clearly leads the viewer to try and explain the images by personal story telling. The objects depicted, their context, and their inter-relationships make for an easy route for the viewer into such storytelling based on individual perception – which may or may not be what the photographer intended.
    I’m sure I can’t take your analysis up another 500 words, but I can see that the title, “Insomnia” provides an easy entry into interpretation of the image. Would it have been as obvious with out the label? I suspect that a close reading of the image would take the viewer that way after discarding murder(no weapon or blood), drunken stupor (no vomit) etc.etc. Following on what you have written, the starkness of the room (mostly hard edged unyielding objects), strong green (the least warm of colours), harsh lighting creating hard edged shadow and pools of darkness, blank open eyed expression and tousled hair, very uncomfortable position perhaps indicating exhausetd collapse but no balm of sleep (under a table, comfort towel in hand(!?) head in a corner (no forward escape), strong diagonal line of the body taking the viewing eye into a dead end, all lead to a complex and rich image. I did note the circle on the left hand wall probably indicating the absence of a clock. Time seems to stop when you can’t sleep? I didn’t see it as eerie, just depressing, cold and unforgiving creating a feeling of hopelessness. Godd stuff, Wall!!

  • This brings to mind some of the things we discussed around knowing the ‘back story’ on the Prix Pictet study visit yesterday, or as has been discussed above, knowing the title to set the viewer off down a particular route of interpretation. Daniel Beltra’s ‘Spill’ images from the Deepwater Horizon disaster caused some discomfort with the thought that he was beautifying an event that had immense and disasterous environmental and economic consequences, but for those who were aware of Beltra’s wildlife images from the same time, which were taken to highlight the impact of the oil spill, there was at least the opportunity to interpret the selected images shown at the Saatchi Gallery in a different way.
    When I first saw Wall’s ‘Insomnia’ I saw it as an untitled photograph somewhere, and my first thoughts without the guidance of title were around illness or depression, although I guess both can be causes or consequences of insomnia. It was only once I had the pointer that I started to make something of what to me a very stark and restless image.

  • The thing I keep noticing is outside the window…. it keeps attracting my attention … there is only a tall fence or wall, no view at all – maybe a drain pipe there on the left… then a reflection of a light, very carefully placed so its framed there in the dark rectangle as though it was a very cold and virtual sun shining down on the man.

  • When I first saw it I thought it was an American kitchen. It reminded me of early adverts for modern kitchens and made me think of the 50s. It’s a small kitchen going on the short distance between table and fitments – maybe a small apartment or even a trailer home. My first thoughts weren’t around insomnia but that maybe he’d had too much to drink.
    There’s no softness or comfort there; nothing on the walls so I thought of a bachelor kitchen; a man living on his own. He isn’t doing anything to make himself comfortable either from what I can see – no covering; signs of making a warm drink, or having something to eat. He doesn’t know how to look after himself.
    Regarding the size of the image and ‘asking for attention’ – linked with the saying, “when a prince doesn’t sleep well, a nation doesn’t either”. I know that Wall is wondering what happens when ‘people of no importance undergo the same torments’ but, by depicting such a man in large size, he’s actually making him important. This insomniac is important in his own eyes – a prince among men! Not a king though. That then leads me on to think how sons might often be called or viewed as ‘our prince’. Princes are usually used to having other people to cater for their needs which, again, takes me back to him not seeming to be doing anything to make himself more comfortable in his sleepless state. Is there something else around that state of insomnia where the whole focus goes on that and so that makes a person even more awake.
    In a filmic sense I was also reminded of ‘Rear Window’ and James Stewart occupying himself whilst convalescing.
    I have to confess that I actually feel quite irritated by the man. I reckon that if he was living with someone else he’d be waking them up to tell them he couldn’t sleep! I’m guessing as well that that kind of situation can happen anywhere and everywhere.

  • As I am new to photography, and to TAoP, I found this really helpful in illustrating the ‘connotative’ level of reading a photograph.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to blog listings