On the Invention of Photographic Meaning


Sekula, Allan. ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ Thinking Photography ed. by Victor Burgin (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982) 84-109


The meaning of a photograph, like that of any other entity, in inevitably subject to cultural definition. The task here is to define and engage critically something we might call the ‘photographic discourse’.

A discourse is defined as an arena of exchange, that is, a system of relations between parties engaged in communicative activity.


The discourse is, in the most general sense , the context of the utterance, the conditions that constrain and support its meaning, that determine its semantic target.

This general definition implies of course, that a photograph is an utterance of some sort, that it carries, or is, a message. However the definition also implies that the photograph is an ‘incomplete’ utterance, a message that depends on some external matrix of conditions and presuppositions for its readability. That is, the meaning of any photographic message is necessarily context-determined.

We might formulate this position as follows: a photograph communicates by means of its association with some hidden, or implicit text; it is this text, or system of hidden linguistic proportions, that carries the photograph into the domain of readability.

(I am using the term ‘text’ rather loosely here; we could imagine a discourse situation in which photographs were enveloped in spoken language alone. The word ‘text’ is merely a suggestion of the weighty, institutional character of the semiotic system. that lurks behind any given icon.)

The anthropologist Merville Herskovits shows a Bush woman a snapshot of her son. She is unable to recognise any image until the details of the photograph are pointed out. Such an inability would seem to be the logical outcome of living in a culture that is unconcerned with the two-dimensional, analogue mapping of three-dimensional ‘real’ space, a culture without a realist compulsion.

For this woman, the photograph is unmarked as a message, is a non-message, until it is framed linguistically by the anthropologist.


A metalinguistic proposition such as ‘This is a message’. or, ‘This stands for your son’, is necessary if the snapshot is to be read.


Photographic ‘literacy’ is learned. And yet, in the real world, the image itself appears ‘natural’ and appropriate, appears to manifest an illusory independence from the matrix of supposition that determines its readability.

Quite regularly, we are informed that the photograph ‘ has its own language’, is ‘beyond speech’, is a message of ‘universal significance’ – in short, that photography is a universal and independent language or sign system.

Implicit in this argument is the quasi-formalist notion that the photograph derives its semantic properties from conditions that reside within the image itself. But if we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship  the we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.

But this particular obstinate bit of bourgeois folklore – the claim for the intrinsic significance of the photograph – lies at the centre of the established myth of photographic truth. Put simply, the photograph is seen as a re-presentation of nature itself, as an unmediated copy of the real world.


The photograph is imagined to have a primitive core of meaning, devoid of all cultural determination. It is this uninvested analogue that Roland Barthes refers to as the denotative function of the photograph. He distinguishes a second level of invested, culturally determined meaning, a level of connotation.

In the real world no such separation is possible. Any meaningful encounter with a photograph must necessarily occur at the level of connotation.

The power of this folklore of pure denotation is considerable. It elevates the photograph to the legal status of document and testimonial. It generates a mythic aura of neutrality around the image.

But I have deliberately refused to separate the photograph from a notion of task. A photographic discourse is a system within which the culture harnesses photographs to a various representational tasks.

Every photograph is a sign, above all, of someone’s investment in the sending of a message.

[…] the most general terms of the photographic discourse are a kind of disclaimer, an assertions of neutrality; in short, the overall function of photographic discourse is to render itself transparent.

The problem at hand here is one of sign emergence; only by developing a historical understanding of the emergence of photographic sign systems can we apprehend the truly conventional nature of photographic communication.


[discussion of two Lewis Hine and Alfred Stieglitz photographs]


The problem I am confronted with is that every move I could possibly make within these reading systems devolves almost immediately into a literary invention with a trivial relation to the artefacts at hand.

The image is appropriated as the object of a secondary artwork, a literary artwork with the illusory status of  ‘criticism’.

Again, we find ourselves in the middle of a discourse situation that appear as messages in the void of nature. We are forced, finally, to acknowledge what Barthes calls the ‘polysemic’ character of the photographic image, the existence of a ‘floating chain of significance, underlying the signifier’.

In other words, the photograph, as it stands alone, presents merely the possibility of meaning. Only by its embeddedness in a concrete discourse situation can the photograph yield a clear semantic outcome.

Any given photograph is conceivably open to appropriation by a range of ‘texts’, each new discourse situation generating its own set of messages.


Furthermore, it is impossible even to conceive of an actual photograph in a ‘free state’, unattached to a system of validation and support, that is, to a discourse.


Even the invention of such a state, of a neutral ground, constitutes the mythic idea of bourgeois intellectual privilege , involving a kind of ‘tourist sensibility’ directed at the photograph.

Such an invention, as we have already seen, is the denial of invention, the denial of the critic’s status as social actor.

It seems that only by beginning to uncover the social and historical contexts of the two photographers can we begin to acquire am understanding on meaning as related to intention.


Photographs achieve semantic status as fetish objects and as documents. The photograph is imagined to have, depending on its context, a power that is primarily affective or a power that is primarily informative. Both powers reside in the mythical truth-value of the photograph.


While theories of affect regard the photograph as a unique and privately engaged object, informative value is typically coupled to the mass reproduction of the image.

In Benjamin’s terms, the unique artwork is necessarily a privileged object. The unique art object stands in the centre of a discourse within which ideology is obscured; the photograph, on the other hand, is characterised by a reproducibility, an ‘exhibition value’, that widens the field of potential readers, that permits a penetration into the ‘underprivileged spaces of the everyday world. As a vehicle for explicit political argument, the photograph stands at the service of the class that controls the press.

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