Image Studies

Image Studies

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KEYWORDS: Science Photography / Semiotics / Semiology / Scopic Regime / Sign / Simile of the Cave / Simulacrum / Sketchnotes / Sonography / Structuralism / Subsemiotic

SCIENCE PHOTOGRAPHY is an applied imaging technique that has been used for scientific enquiry and classification since the early days of photography. The exhibition Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840-1900 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2008) surveys a period when science and photography were in a state of rapid development and scientists were using cameras in conjunction with other optical devices, such as microscopes. In the exhibition catalogue, Tom Gunning argues that these images functioned ‘not simply to record a recognizable world, but also to provide images of a previously invisible one.’ (in Keller: 2008, p.54). Today, with advanced optics and image processing, together with the use of techniques such as magnetic resonance imagingultrasound imaging and thermal imaging, this is more than ever the case.

SEMIOTICS / SEMIOLOGY is the study of signs, developed by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) in relation to linguistics. Saussure’s notion of semiotics was extremely influential in the field of literary criticism, influencing writers and critics such as Roland Barthes, perhaps the key post-war semiotician. As well as being a tool of literary analysis, visual semiotics is applied to a wide range of disciplines, such as art, film, advertising and fashion, by Barthes and others. Barthes largely follows Saussure’s use of the signifier (the form that the sign takes) and the signified (the concept it represents), and, crucially, views non-linguistic signs as carrying linguistic meanings. (See also SIGN).

SCOPIC REGIME is a phrase coined by French film theorist Christian Metz in The Imaginary Signifier (1975) to distinguish cinema from theatre. Because of the cinematic apparatus’s construction of an imaginary object, its scopic regime is unhinged from its ‘real’ referent and the visual representation is independent of what is represented, both spatially and temporally. The term is used more broadly to define visual experiences delivered and mediated by other technologies, such as photography, television, and digital computers, as well as to suggest significant gender differences, such as those present in the ‘male gaze’. (See MALE GAZE).

SIGN is, in simple terms, something that can be interpreted as having a meaning that is something other than itself. Signs can work through any of the senses, visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory or taste, and their meaning can be intentional, such as a word uttered with a specific meaning, or open and unintentional. The two dominant contemporary models of the sign are those of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1939-1914). According to Saussure, a sign is composed of the signifier and the signified and is the result of the relationship between the two. Pierce’s complex ‘triadic’ theory claims that signs consist of three inter-related parts: a sign, an object, and an interpretant, a process logically structured to perpetuate itself as the interpretant itself becomes a sign. (See also SEMIOTICS/SEMIOLOGY).

SIMILE OF THE CAVE or Allegory of the Cave can be found in Plato’s best-known work, The Republic. It is an attempt to explain the nature of reality, as well as being one of the most influential comments on the image in the history of philosophy. The allegory tells of a group of people who have spent all their lives chained to the wall of a cave, facing a blank wall. Their view of reality is that of shadows projected on the wall from things passing in front of a fire behind them. Plato explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all; images are being mistaken for truth. Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1994), in particular his four stages of the image, is derived from Plato’s simile of the cave.

See also (under Create!): Plato’s Cave in Claymation 

SIMULACRUM is almost universally defined in dictionaries firstly ‘as an image or representation of someone or something’, and secondly as ‘an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute’.  Jean Baudrillard (1927-2007) goes further, and, in Simulacra and Simulation he defines the simulacrum as an image that ‘has no relation to any reality whatsoever’ (1994, p.6). Baudrillard argues that postmodern society has become so reliant on models and maps that we have lost contact with the real world. The evolution of the image, according to Baudrillard, goes through four phases and ends with the simulacrum:

  1. The image is the reflection of a basic reality;
  2. The image masks and perverts a basic reality;
  3. The image masks the absence of a basic reality;
  4. The image bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

SKETCHNOTES  use a technique of rapid, real-time visual note-taking that enables the listener to synthesise and understand a lecture or presentation. According to Craighton Berman they may include text; containers (bubbles, boxes, circles and clouds); connectors (arrows and lines); frameworks (Venn diagrams and continuums); and icons (simple drawings to represent an idea).

See also (under Create!): Sketchnotes!

SONOGRAPHY is a scientific imaging technique based on the application of ultrasound. It was originally developed for the military, but is now often used to see internal body structures such as tendons, muscles, joints, vessels and internal organs. Ultrasonic images, also known as sonograms, are made by sending pulses of ultrasound into tissue using a probe. It is commonly used during pregnancy. The sound echoes off the tissue; with different tissues reflecting varying degrees of sound. These echoes are recorded and displayed as an image to the operator.


ultrasound image (or sonogram) of foetus in womb

STRUCTURALISM is a 20th Century intellectual movement that has had a profound effect on philosophy (through linguistics, sociology, anthropology and other fields). Structuralism attempts analyse a specific field as a complex system of interrelated parts, and holds that all human activity has meaning because of the language system in which it operates. It is strongly influenced by the work of Saussure and is closely related to semiotics and how meaning is constructed and understood. The key developments in structuralism took place in France in the latter half of the 20th century, with Michel Foucault, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Jean Piaget, Noam Chomsky, Roland Barthes and Louis Althusser all instrumental in developing its theories and techniques. Below is a famous cartoon, The Structuralist Lunch Party, picturing four of those credited for the development of structuralism:  Foucault, Lacan, Lévi-Strauss, and Barthes.structuralist_lunch

SUBSEMIOTIC is a term used by artist and cultural theorist  Mieke Bal that defines certain marks within an image as being apparently meaningless, but still with potential to carry meaning: a subsemiotic mark may contribute to the construction of a sign, but may not be a sign in itself.

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