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How to Study Visual Images

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What follows here is an outline of one particular method. If you are interested in pursuing this area of study further, the article in Screen Education, reproduced as a PDF will provide a good deal more of the thinking that lay behind the original analysis.


The quality of the images in the article is poor but shouldn't affect the points I was trying to make.


There is also a PowerPoint presentation which may be helpful. (BERA paper 2019)


It was the discovery that there was an area of study called 'semiotics' - the study of signs - that enabled me to think systematically about visual images. Of the various texts available (see the Reading List) it was the work of Roland Barthes, especially his Rhetoric of the Image which proved the most helpful. He proposed three levels of meaning: a linguistic, a literal (or denoted) and an interpretative (or connoted) message. Barthes' approach, though novel, tended to be applied to one image at a time. What I wished to do was analyse many images and see what patterns could be detected, what kind of cultural picture emerged.

I took Barthes levels of meaning as a starting point for the work on Images Of Woman, adding a stylistic level. Thus, each (still) image comprises

  • A stylistic message

  • A literal or denoted message

  • An interpretative or connoted message

  • + (often) a linguistic message


Style influences how we see a picture. To take a most obvious example, we view a black and white photo differently to a colour one, a sepia image is different again. A soft focus will engender different reactions to sharp focus, and so on.


The literal message is simply, ‘What is there; what does the picture contain?’


The interpretative message asks, ‘What do the items in the picture connote?’  This is the most interesting area and the one most difficult to pin down.  Our cultural knowledge and experience will shape our interpretations.  To take inanimate objects (i.e. props) as an example: a flame may connote warmth but it may also connote danger. The context and any linguistic message will push the viewer towards a particular interpretation. 


A linguistic message (e.g. the title of a painting, the caption to a photo or the slogan in an advert) may well serve the purpose of anchoring (or attempting to anchor) a visual message.


The meanings attributed to style and the connotations of content can be subjective so it is important to be explicit about one's inferences so that readers may judge for themselves. Sometimes an association will be specific; for example, barbed wire around a head indicates ‘keep out, untouchable’. Other associations are more open-ended, like the flowers which appear in both a deodorant advert and in one for tissues, which indicate a generalized freshness or naturalness.


What follows is a system of classification which enabled a close analysis of display advertising in magazines and would be applicable to most still photographic images – and perhaps, also, to paintings and other visual representations.













The System of Classification


The study of images in other areas may well include forms as diverse as oil painting to an image projected onto a wall. However, the form which the image takes in display advertising from the late 60s onwards is fairly standard, i.e. a photograph plus text.  Previously line drawings, including cartoon strips, were widely used but are rarely seen today.  

Within this form, though, many different techniques are employed. I whittled them down to seven.
•    Focus -
soft / sharp
•    Distance – close-up / middle distance / long shot
Colour – full colour / monochrome
•    Lighting – when used to illuminate the subject(s) in a particular way
•    Cropping - when used to exclude parts of a picture you would normally expect to see
•    Angle – when used to create an effect, i.e. not taken from approximately eye-level.
•    Special effects – such as montage, superimposition

In addition to the ‘mechanical’ techniques employed by the photographer and art director, each image involves a presentational technique, sometimes more than one. The way in which these techniques work varies.  One advert may simply present the product while another may use images to convey its alleged qualities, such as flowers to suggest a natural quality.  

These four cover the majority of display advertising.

Presentation does just that: shows a tube of toothpaste or a pack of pasta. A development from this is product transformation, e.g. the wool is the product but has been transformed into a garment, or the product is a shampoo but hair is what is depicted. 


Typification works through a sense of the reader understanding what attributes the actor represents or typifies. This will range from an actor whose role is specific, e.g. a nurse or doctor to one which is general, e.g. young girl or mother. A specific role will have specific connotations; in the case of
nurse these will involve caring, professionalism and a certain kind of knowledge.  A general role works by asking the reader to see the image of a mother and understand that it stands for ‘all mothers’. 


Association works through the qualities of one thing being transferred to another, as in simile or metaphor in language. Metaphor is common in advertising images. A good example is the hand in an oven glove holding a bottle of hot sauce; the glove is communicating the quality of heat without there necessarily being any text to say so. Synecdoche is a related rhetorical device reworked in visual form when a part of something represents the whole thing, a branch representing a tree, for example.

Hyperbole, or exaggeration, is a device which deserves its own category.  In Images of Woman, I used the term ‘Supervisual’ to describe a situation where the power of the image overwhelms all else.  However, hyperbole seems to be as good a descriptor and has the advantage of being a well-known rhetorical device. 

















The four elements of the advertisement can be taken as product, props, setting and actors. Some adverts will have all four, some only one.  

Props were divided into functional and metaphorical.  A glass in an advert forwhisky would be functional; a hat and a riding crop would be metaphorical.  A cut glass tumbler might be considered both as it is functional but also indicates status, wealth, good taste…  


The setting is the background, the context in which the action takes place. There is more variation here than one might expect.  Settings can establish a mood, convey meaning, so it is important to take them seriously.  One obvious division is outdoor/indoor but within these there are a number of sub-categories, from urban to rural, familiar to exotic in the case of exteriors and from traditional to modern in the case of interiors.  Thus:
Outdoor:  the 
distinctions urban / rural and familiar / exotic were combined to cover most eventualities. Hence urban + exotic would describe Montmartre or the Kasbah, rural + familiar would cover English fields and woods. 
Indoor settings are either domestic or non-domestic, such as places of work. The latter
are rare. Domestic settings were classified as traditional, ritzy, mod, conventional or camp. Some of these descriptors seem inappropriate now. In summary, traditional would involve heavier, darker furniture, leather bound books, candlesticks and gilt frames.  Ritzy (or ‘upmarket’?) would include some of the previous elements but with a little more glamour and less ornamentation. 

Top left: Setting: indoor, domestic: upmarket; Relationship: divergent

Bottom leftSetting: outdoor, rural / familiar; Relationship: separated    


Mod settings featured streamlined furnishings, bold colours and simple geometric shapes. IKEA comes to mind.  Conventional settings had a comfortable look: nothing ostentatious, bright but not too bold.  Camp settings featured older furniture painted or otherwise refurbished, objets trouves, brass bedsteads and wicker chairs…  Self-consciously ‘arty’, which might be a better descriptor.




This is a huge area and includes not only who is in the picture but what they are doing, their expression, clothesdirection of attention and relationship with others…




Where there are two or more actors in the picture, there will be a relationship between them. It may be reciprocal (each person is the centre of the other’s attention); divergent (they are focusing on something different); object-related (an object has their attention) or separated (one actor is focused on the other but the second actor’s attention is elsewhere.)  In Images of Woman I termed this ‘semi-reciprocal’ but that now seems an oxymoron: something half reciprocated isn’t reciprocal at all.    





The action in an illustration depends very largely on what or who the actor’s attention is focused. It may be on people (see above), an object, him- or herself, the reader or middle distance. Rarely, it may be that the object of attention is invisible to the reader. 


Another dimension of attention is touch. The quality of tactility is applicable to any part of the body and the receiver of tactile attention might be the self, an object or objects or people.



Appearance - Expression
An actor’s appearance is difficult to categorize but essential in an analysis of this sort.  Facial expression is crucial. Having looked at dozens of examples, these were the categories I distilled for female expressions:

Soft/introverted; cool/level; seductive; narcissistic; carefree; kittenlike; maternal; practical; comic and catalogue.


Soft/introverted: eyes often shut or half-closed, the mouth slightly open/pouting, rarely smiling; an inward-looking trance-like reverie, removed from earthly things. 


Cool/level: indifferent, self-sufficient, arrogant, slightly insolent, aloof, confident, reserved; wide eyes, full lips, straight or slightly parted, and obtrusive hair, often blonde. The eyes usually look the reader in the eye, as perhaps the woman regards herself in the mirror. (See the image to the left which is also an interesting example of metaphor.)


Seductive: similar to the cool/level look in many ways, the eyes less wide, perhaps shaded. The expression is less reserved but still self-sufficient and confident; milder versions might include a slight smile.


Narcissistic: similarities to the cool/level and soft/introverted looks rather closer to the latter: a satisfied smile, closed or half-closed eyes, self-enclosed, oblivious, content.


Carefree: nymphlike, active, healthy, vibrant, outdoor girl; long unrestrained outward flowing hair, often smiling or grinning. (See the image to the left.)


Kittenlike: coy, naïve (perhaps in a deliberate, studied way), a friendlier and more girlish version of the cool/level look, sometimes almost twee.


Maternal: motherly, matronly, mature, wise, experienced and kind, carrying a sort of authority; shorter hair, slight smile and gentle eyes; mouth may sometimes be stern but eyes twinkle.


Practical: concentrating, engaged on the business in hand, mouth close, eyes object-directed, sometimes a slight frown, hair often short or tied back.


Comic: deliberately ridiculous, exaggerated, acting the fool, pulling faces for the benefit of a real or imaginary audience, sometimes close to a sort of archness.


Catalogue: a neutral look as of a dummy, artificial, waxlike; features may be in any position, but most likely with eyes open wide and smiling – but the look remains vacant, personality has been removed.

Male actors have expressions which are fairly direct parallels with these: carefree, practical, paternal, seductive, comic and catalogue. Two other expressions, thoughtful and self-reliant, have similarities to the female introverted and cool, though the thoughtful is far less introverted and the self-reliant more smug than aloof or reserved.

Appearance: Pose

The categories derived from the material were:

Composed/controlled; carefree/active; narcissistic; dramatic/unusual; relaxed/leisurely; functionsl; seductive; dummy.

Composed/controlled: akin to the controlled relaxation of a cat, an impression of balance and potential force; legs often slightly apart, hands together and head level or raised.

Carefree/active: engaged in some physical activity or movement, the arms and legs lead outwards and the head is often tipped back.


Narcissistic: self-caressing, limbs lead back to the body, often in a sitting or crouching position, head tilted downwards.


Dramatic/unusual: strange or exaggerated poses, unnatural, rarely encountered except in drama, poses intended to attract attention. (See the image to the left, which also shows exotic clothing on the woman, very smart on the man.)


Relaxed/leisurely: an attitude of comfort, rest, recuperation, being ‘at ease’; limbs drooping or supported; usually sitting, leaning or lying.


Functional: the body is object-directed, with limbs arranged to expedite the exercise in hand, to carry out a specific purpose.


Seductive: the come-hither pose; often sitting or lying, legs curled up or stretched out together; arms held back from the body, or one shoulder pushed forward, head erect.


Dummy: neutral, wax-like, stiff, lifeless – like a shop-window mannequin.


Male poses correspond to these fairly closely though lacking the narcissistic and seductive. Are these omissions significant?


Appearance: Clothing


Exotic, snazzy, office-wear, informal, dirty-wear, uniform, product, none. ‘Snazzy’ now seems an outdated term but the explanation should clarify the meaning.


Exotic: the unusual, very glamorous; long evening dresses, extravagant party dresses, fancy dress, foreign costumes.


Snazzy: smart and very fashionable in a respectable and expensive way; suits of impeccable cut, elegant dresses, hats and gloves. (The term ‘snazzy’ seems outdated now. ‘Smart’ would probably work as well, or perhaps ‘very smart’.)


Office-wear: neat, quite fashionable, clothes to suit a multitude of informal social occasions; dresses, skirt and blouse, a little jewellery perhaps. 


Informal: worn about the house or garden, for walks in the country; comfortable and casual; jeans and T shirt, slacks and jumper.


Dirty-wear: clothes worn for cleaning/messy jobs, protective clothing, overalls, apron, old clothes.


Uniform: defined vocational dress.


Product: where the clothes being worn are the product of the advertisement.


None: wearing no clothes or very few.


Male clothing: Men are both far less common in the adverts and also exhibit less variation in dress, though the above are close enough classification except that the exotic and ‘none’ are absent.

Appearance: Hair

In the 1960s and 70s hair was much more of a key indicator than today.  The categories used were free-flowing, shaped and moulded
.  For men, there was a difference as the concept of untidy hair never occurred in relation to women.  Thus: short/tidy, medium length/slightly unruly, long/untidy.


Analysis: Using the classifications


Thus one can build up a matrix of data based on the detailed inventory of actors, props and settings. It is a laborious process and perhaps why it has not been done often. In the process of analyzing the data the researcher continually returns to consideration of the meanings expressed by each and by the image as a whole, involving as it does, the meanings and connotations of the actors, props and the setting and the relationship between them. The researcher is then on his or her own. The meaning of an image, given all the multifarious elements enumerated above, might result in several pages of analysis.  In recording such meanings, the researcher must bring into a play an awareness of the common culture shared by the producers of and the readers of the image.  For example, to derive the meaning ‘authority or punishment’ from a bowl of oranges because of some connection in the researcher’s mind is not justifiable, whereas to derive the same meaning from a large desk and a cane can be substantiated.


Most of the images from adverts in women’s magazines are not, though, hugely complex. They are also widely available and anyone may take a look and see if one’s conclusions are wide of the mark.


Text anchoring meaning

In most images, whether adverts or oil paintings, there is a text which serves to anchor the many possible meanings of a picture. This is especially the case with the adverts in question.  The advertiser seeks to draw attention to a particular meaning which is in its interest.  However, there may be other interpretations to be drawn from the image – and these may be deliberate or unwitting. Either way, it is the researcher’s job to consider all possible meanings rather than the one(s) intended by the advertiser. See the example to the left. Here the visual metaphor cannot really work on its own and needs the caption 'Unzip a new skin feeling that lasts'.



As in any serious analysis, it is important not to draw conclusions from small samples.  It is the cumulative accretion of small pieces of data which give rise to larger patterns.  If one or two images for shampoo show women outdoors with a dreamy expression, it’s hardly significant.  When such combinations begin to show up repeatedly, something interesting is revealed.  This is why Images of Woman took such a lot of trouble to look for patterns and correlations which could be backed up by evidence.

Go to: Conclusions







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