Archive for the ‘Semiotics Blog’ tag
It is a simple, yet a strikingly powerful image: a woman looks at family photographs found in the rubble of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. The photographs have been meticulously cleaned and left to dry on clothing pegs in a school gymnasium in the town of Natori, Miyagi prefecture. Survivors are given the opportunity to look at the photographs on display in the hope of identifying friends and family members. In some cases, the photograph will be the only thing that is left behind.
Another photograph by the Russian press photographer Sergey Ponomarev depicts the sheer scale of the collection of photographs, and, by extension, the sheer scale of the disaster. A man is looking at an old family album, so enthralled in the images that he appears to be unaware of the very camera depicting him in the process of looking. In the background, several people can be seen doing exactly the same, sometimes in groups or as individual, trying to come to terms with the images laid out in front of them.
Ponomarev’s photographs are indicative of the complex and troubled relationship between photography and death. In his classic book Camera Lucida, the French semiotician Roland Barthes sought to overcome the death of his mother as he analyzes, over and over again, a photograph of her. In one of his most famous quotes, he writes ‘death is the eidos of photography’. In other words, photography operates on the idea that the photograph will, eventually, outlive the subject photographed. It is this tragic and perverse dichotomy between an inanimate and dead object (the photograph) and the sense of a person liveliness in a photograph – a liveliness particularly apparent in family photographs.
Apart from referring to an universally applicable attribute of photography, the hope to find photographs from deceased friends and family members in the school gymnasium of Natori also displays a culturally specific phenomenon. Similar to other Asian cultures such as China and Korea, funerals are usually accompanied by a formal portrait with black rope on the top corners of the image. These photographs of the deceased constitute a crucial aspect in the process of mourning: they are later displayed on or above small Bhuddist shrines (butsudan) kept in most traditional Japanese households. In the school gymnasium of Natori, the survivors’ search for a photograph of family and friends is partially motivated by a spiritual process that subscribes great value to the photographic likeliness of a person.
In contrast to the sterile and composed black and white portraits associated with the funeral procession and the butsudan, the photographs on display in the school gymnasium represent moments of vivacity and liveliness – moments traditionally perceived as worthy of photographic representation. An image by Hong Kong born photographer Vincent Yu can be read as a collage representing significant life stages: amongst several photographs of new-born babies, there are photographs of weddings, sports days, school groups and holidays. In sum, they are the kind of photographs that represent a lived experience, that situate the subject within a community, that communicate what it means to be human.
As the family photographs in the school gymnasium continue to dry on clothing pegs, those who survived are coming to terms with the discrepancy between the tragic loss of human life and the happiness encountered in the image. The press photographs depicting family photographs are thus deeply self-referential: they are photographs about the very materiality of photography, the collective memories produced by photographs and the photograph, perhaps, constituting a source of comfort.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.
Advertising for perfumes, particularly perfumes by female celebrities, is produced with amazing visual consistency. A brief glance at a variety of ads shows that there appears to be a formula for celebrity perfume ads in American popular culture: the celebrity is photographically represented alongside the perfume she advertises which is usually shown on the bottom, or more specifically, on the bottom right hand corner of the page. There might be a practical reason for this phenomenon in visual culture since, when flipping through a magazine, the right hand side of the page is, from an advertising perspective, more desirable. By showing the perfume bottle on the right hand corner, the reader encounters the product in the last instance as he or she turns the page. The first visual encounter in the ad is usually with the celebrity herself. In above example its Jennifer Aniston draped in a knitted blanket, sitting on a rock, with the sun setting on a beach. The ocean in the background, Aniston’s implied nudity and her windswept hair are strongly reminiscent of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The reference to water, a theme running through many perfume ads, also underlines the liquidity of the perfume itself.
Another theme explored in the perfume ad formula is the celebrity returning a gaze back to the spectator over her left shoulder. The pose is strongly suggestive of photographs taken on the red carpet in which the celebrities twist and turn to present their dresses to the assembled photographers. While Kylie Minogue is simply referred to as ‘Sexy Darling’, this emphasis on exhibitionism and a visual encounter with the celebrity is further stressed in Britney Spears’ ad for Curious. A man can be seen in the background to the photograph looking at Spears, while Spears herself is suggestively looking at the spectator. The slogan ‘Do you dare?’ further underlines a sexual element to the representation of gender, as if the spectator is invited to join the subjects into a hypothetical ménage à trois via the gaze.
Halle by Halle Berry and Eva by Eva Longoria also submit to the perfume ad formula of celebrity returning a gaze back to the spectator over the left shoulder. In both cases, the name of the perfume is the first name of the celebrity herself, whereas the name is written in such a way that it looks like the celebrities’ signature. This is an important element in the ad since, as it appears, the perfume is not only endorsed by the celebrity, but rather, it’s created by the celebrity herself. Like the artist signing his artwork, the celebrity signs her creation. I am using the word sign in the semiotic sense – the sign as a signifier. Her the signature signifies the celebrity’s assumed personal affiliation, even creation, of the perfume.
The perfume ad formula, because it is so consistently reproduced, appears to foster a culture in which ads are also copying other ads. Apart from Halle by Halle Berry and Eva by Eva Longoria, this can also be observed in Deseo by Jennifer Lopez and M by Mariah Carey. Both Deseo and M make references to a tropical wilderness in which the female subject appears carefree, ‘swinging’ with the rhythm of nature. The celebrity is represented as Tarzan’s Jane: scantily clad, wild, sexually available. A more historic reference to Jean Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing also suggests that here the swinging also evokes connotations of voyeurism. The alternative use of the word ‘swinging’ clearly situates the ads in a context of promiscuity.
With these many references to sexuality, it is not surprising that another major theme in the perfume ad formula is the bedroom. Jessica Simpson’s head is resting on a pillow while Mariah Carey is reclining on a bed. The skin coloured silk is, in both cases, alluding to the subjects’ nudity in the confines of her bedroom. Here, the perfume ad evokes connotations of the boudoir, or, in other words, an intrinsically private and intimate space. The spectator is invited to join the celebrity to a space that is exclusive, suggesting that the consumption of the perfume also manifests an exclusive relationship with the celebrity.
Despite the many references to an intimate and apparently heterosexual relationship with the celebrity in mass media and culture, it is important to stress that the ads are mostly reproduced in women’s magazines. In other words, the representation of gender in the perfume ad formula ads is designed for a female spectator. The typology of the perfume ad formula thus brings up a visual paradox in feminist visual culture. While the ads are designed for a female spectator, they apparently subscribe to the iconography of voyeurism, the commodification of women, even the visual codes of pornography. Beyonce’s Heat is one such example. What advertisers seeks to tap in here is the female consumer’s assumed desire to obtain a glimpse of the celebrities’ lifestyle in American popular culture. Here it is specifically her scent that might be desired. And having obtained her scent, it is suggested that the consumer becomes equally as desirable as the celebrity herself. However, desirability in the perfume ad formula always hinges on being visually desirable from the cliched perspective of a man. The perfume ad formula, rather than opening up new avenues for independent and successful celebrities, is actually further reproducing a hegemonic image economy that connects the fetishism of the commodity with the commodification and colonization of the female body.