“Looking is a social practice.” The authors begin Chapter 1 by reminding us that we do not “look” at anything without participating in a practice formed by a variety of factors, including the historical moment, social meaning, and intent of the creator. Practices of looking are also formed by power relationships; even the act of choosing to look or not to look is an act of power. We engage in the practices of looking every day, with an ever-increasing amount of visual artifacts permeating most cultures. Representation
Representation is the use of language and images to create meaning about the world around us. Mimesis is a concept that understands representation as a process of imitating or mirroring the real without taking into account how codes and conventions of representation impact meanings. We ourselves construct meaning through historical and cultural contexts. The artist René Magritte contrasted mimesis and representation with his painting The Treachery of Images (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”). The Myth of Photographic Truth
The myth of photographic truth is that we perceive photographs to be an unmediated copy of the real world. This understanding comes from positivism, the theory that scientific knowledge, gained through empirical data, is the only authentic knowledge. Machines (such as cameras) were thought to be more reliable than humans to provide this data and knowledge. As we know, however, images can be altered, reflect only one instant in a situation, and can be taken out of social and historical context. The power of images is strong because we still share this belief that photos are faithful records of events. Roland Barthes considered photographic truth a myth, not because the photographs aren’t true but because his understanding of truth (as always culturally inflected) is at odds with the positivist understanding of truth as something that can be independently verified.
Barthes gives us a system for interpreting two levels of meaning at play in examining an image: The denotative meaning is an image’s literal, descriptive meaning, whereas its connotative meaning relies on the cultural and historical context and the viewer’s shared experience and knowledge of these contexts. In the example of Robert Frank’s photograph Trolley—New Orleans, the denotative meaning is “passengers on a trolley,” whereas the photograph connotes race relations in the 1950s. Further knowledge of the context and circumstances of the photograph (the year in which it was taken, the events preceding and following the date of the photograph, the photographer himself) contribute to an even more textured connotative meaning. Barthes’s theory of myth goes beyond the myth of photographic truth; myths are how meanings, formed by hidden sets of rules and conventions, are made to seem universal but are in reality specific to certain groups. Through myth, the connotative meaning is made to seem natural or denotative. Images and Ideology
Ideology also contributes to the construction of an image’s meaning. An ideology is a system of belief in a culture. Ideologies are more than the negative nonreflective practices of a culture; they’re shared, extensive sets of patterns and beliefs that guide human interaction and behavior. In the modernist period, dominant ideologies, such as that of positivism, were typically accepted as facts, whereas in postmodernity, people have tended to recognize that ideologies are at play and are that meanings are always connotative. It is now widely understood that there is no one “natural” ideology. The places where these ideologies intersect and collide inform our practices of looking.
In the text’s example of O. J. Simpson’s mugshot on the cover of Time, the social convention of the mugshot (connoting guilt and shame), combined with the historical convention of darkening skin (connoting villainy and deviance), resulted in...