a blog by knut skjærven

Connotation Tool: Trick Effects

The Flying Dutchman.© Knut Skjærven.

IMPORTANT: I am preparing a new site named Street Photographer’s Toolbox. The site is aimed at active street photographers.

The new site is not ready for publishing yet, but some of the posts are.  This is one of the new posts. You will not be able to open all of the links in this post at present. Stay tuned. 

I am going to treat Roland Barthes’ connotation procedures in the same order that they appear in his article The Photographic Message in the book Image, Music, Text.  And I am going to add a little to them to point out their potential for street photography.

The first procedure he points to is Trick Effects. By that he really means trick effects: doing trickery, or faking an image. He talks about inserting an object or a person that was not actually there when the picture was taken. We know this from political propaganda but most of the times when a person is removed from an image after having fallen out of grace. Removing is in the same visual vocabulary as inserting.

Barthes mentions an image where an American presidential candidate was faked to be in the same shot as a communist leader. Thereby connoting a positive connection and even friendship between the two. The communist leader was inserted into the photograph. (We are back in the cold war days.)

Today, we would say that an image like that was heavily photoshopped by inserting an object or a person in a frame where it/he/she did not actually belong. Like in concept photography where this type of manipulation is quite alright. It will, however, not be acceptable in street photography were documentation is an important issue.

You may rightly wonder what this connotation procedure is doing in toolbox for street photography? Particularly as we speak of street photography as straight photography. Straight meaning that we do as little post production or editing as possible. Surely there is no room for trickery and faking images when you define street photography?

You are absolutely right, but as our mission here is to be loyal to Barthes procedures we have to include trick effects as one of his connotation procedures.

There is another reason which is even more important. That reason has a direct relevance for our understanding of street photography.

Roland Barthes: “The methodological interest of trick effects is that they intervene without warning in the plane of denotation; the utilize the special credibility of the photograph ( … ) in order to pass off as merely denoted a message which is in reality heavily connoted; in no other treatment does connotation assume so completely the “objective” mask of denotation.”/Page 21.

What Barthes is trying to say, is that photography of all media have a special capacity to trick people because people or object inserted into a photograph, done well enough that is, really seem to be part of denoted reality. Thereby you also manipulate connotations as in the case of presidential candidate and the communist leader.

Is that it then? Are Trick Effects of no use in a street photographer’s toolbox? Off to the next procedure in Barthes cluster of connotation procedures? Not quite, because photograph’s capacity to blur the distinction between denoted and connoted content can also be used with great effect in proper, unmanipulated street photography.

How come?

Let’s switch the words insert with include, and fake with make. Then the situation becomes very different. We manage to hold on to photograph’s capacity to be truthful to reality. Now we no longer have faked denotations that produce false connotation. We have real denotation producing truthful connotations. By substituting insert with include and fake with make we manage this.

Why is this important? It is important because I never understood quality street photography as a plain and a mostly mechanical rendering of street life. To stress the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary takes a special effort of including or excluding (not inserting or removing) things that in the rush of passing (through life) are normally overlooked. That is the overall mission of proper street photography if it has any. That is its humanistic perspective.

NB: It can often be difficult to detect if a content is inserted or simply included. The difference is critical. In The Flying Dutchman above, the boy jumping in the background could have been inserted in the photograph. It is not. The connoted message could be described as livelyplayfulpositive.

Taking into account that the image is shot at Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the connotations takes on yet another layer of meaning. Maybe a symbolic one. One of reconciliation perhaps. You decide.   The image holds first (denote) second (connote) an even third (symbolize) level contents.

Thanks for reading.

10/04/12

Relates posts in this section:  Introduction; Trick Effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.

Street Photography Training Sessions: See Street University.

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