Getting Theoretical: Signs, Semiology, Semiotics

When I was first introduced to the concept of the Sign (yes, I’m using a capital ‘S’) I was completely confused. It transpired that the Sign could be split into two and also into three parts. 

Let me elaborate.

There are two important terms here: Semiotics and Semiology. Those familiar with Latin (I imagine) will understand the suffixes, but let’s just spell it out anyway:

  • Semiology: the study of Signs, or how Signs are used
  • Semiotics: the process of categorising Signs

How does a Sign function in Semiology?

In Semiology, the Sign is split into two: Signifier and Signified. The Signifier is the material or physical form that the Sign takes, whereas the Signified is the meaning that is produced. So, the Sign results from the association between Signifier and Signified, but the relationship is always arbitrary (a lot of things in theory are arbitrary, so it seems).

Having said that, the fact that the relationship between the Signifier and Signified is arbitrary does not mean that anyone can define the meaning; if every individual decided upon the nature of the Sign, it would be nigh on impossible to communicate because everyone would have multiple interpretations of the same thing.

Ferdinand de Saussure, who came up with this method of understand the nature of the Sign, remarked that the arbitrary nature of the Sign doesn’t make it neutral, either. Traffic light, for example, are not arbitrary; red already had connotations of danger, so its use as “STOP”, was not original.

So, from this we can start to see that the relationship between Signifier and Signified is conventional, or dependent upon social and cultural conventions. What does that mean when it’s at home? Effectively, a word means what it means because we collectively agree to let it mean that. It has everything to do with the collective, and less to do with the individual but, as we’ll read about in Barthes, the individual interpretation is a powerful and personal system, too.

Signs only make sense within a larger system, on their own they mean zilch, so they have to be placed into the context of a wide system. The Signification depends on the relationship between the Signifier and Signified; the Value is determined by the relationships between the Sign and other Signs within the system as a whole.

“When we speak of an icon, an index or a symbol, we are not referring to objective qualities of the sign itself, but to a viewer’s experience of the sign”

Grayson, 1998

How does a Sign function in Semiotics?

Aha. semiotics is where it gets really interesting and where the Photography link comes into play. According to Charles Sanders Peirce (apparently you pronounce it “purse”) the Sign was a three-part model, interpreted through the Signifier and Signified. These three parts are: icon, index, symbol.


This one is fairly simple to explain because it relies on a physical resemblance that the Signifier has to the Signified. A commonly used example is the Madonna, which is very literally called an icon because it is meant to resemble the original Madonna. 


This is slightly different, and the emphasis lies more heavily on culture and convention, because the relationship between the Signifier and Signified has to be learned. I like to use the example of a wedding band or engagement ring; on its own it means very little, but worn on the correct finger it signifies marriage, the commitment two people make to spending their lives together in monogamy. Isn’t it fascinating how something so little can symbolise so much?

But you see, without knowing that marriage is cemented by a ring, something that we learn through exposure to our respective cultures, you wouldn’t be able to make that connection. What’s even better is that you’ll see this example frequently in society and recognise instinctively that it means marriage because you’ve learned to understand the connection. 


The most commonly applied to photography, and I’m happy to show you why. An index describes a physical connection between Signifier and Signified; in other words, the Signifier cannot exist without the Signified, so it’s a causal relationship. The most frequently used example is smoke and fire; smoke cannot exist without fire, therefore if you see smoke you can draw a logical conclusion that there is a fire emanating from the vicinity. 

How can we relate this to photography?

Let’s start with the index, which is the simplest one to explain. Take any photograph at all (even on your phone, I know you take photos on it) and just choose one element within the image. It can be a sunset (as above). Dawn. Waves. Trees. Even people (yuck). Why are these things in the photograph? Because they exist outside of the photograph, in other words; the photograph points to what it shows. If the sunset, dawn, waves, trees or person (yuck, people) didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be a photograph that showed them. In Peirce’s words, the photograph was “forced to correspond to nature”.

And symbols? Well, I was thinking of something like this; in the US around the time of the Great Depression, a department was established called the FSA, or Farm Security Administration. Many photographers worked for the FSA, documenting the hard times sweeping the nation, and these photographs today represent the FSA. Think about it; there is absolutely no physical resemblance between a photograph of an impoverished family and a government department, but knowing the photographer worked within the FSA means that the photograph can stand for the work of the FSA, too.

Finally, the icon? Well, in certain respects, the photograph couldn’t not have an iconic element to it because it often looks exactly like the object it represents visually. A William Eggleston photograph of a small glass of whisky does to some extent look like the small glass of whisky that existed. There is a physical resemblance between the photograph of the glass and the glass itself. 

What do you see here?

Pea Pickers Line Up on Edge of Field at Weigh Scale, near Calipatria, Imperial Valley, California, February
Dorothea Lange, 1939, printed ca.1972
Courtesy The Met, Gift of Phyllis D. Massar, 1972

Men carrying buckets on their shoulders. They are in a field. There is a weigh scale on the right hand side of the frame. The last man in line is wearing a striped top. The fact that these men are in the photograph is the causal link that means they existed; if they hadn’t been there at that time, they wouldn’t be in the photograph. They have to exist in order to be in the photograph. That much is clear. The men in the photograph also probably look quite a lot like how they looked in reality, so that’s the symbolic element.

Finally, the symbol aspect; I chose this photograph precisely because it was taken for the FSA by a photographer called Dorothea Lange. The point of this is simply to emphasise that this photograph of the pea-pickers in California, by Dorothea Lange, symbolises the efforts of the FSA during the 1930s. By the time Lange took this photograph, in February 1939, the need for the FSA was beginning to wane and by 1941 it had been shut down completely and renamed Office for War Information, where it served almost the same purpose as its predecessor in disseminating visual information through government lines during wartime.

I confess a weakness for the FSA. Soon enough, I’ll talk about Migrant Mother and Roy Stryker, the female FSA photographers and what happened during the war years. That’ll come under Photographs, rather than Theory!

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