Narrative – Research Point – Semiotics – Robert Frank, The Americans

Read Chapters 4 (Narrative) and 5 (signs and Symbols) in Short, M. (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne:AVA Publishing.

Lots of reading and research… sat here with a pile of books and dived into:
Susan Sontag: On Photography
John Berger & Jean Mohr: Another Way of Telling
Maria Short: Context and Narrative
Liz Wells: Photography – A Critical Introduction

I’ll begin with Maria Short but will slip in references to the others as I go along.

The aim was to read chapters 4&5, but as with the last directive I found it just as important to have read the previous chapter as well, not just cover what we ‘have’ to look at…Basic pointers… There is no point in having signs and symbols without having an audience. There is no point in having an audience if they cannot ‘read’ the images you are producing. There must be an intention ‘behind photographic communication’ and equally as important, you must appreciate the audience and ‘the context in which it will be viewed.’

Short continues by mentioning the process of picture making and how the photographer’s connection to the subject can influence the audience responses and reactions. Once again emphasising how important it can be to have intimate knowledge about your chosen subject, or at least a passion about it. She references Don McCullin, Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland.

Don McCullin from an interview he gave for The Guardian in May 2010; he realised he changed from being a ‘gung-ho’ war photographer, into someone who cared more about what he was capturing than securing approval from his peers or employers and climbing the career ladder, when he was covering the Biafran War in 1969. She writes: it occurred to him that his purpose should be to highlight the unacceptable. (p70)

Of Berenice Abbott’s love of New York after a decade in Paris, McCausland wrote: Only from passion and fantastic passion does any sense of reality in art, or life, come. (p73)

Moving swiftly on to Chapter 4: Narrative: the aim of narrative techniques is to ‘provide meaning, coherence…a sense of rhythm [they are] a kind of visual punctuation,’ (p96-113)

There are many ways that a photographer can form a narrative:

  • Linear story telling –  example Susan Dirges: Full Circle
  • Aesthetic continuity – example Jill Cole: Birds
  • A sequential story – example Jose Navarro: Trashumantes
  • Visual Punctuation – Example Barbara Taylor: Beds

In Another Way of Telling Mohr includes a delightfully simple set of images of a blind girl laughing outside his window, revealing her relationship with him and the world through sound and the animal noises he was imitating.


Difficulty may arise in trying to tell a narrative from within a single image. In this instance the narrative ‘can be drawn from all the components of the picture’ and this is why it is even more important to make sure that you are aware of all the narrative devises and their ‘implications…the aim of the narrative is to provide or anchor meaning and coherence.’

‘Absolute absorption’ helps a photographer spot all the elements coming together, they will ‘notice the symbolic, allegorical or metaphorical … [to] convey something that they have seen or intend.’

The quote from Mike Weaver, ‘The Picture as Photograph’, The Art of Photography, leads us nicely into Chapter 5.

The relation between fact and symbol, expression and idea…is the result of an artist’s negotiation with the actual world according to certain principles.

Chapter 5 : Signs and symbols.We see them everywhere; some we recognise instantly, some we know have meaning but we have not yet learnt them: red=hot, blue=cold…Morse Code I’d have to learn beyond … – – – …

The study of these signs and symbols is called semiotics and many people have had a go at being academic about it…

Ferdinand de Saussure – a Swiss linguist –  and Charles Sanders Peirce (yes my head doesn’t like the way he spells that either) an American philosopher and Roland Barthes- a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic and semiotician, – came up with the following: (you know you are in trouble when you have to add words to the dictionary…)

  • Signifier – the form that the signs take
  • Signified – the concept it represents
  • Representamen – the form
  • Interpretant – the sense made of the sign
  • An object – to which the sign refers
  • Studium – the general enthusiasm/interest in the photograph
  • Punctum – the point of the image, that which arrests attention

Other terminologies are:

  • Symbol – used to represent something else – the signifier does not resemble the signified
  • Icon – resembling or imitating the signifier – e.g. a cartoon, scale mode, metaphor
  • Indexical signifier – linked to the signified – e.g. smoke means fire, footprints – a trace of a physical being

Signs and symbols within a photograph may be a mix of staged imagery, previous research into an area, or pure good luck and skill at editing images. Practical techniques such as shallow depth of field, motion blur and lighting can also provide subtle nuances.

Robert Frank’s The Americans is often referred to when exploring symbolic meaning.

In going through Photography – a Critical Introduction (Wells 1997) I found the section on the symbolism used in the United Colours of Benetton’s advertising campaign really interesting, but a more in-depth response shall have to wait.

Barthes states in The Death of the Author (1967),  that the understanding and interpretation of an image is personal/subjective, therefore any intentional ‘meaning’  by the creator is no more or less important than a ‘meaning’ read by the audience.


Research The Americans, by Robert Frank, find five images within this body of work where symbols are used. Explain what they are and how they function in the images. Then read the introduction to the book by Jack Kerouac. Find symbolic references that you can also identify in Robert Frank’s photographs, these do not have to be the same images used previously.

I ducked and dived and found these videos that show his book and reveal some insights surrounding this iconic body of work.


Audio clip

This interview with Frank in The Guardian gives more information with regards to his background and how the book came about. The Americans was unusual in that it was visualised as a book from the outset and is not just a compilation of several bodies of work.

To sum it up: Frank created a book that was raw, captured a feel, an emotion, an essence, an era. He ripped up the compositional rule book and used a ‘snapshot aesthetic’ to create informal, ambiguous images that were often described as visual poetry; they were more of an artistic, emotional expression than a single message.

When published in 1958 people still had the ideal in their minds with regards to the ‘American Dream,’ but, as an outsider looking in, Frank showed them a different viewpoint, revealing how the country and its people were still trapped. Trapped by segregation, segregation of race, class and economy.

Publications were readily promoting glossy advertisements and holding up Hollywood icons as role models (not much has changed!) but Frank wanted to show what was beneath the mask, he portrayed everyday people and everyday situations. Initially his book was not well received. Not only because of the subject matter, but also in the way he chose to present his narrative; the informality of the shots, grain, the off-kilter framing and unusual subject matter meant that it did not receive rave reviews.

He had a knack for photographing what seemed to be the ordinary, the trivial, but the truths behind them, what lay beneath the mask and the profound perceptions you could make when reading the symbolism made for a wonderful historical, photographic legacy.

Below are the five images that I have chosen to look at in terms of their symbolism and my interpretation of their meaning.


Movie Premier

The signifiers –

1. A blurred starlet
2. The evening gown and jewellery
3. Her disinterested gaze
4.She is central to the frame but walking out of it
5. The crowd of fans behind some smiling – not all looking at the actress
6. The woman with her hand to her face behind
7. The everyday dress of the crowd – e.g. headscarves
8. The Squires sign behind

The signified –

1. The starlet represents our fascination, then and now, of celebrity . That she is blurred illustrates that this way of life is an illusion, a mask, as well as Frank’s experimentation in ways to present his narrative.
2. The evening gown and jewellery underscore the divide between the rich and poor
3. Her disinterested gaze could show the lack of communication and unwillingness of the American people to try to alter the balance of this way of life.
4. That she is walking out of the frame represents how easy it was to ignore the harsh realities of life.
5. The smiles reveal the rush people get when meeting their heroes, the fact that not all are looking at her could signify the 15 minutes of fame culture and they are preparing for the next thing to come along.
6. The woman tentatively chewing her nails represents anonymity, how for the majority of us this is life, there is nothing more than this.
7. The everyday dress further illustrates the social and economic divide of the nation
8. The advertising sign portrays the advancement of consumerism


Charleston, South Carolina

The signifiers –

1. A street scene
2. A blurred background
3. A white baby
4. A black woman holding the baby
5. She is leaning against the wall
6. Neither subject are looking at the camera nor at each other
7. The style of blouse could be a uniform

The signified –

1.This is an everyday event
2. That the relationship between these two people are what is of import to the image
3. & 4. The interracial relationship reveals the class divide/racism that persisted in The South, that more often than not, black women were ‘the hired help.’
5. Leaning against the wall could represent the weary resignation of this situation
6. Illustrates how they are accepting of being together but are not really part of each others world.
7. Uniforms show how people accept their position in life and blindly follow instructions/rules without question

I chose this image in particular as it struck a chord having looked at the United Colours of Benetton section as mentioned earlier. The symbolism of this image upset many people due to the connotations of black slavery rather than the hoped for interpretation of racial acceptance. Frank’s version has been described as an American apartheid “Madonna and Child.”




Elevator – Miami Beach 1955

The signifiers –

1.Blurred images
2. An elevator
3. Elevator operator in a uniform
4. Blank expression – far off gaze
5. Fur stole
6. Off-kilter framing

The signified –

1. Realities of life
2.Being trapped
4.Isolation even if surrounded by others – dreaming of better things
5. The social and economic divide of the nation
6.The unfairness and occasional awkwardness of reality

The young girl was found many years later after coming across the image in an exhibition:

Robert Frank took about four photos of me without a flash in the elevator. I didn’t know he was taking them. And then when the elevator emptied of its ‘blurred demons,’he asked me to turn around and smile at the camera. And I flashed a smile, put my hands on my hips. I hammed it up for about eight or ten frames.

However, it was the moment she revealed her inner self that Frank captured and printed.


Drugstore, Detroit, 1955-56

The signifiers –

1. Covered, blurred cake in the foreground
2. Lots of advertising for Orange Whip
3. Prints or adverts on the walls
4. Behind the counter there is mess on the floor
5. Long marble lunch counter
6. Male only customers appear to be of one race
7. Men sat at the counter appear not to be conversing
8. The servers appear to be of African-American heritage
9. Wearing uniforms
10. Food consumption

The signified –

1.Unobtainable luxury
2. & 3. Consumerism and consumption
4. Real life isn’t always tidy
5. The divide in society
6. Inequality of women/racial divide
7. Isolation
8. Sense of communities within community
9. Corporate identity, conformity, emphasises community within community
10. Rituals of food link us together


Drive-in movie, Detroit 1955

The signifiers –

1.Large screen/drive-in
2. Two men on the screen
3. Cars

The signified –

1. Fascination with Hollywood, celebrity, escape from reality – the American Dream.
2. Inequality of women, women not portrayed, men’s status elevated.
3. Consumerism, mass production, isolation – drive in’s replacing the intimacy of the cinema and the closeness of couples sitting next to each other. The reliance on motor vehicles.

Introduction by Jack Kerouac

Kerouac reels off a list of symbolism to be found within the remaining images which also summarise the American psyche:the jukebox, coffins, funerals, cemeteries, crosses, windows, the American flag, canes, old people, cowboys and cowboy hats, open roads, cars, gas stations, cafes, musicians/music, ethnicity, urinals, telephone poles and television. These are signs of advancement, life and death, communications and status. Kerouac reads the images like poetry as intended by the originator.

It could be that the signs and symbols were just ‘there’ and it was skillful editing that managed to pull the images together. As America moved out of the Depression era and away from WWII consumerism and mass production took over, it would have been difficult to avoid what now, in some respects, have become cliches. Yet Frank managed to capture images to convey a certain atmosphere. The Detroit Drugstore image reminded me of this Danny Lyon shot, and whilst very similar in subject and composition the signifiers are slightly different and illustrate a totally different mood.

SNCC Staff Sit-In, Atlanta Georgia, 1963 Danny Lyon

The counter does not seem to be used as a divide rather it is used as a meeting place suggesting community, the eye contact is not hostile, women are seen to be equal despite being in the minority in this shot, there is social interaction, there is less signage creating a less claustrophobic atmosphere. The marble counter and accoutrements are similar demonstrating that wherever you went in American you could expect the same. Sadly, many places are losing their identity to commercialism, walk down any High Street in the UK  and you will see the same chain stores offering the same goods. Even when you visit local attractions they all seem to buy their merchandise from the same manufacturer so that mementos are also generic!

Intentional or unintentional, signifiers will be captured within our images, or in scenes we might wish to capture. It is important to be aware of these visual clues and consider how they may alter or enhance the meaning of the narrative we are wishing to tell.



127, amer (2011) Robert Frank’s America (1982) | #ASX. Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2016).

Berger, J. and Mohr, J. (1989) Another way of telling. Cambridge: Penguin Books / Granta.

Here, S. (2013) Start here. Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2016).

O’Hagan, S. (2014) Robert Frank at 90: The photographer who revealed America won’t look back. Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2016).

Robert Frank’s elevator girl sees herself years later (2009) Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2016).

Short, M. (2011) Basics creative photography 02: Context and narrative. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.

Sontag, S. (2008) On photography. London: Penguin Classics.

Wells, L. (ed.) (1996) Photography: A critical introduction. London: Routledge.

Woodward, R.B. (2008) Robert Frank’s curious perspective. Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2016).