People use several tools to interpret the meaning of images. Often, these tools are used subconsciously without even thinking about them. Images are made in accordance to aesthetic and social convections. To decode images, people interpret hints pointing to meanings that may be suggested, intended or unintended. These hints may include elements such as tone, color, contrast, depth, composition, style of address and perspective. This essay looks at the meaning of images and its importance in visual culture.
One way of interpreting images is through their socio-historical contexts. Viewers may consider where and when the image was displayed. They may also explore the social context in which the image is presented. A good example is the police mug shot of former football star O.J. Simpson. Time magazine used this mug shot on the cover of one of its editions, although its tone had been altered. The altered mug shot was meant to give Simpson a menacing look, considering that he had been charged with murdering two people. Most individuals know how to read culture codes of an image on aspect that imply racial, class-specific or gendered meanings.
Image codes alter meanings in a number of contexts. A good example is a smile, whose representation has had numerous meanings throughout history. The so-called smiley face has largely been known to represent happiness. Smiles in various forms of art such as sculptures and images signify various elements such as folly, irony, artificial sincerity and hidden messages in day to day life.
Smiles and their different meanings are influenced by the concept of semiotics. Whenever people interpret a certain image so as to understand its meaning, they are applying tools of semiotics to figure out its significance. A semiotic has two levels of meaning: connotation and denotation. In addition, there is the sign, made up of the signifier and the signified. A signifier could be a written word, an image or a sound. The signified is the concept that the word, sound or image evokes. For example, in a smiley face, the signifier is the smile while the signified is happiness.
Often, an images meaning is mainly derived from the objects inside the frame. A good example is the old Marlboro advertisements that feature a cowboy relaxing while smoking or on horseback. He is in a place whose background denotes the natural beauty of the Wild West. These ads are well-known because they equate the cigarette brand being masculine. They imply rough individualism and life in the Wild West whereby males were perceived to be real men. The character in the ad, The Marlboro Man, symbolizes a desirable ideal of freedom that is in a sharp contrast to the restricted lived that most working people live today.
The Marlboro ad image induces cultural knowledge that the role of men is changing. It portrays the recognition that the stereotype to do with masculine virility is fading. There is no denying that the way people interpret images is often influenced by the observers cultural knowledge and historical context. This context includes any convections that images use, any other images they may refer to, or the well-known symbols and figures making up an image. When signs are used as convections, they may play the role of a short hand language for anyone who views an image.
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