Still Image Analysis

Fig 1.
George Lucas from The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. (Rinzler, 2007)

George Lucas from The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. (Rinzler, 2007)

George Lucas from The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. (Rinzler, 2007)


Image obtained from

http://www.wired.com/entertainment/hollywood/multimedia/2007/04/gallery_starwars

Fig 2.
Courtney Love: Pieta (David LaChapelle 2006-2008)

Courtney Love: Pieta (David LaChapelle 2006-2008)

Courtney Love: Pieta (David LaChapelle 2006-2008)

Image obtained from http://printedimage.files.wordpress.com/2007/03/bookblog.jpeg

Introduction:

Semiotics is the science or study of visual signs and how we read images in the world around us. ‘Semiotics argues that language and communication in general is structured according to certain rules, which are commonly understood in a culture. In order to communicate these rules have to be learned’ (Fiske 1982 cited in Understanding Media Theory P155)

These rules and ideas were originally were devised by Ferdinand de Saussure who emphasized the social nature of language and that language is a system of signs. (P313 Dictionary of Media Studies). He explored the relationship between words written on a page and the thoughts and concepts the reader would have.

Roland Barthes took these ideas and applied them to media content. His work looks at how ideological images become ‘common sense’ and how the media represented and manipulated them.

His best known work is the analysis a cover of Paris Match where a young black soldier wearing a French uniform is saluting, eyes raised probably at the national Flag. This signifies that France is a great country and everyone is proud to serve her no matter what background they come from and even is the boy is originally from a country colonized by the French he is still happy to serve. A signifier would be saying that a black solder was giving the French salute. The myth makes us understand the signs and what is going on and makes us think about it.

“Signifiers” are the plain, undisputable, physical content. In terms of Lucas a signifier might be the fact that he has his hand to his mouth. The signified portion of this signifier would be the assumption that this pose is pensive. “Signified” refers to opinions, assumptions or conclusions which can be deduced from the content. The signified in Lucas may be the idea that he is pensively considering production of his movie Star Wars or perhaps considering its eventual fate in the Box Office. The “sign” encompasses the image and all theories in relation to its content. With Lucas, the sign in this example is this photo of George Lucas, sitting pensively, considering the movie he is directing, Star Wars, sparing a moment to think about how well it will do in terms of ticket sales or perhaps how well received it will be by film audiences when it is released.

The images focused on here are (Fig.1) ‘The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film.’ (Rinzler, 2007) which shall be referred to as ‘Lucas’ and (Fig.2) ‘Courtney Love: Pieta’ (LaChapelle 2006-2008) which shall be referred to as ‘Courtney’.

Analysis

Within semiotics denotation refers to ‘the most basic and specific level of meaning of a text or image. Thus , the denotative level of analysis of a photograph will concentrate on what is actually depicted in the frame’. (P 97, N.Abercrombie and B. Longhurst, Dictionary of Media Studies 1997)

In Fig 1 the denotative analysis of this image is as such: a man can be seen sitting with a Panavision R-200 camera. The photograph is in black and white. The lighting of the shot is focused on the centre of the image, namely the man and the camera, with the border and background appearing darker than the rest of the image. The man is George Lucas, writer and director of Star Wars. The photo is taken on the set of the film in 1977.

The photograph catches him in a pensive moment of thought. The shot almost appears to be staged in respect to the lighting, but in terms of composition there is a piece of scaffold slightly obstructing view, and people partially in view in the background. A photographer composing a shot would not have included these elements, whereas a more instantaneous picture may contain these elements (unless specifically composed to appear instantaneous).

In Fig 2. we see singer Courtney Love in a pose influenced by Michelangelo’s Pieta (Fig 3.) (http://www.artnet.com/galleries/Exhibitions.asp?gid=424237643&cid=151408). We see the body of a man with the same pose as Jesus in ‘Pieta’ draped across Love’s lap. Through popular culture we believe him to be Love’s dead rock star husband Kurt Cobain. The Cobain figure has track marks from drug use in his arms as well as stigmata. The clock ,slightly obscured on the left side on the picture by drug and tablet bottles, looks like it tells the time of 2.30-ish, approximately the time Cobain was found. Courtney Love is sitting on a hospital stretcher.

A toddler, who could be their daughter Frances Bean, plays on the floor with beside building blocks. It could also reflect a Nativity Scene. The blocks spell out the name of the Photographer and the title of the book for which this photograph was chosen to be the cover.

The location for the photograph is a bedroom or den, perhaps this is to reflect that Cobain committed suicide in a Granny flat next to his home. (http://www.burntout.com/kurt/biography/)Lots of religious imagery and objects are in the room including candles and light stands. A Holy Bible, red wine and a fish on a platter on the floor in the left of the picture also contribute to LaChapelle’s religious theme. Love is also wearing a blue dress, the shade of blue is often worn by the Virgin Mary in many Renaissance paintings. Beer cans with the image of Christ sit on a table with wine bottles, beside which is a light stand which reads “Faith”. Electrical lights in the image have no shades and add a rawness to the scene. An unseen light placed behind Love’s head disperses light so it gives her almost a halo effect.

The walls of the room are decorated with an outdoor feel with trees on wallpaper. The wallpaper has lines which could be the rays of the sun. At the top of the picture though, the wallpaper is torn to reveal a cream/flowery undercoat. These ‘sun rays’ also bring the viewer to the centre of the image.

Colours used by LaChapelle are vivid reds, oranges and sunshine colours, these could almost be associated with the Resurrection also. The most vivid blue used draws the viewer’s eye to Love at the centre of the photograph.

David LaChapelle is hugely influenced by ‘his master and guide Michelangelo’ and has been described as having ‘Salvador Dalí’s surrealist mentality and the striking compositions and detail of Italian Renaissance painters’
(http://www.artnet.com/galleries/Exhibitions.asp?gid=424237643&cid=151408&currpage=1&currpage2=2&rta=

http://www.artnet.com/artwork/425875071/424237643/david-lachapelle-courtney-love-pieta.html&source=2&type=2)

(http://photography.suite101.com/article.cfm/david_lachapelle_cultural_commentary) and Courtney Love: Pieta has a visual style to it not unlike Renaissance art. If considering Renaissance art it would be essential to look at LaChapelle with Vermeer. (Fig. 4 – A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window) While Vermeer, part of the Northern Renaissance, has almost a photographic type style of painting, LaChapelle has an almost painting style of photography. As Susan Sontag put it ‘Sometimes it is parasitical on the vocabulary of painting’, (P 138)

What connects ‘Lucas’ and ‘Courtney’ however is nostalgia and how both mark a decisive point in Popular Culture History.

In ‘Lucas’ the image is in black and white, so, analyzing this image retrospectively, knowing that it is such an iconic moment (that of George Lucas, writer and director of the original Star Wars, now such a pivotal film in popular culture history), it could be conceived that this photograph was purposely taken in black and white in order to pre-create the sense of nostalgia that it now carries more than 30 years later.

In ‘Courtney’ the image recreates the time of Kurt Cobain’s 1994 death. The photograph was taken sometime between 2006-2008, up to 14 years later than that date. There are some discrepancies though regards the event itself. (http://www.burntout.com/kurt/biography/) At the time of Cobain’s death, Love, herself was in a rehabilitation centre battling drug addiction, so wasn’t present. While recreating this may be a source of closure or therapy for Love, it is also an nostalgic moment for fans of Nirvana. Cobain is arguably one of the greatest rock stars of the 90’s.

Connotative analysis focus on the signified. They focus on the meaning that is implied or can be derived from the denotative content. (Daniel Chandler http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/semiotic.html ) ‘It goes beyond the literal, common-sense, denotative interpretation to include social, cultural and historical associations’ (P40 Brereton 2001)

Incorporating the picture ‘Lucas’ as a whole, it appears to have captured a quiet, nostalgic moment. The faded, darkened border creates a sense of looking down a dark tunnel; a real sense of looking into the past.
In ideological analyses, the focus moves away from interpreting the content specifically, instead examining how it reflects the ideas and opinions of the photographer, as well as how it affects the commonly held beliefs and ideals of the viewer. “I’d flip through catalogues and wonder what kind of dining set defined me as a person.” (Fincher, 1999)
In ‘Lucas’ (Fig.1) the image does not carry any real ideological weight. It tells the story of what would be the quiet life of the director of such a popular film. While people like Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and even James Earl Jones (the stars of the film) may be exposed to the limelight, the director takes a quiet back seat, pensively considering the smaller details of the film. The truth may be entirely different, but the story told by the picture speaks of a quiet “behind-the-scenes” contentment enjoyed by directors, compared to the fame and celebrity status of the actors.

The ideals and connotative meanings we take from ‘Courtney’ maybe that drugs kill, alcohol and drug abuse leave children without a parent. Incorporating the religious elements of LaChapelle’s work it could also be that the bright colours mean the dawning of a new day and life must go on.

Conclusion:

Linking ‘Lucas’ and ‘Courtney’ may seem an unlikely combination but the two do bring together popular celebrity though fifteen years apart. The image ‘Lucas’ was taken before George Lucas was the World name he is today and before he reached a Godlike status for many fans.

The ‘Courtney’ image literally shows the Cobain figure, when his Godlike cult status and drug abuse got too much for him. It is also worth noting that Love’s band Hole had an album called ‘Celebrity Skin’ and her celebrity status overshadowed the bands music. After Kurt Cobain’s death Love also became the target of hate by many Nirvana fans who believed she was the reason for his death.

Visually the two images are different, ‘Lucas’ has a starkness and perhaps vulnerability of a man of the verge of something huge, the background is his workplace, maybe where he feels at home most. The piece of scaffolding in ‘Lucas’ could be deliberately there, leaving the subject of the photograph with a barrier between him and his fans.

‘Courtney’ has a lavish ‘in your face’ set up, bold colours and a brashness that is almost expected of 21st Century celebrity. (We must remember while the Cobain’s death was in 1994, the photograph was taken sometime between 2006-2008.) It could also point that to stay in the public eye and be noticed, one now must be bold and brash. Love and Cobain led their life in the public eye, even after death Cobain is still ‘big news’. One must not forget though that this image was used as a front cover to LaChapelle’s book ‘Heaven to Hell’ and therefore could be constructed purely from an advertising point of view. John Berger said that publicity photography was ‘estentially eventless… For publicity all real events are exceptional and only happen to strangers’ (P 153 1972)

The black and white ‘Lucas’ image is nostalgic and reminds us that it was 30 years ago that this photograph was taken. Most homes still had black and white televisions, the old camera, the style of the subject’s spectacles all lead us to yesteryear. ‘Courtney’ reminds us of 1994, the grunge era and what may have been if Kurt Cobain was still alive.

We don’t know if the ‘Lucas’ was a staged photograph, we know ‘Courtney’ was. Therefore we are unsure if there is what Harold Evans would call ‘a decisive moment’. A moment either side may have been a test shot or reshoot. But both images are ‘A decisive moment’ in popular culture. ‘Lucas’ being the beginning of one era and ‘Courtney’ being the end of another.

In his book, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes says ‘The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been….’ (P 85) the ‘Lucas’ photograph of 1977, the ‘Courtney’ photograph recreating her husband’s death. The nostalgia theme in both links the images and brings us to a place that will never be again.

Appendix:

Fig 1/2 As above

Fig 3.

Michelangelo's Pieta

Michelangelo's Pieta


Image obtained from http://catholic.christianityinview.com/images/catholic/pieta.jpg

Fig 4.
A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (Johannes Vemeer 1657-1659)

Vermeer's Girl Reading A Letter

Vermeer's Girl Reading A Letter


Image obtained from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/
girl_reading_a_letter_by_an_open_window.html

References:

N.Abercrombie and B. Longhurst, Dictionary of Media Studies 1997 Penguin Books Ltd, England
Barthes, R. Camera Lucida, 2000, Vintage Books, London, England
Barthes, R. Mythologies, 2000, Vintage Books, London, England
Berger, J. Ways of Seeing 1972 British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, London England
Brereton, P. The Continuum Guide to Media Education 2001/2005 Continuum London
Rinzler, The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. 2007
Sontag, S. On Photography 2002, Penguin Classics London England
Williams, K. Understanding Media Theory, 2003, Hodder Arnold, London, England

Fight Club, 1999. Film. Directed by David FINCHER. USA: Art Linson Productions.

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/semiotic.html

http://www.artnet.com/galleries/Exhibitions.asp?gid=424237643&cid=151408

http://www.artnet.com/galleries/Exhibitions.asp?gid=424237643&cid=151408&currpage=1&

currpage2=2&rta=http://www.artnet.com/artwork/425875071/
424237643/david-lachapelle-courtney-love-pieta.html&source=2&type=2

http://www.burntout.com/kurt/biography/

http://catholic.christianityinview.com/images/catholic/pieta.jpg

http://www.davidlachapelle.com/home.html

http://printedimage.files.wordpress.com/2007/03/bookblog.jpeg

http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/girl_reading_a_letter_by_an_open_window.html

Bibliography:

N.Abercrombie and B. Longhurst, Dictionary of Media Studies 1997 Penguin Books Ltd, England
Barthes, R. Camera Lucida, 2000, Vintage Books, London, England
Barthes, R. Mythologies, 2000, Vintage Books, London, England
Berger, J. Ways of Seeing 1972 British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, London England
Brereton, P. The Continuum Guide to Media Education 2001/2005 Continuum London
LaChapelle, D. Heaven to Hell.Volume 3 2008, Taschen Books, Köln, Germany
Rinzler, The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. 2007
Sontag, S. On Photography 2002, Penguin Classics London England
Williams, K. Understanding Media Theory, 2003, Hodder Arnold, London, England

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/semiotic.html

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Modules/TF12710/visindex.html

http://www.artnet.com/galleries/Exhibitions.asp?gid=424237643&cid=151408

http://www.artnet.com/galleries/Exhibitions.asp?gid=424237643&cid=151408&currpage=1&currpage2=2&rta=

http://www.artnet.com/artwork/425875071/424237643/

david-lachapelle-courtney-love-pieta.html&source=2&type=2

http://www.burntout.com/kurt/biography/

http://catholic.christianityinview.com/images/catholic/pieta.jpg

http://www.davidlachapelle.com/home.html

http://www.essentialvermeer.com/

http://www.mtv.com/music/artist/hole/artist.jhtml#bio

http://printedimage.files.wordpress.com/2007/03/bookblog.jpeg

http://www.sshep.com/kurtnew.htm

http://www.taschen.com/

http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=4625380

© Copyright Ciarán Flanagan/Vanessa Monaghan March 2009

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