Monday 24 May 2010

Iconic Codes and Signs

For Peirce, the world of signs is fully described by the trio of icon, symbol, and index – signs, that is, by resemblance or anology, by convention […], and by ‘casual’ or ‘existential’ connection (a trace that signals its cause; a pointing finger). (Mitchell, 1986:56)

At the heart of any culture are a number of heavily used signs which acquire particularly rich connotations and which accordingly convey powerfully stable meanings. (Morgan and Welton, 1986:97)

Such signs may be referred to as icons, after the religious pictures of Orthodox Christianity, and which are popularly felt to embody the power of what they portray. (Morgan and Welton, 1986:97)

C S Pierce, further distinguished between iconic, indexical and symbolic codes. (Wells, 2004:29-30)

Iconic codes are based upon resemblance, for instance, a picture of someone or something. (Wells, 2004:30)

[…] American semiotician C S Pierce, signs may be iconic (based upon resemblance to that represented), indexical (based upon a trace or indicator, for example, smoke indicates fire) or symbolic (based upon conventional associations). (Wells, 2004:45)

Chemically produced photographs incorporate all three constituents: images resemble the person or place or object represented; they are indexical in that the subject had to be present for the photograph to be made, which means that the image is essentially a ‘trace’; and images circulate in specific cultural contexts within which differing symbolic meanings and values may adhere. (Wells, 2004:45)

Visual signs are what are called iconic signs. (Hall, 1997:20)

That is, they bear, in their form, a certain resemblance to the object, person or event to which they refer. (Hall, 1997:20)

A photograph is a tree reproduces some of the actual conditions of our visual perception in the visual sign. (Hall, 1997:20)

The coded iconic message: these are the connotations a particular society will draw from the visual elements. The string bag has connotations of returning from a market, which has connotations of freshness as do the vegetables. The tri-colours of the vegetables and labels suggest the Italian flag. (La Grange, 2005:234)

The non-coded iconic message: these are the objects that are literally denoted, irrespective of the societies codes, the vegetables, net, etc. (La Grange, 2005:234)

Index and Icon

Scott points out that Frank Webster in his The New Photographer (1980) quotes from Larkin’s poem Lines on a Young Ladies Photograph Album, from the Less Deceived, 1955, which both distinguishes photography from art and asserts the empirical truth of photography, but still Webster concludes ‘”Photography is, to adopt the terminology of semiology, an ‘iconic’ mode of signification”’ (p26). (La Grange, 2005:137)

This distinction between photography’s sign being the index and painting’s the icon is fundamental and suggests that the ‘happy snapper’ is closer to the real function of photography than the few art photographers whose work is hung in galleries. (La Grange, 2005:138)

Seeing a photograph as in index brings it closer to the first version of photography, the taking as opposed the second version, the production of the image. (La Grange, 2005:138)

As further support for the notion that photography is more indexical than iconic, that its function is to say something happened rather to say what it means, Scott gives the example of family and holiday snapshots; those who took them would argue that their photographs are not substitutes for memory, but aids to remembering. (La Grange, 2005:139)

Scott feels that simply to classify painting as iconic and photography as indexical is inadequate. (La Grange, 2005:140)

Dubois sees photography as being classified as indexical as indicative of a change of critical emphasis that moved from regarding photography as a mirror of the real, then to seeing it as transformation of the real, and finally to a trace of the real. (La Grange, 2005:140)

For Scott, an account of photography is needed that accommodates both of the versions of photography he outlined at the beginning of the chapter. This account would see photography both as indexical and iconic in the following ways:

1. From the beginning, the photograph has a large ‘dose’ of the iconic, the photographer maximises decisions about lenses, films, filters, proximity, etc, before exposure, so minimizing chance. This results in the photograph reflecting a set of judgements made in front of reality before the exposure;

2. Every photograph becomes an image and moves from the indexical to the iconic, but also remains indexical This entails the change of status of the photograph between the negative and the print (irrespective of the changes made during printing; paper, chemicals etc) and later (mounting and circulation etc). The assumption that the negative is the real photograph and the print is a version, a ‘meta-photo’. Scott quotes from Tournier’s The Erl-King, ‘”A photographic image, which is indisputably an emanation of reality, is at the same time consubstantial with my fantasies and on a level with my imaginary universe.”’ (p33);

3. photography as history, the older a photograph is the less able we are able to say under what circumstances the photograph was taken, and so it fills a representative role. All that remains of the indexicality is punctum, but at the same time their studium (educative and cultural value etc) increases. All photographs become, with time, documentary. (La Grange, 2005:140)

The moving of the photograph from the indexical to the iconic frees it from the instant, the Erlebnis, to a generalised and more fruitful Erfahrung. (La Grange, 2005:142)

Scott uses the following table to summarise:


Past reality





Punctum (trauma, obtuse meaning)



Present use







Pierce has three semiotic categories: the indexical, the inconic and the symbolic. (La Grange, 2005:143)

[…] the indexical has a direct link to the subject, like smoke to fire, the icon resembles the subject and the symbol is only linked by convention, like a word. (La Grange, 2005:143)

Scott takes the three categories of sign; index, icon and symbol and lists which genres of photography tend to belong to which category. (La Grange, 2005:144)

Under index, he places photojournalism, documentary, portrait, photogram, pornography and the family snap; under icon, fashion, nude photo-story and landscape; under symbol, allegory, photomontage and advertising. (La Grange, 2005:144)

All three genres can move towards being icons and all the symbol genres can move towards being iconic. (La Grange, 2005:144)

The iconic genre’s fashion and photo-story can move to either of the other signs while nude and landscape can only move to being indexical. (La Grange, 2005:144)

Peirce’s account established the pattern for later semiotics by defining photographs as composites of iconic and indexical signs:

Photographs, especially instantaneous photographs, are very instructive, because we know that they are in certain respects exactly like the objects they represent. But this resemblance is due to the photographs having been produced under such circumstances that they were physically forced to correspond point by point to nature. In that aspect, then, they belong to the second class of signs, those to physical connection. (Mitchell, 1986:59-60)

The photograph occupies the same position in the world of material signs that the ‘impression’ does in the world of mental signs or ‘ideas’ in empirical epistemology. (Mitchell, 1986:61)

[…] Roland Barthes finds himself saying the following sorts of things about photographs:

The photograph (in its literal state), by virtue of its absolutely analogical nature, seems to constitute a message without a code. Here, however, structural analysis must differentiate, for of all the kinds of image only the photograph is able to transmit the (literal) information without forming it by means of discontinuous signs and rules of transformation. The photograph, message without a code, must thus be opposed to the drawing which, even when denoted, is a coded message. (Mitchell, 1986:60) - from: (Barthes 1977:143)

As a comment on the anthropology of photographs, a remark about the peculiar cultural status of a certain class of images, this passage seems quite accurate. (Mitchell, 1986:60)

The photograph, like its parent notion, the mental impression, enjoys a certain mystique in our culture that can be described by terms such as ‘abosolutely analogical’ and ‘message without a code’. (Mitchell, 1986:60)

The photograph does, as Barthes claims, seem to involve a different sort of ‘ethic’ from that associated with drawings and paintings. (Mitchell, 1986:60)

Semiotics, Iconic Signs and Symbols

La Grange states that icon has a slightly different meaning in semiotics. It is a sign that has no direct link to the thing it represents, but something that is made to look like the thing it represents. He gives an example that painting or road signs can be icons. (La Grange, 2005:240).

La Grangs adds that an icon is a reconstruction that resembles or imitates the subject. (La Grange, 2005:138)

Morgan and Welton state that an icon is a sign which, through frequent repetition, gains a central position in the communication systems of a culture and acquire rich and stable connotations. (Morgan and Welton, 1986:97)

There is more stuff in Mitchell (pg 162) about idols and festishes. Is this important?

Everything in the world is similar to everything else in some respects, if we look hard enough. (Mitchell, 1986:56-57)

Mitchell citing Nelson Goodman, says resemblance is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for any sort of representation, pictorial, iconic, or otherwise:

An object resembles itself to the maximum degree but rarely represents itself; resemblance, unlike representation is reflexive. Again, unlike representation, resemblance is symmetric: B is as much like A as A is like B, but while a painting may represent the Duke of Wellington, the Duke doesn’t represent the painting. Furthermore, in many cases neither one of a pair of very like objects represents the other: none of the automobiles off an assembly line is a picture of any of the rest; and a man is not normally a representation of another man, even his twin brother. Plainly, resemblance in any degree is no sufficient condition for representation … Nor is resemblance necessary for reference; almost anything can stand for anything else. A picture that represents […] an object refers to and more particularly, denotes it. Denotation is the core of representation and is independent of resemblance. (Mitchell, 1986:57)

One way out of this problem is to follow Umberto Eco’s suggestion that semiotics consider “getting rid of ‘iconic signs’” altogether:

Iconic signs are partially ruled by convention but are at the same time motivated; some of them refer to an established stylistic rule, while others appear to propose a new rule … […] One and only one conclusion seems possible at this point: iconism is not a single phenomenon, nor indeed a uniquely semiotic one. It is a collection of phenomena bundled together under an all-purpose label (just as in the Dark Ages the word “plague” probably covered a lot of different diseases) … It is the very notion of sign which is untenable and which makes the derived notion of “iconic sign” so puzzling. (Mitchell, 1986:57)

The problem with the notion of icon is not just that it embraces too many sorts of things, but, more fundamentally, that the whole concept of ‘sign’ drawn from linguistics seems inappropriate to inconicity in general, and to pictorial symbols in particular. (Mitchell, 1986:58)

[…] Socrates also begins to question the iconic theory of icons […](Mitchell, 1986:92)

“The image,” Socrates points out, “must not by any means reproduce all the qualities of that which it imitates, if it is to be an image” (Mitchell, 1986:92)

If it did ‘reproduce all the qualities’, we would have a ‘duplicate’, not an image. (Mitchell, 1986:92)

The image, therefore, is necessarily imperfect, representing things both by likeness and unlikeness. (Mitchell, 1986:92)

The image behind the concept of commodity […] is the fetish or idol, an object of superstition, fantasy and obsessive behavior. (Mitchell, 1986:162)

Both are ‘hyper-icons’ or images in a double sense, like Plato’s cave or Locke’s tabula rasa, in that they are themselves ‘scenes’ or sites of graphic image-production, as well as rhetorical images (metaphors, analogies, likenesses). (Mitchell, 1986:162)

When we speak of them as ‘images’ then it is important to keep in mind that we are using the term to refer (I) to the use of these objects as concrete vehicles in a metaphoric treatment of abstractions, and (2) to objects which themselves are graphic images or producers of images. (Mitchell, 1986:162)


  • Barthes, Roland (1977) Image-Music-Text, London: Fontana
  • Hall, Stuart, (1997) Representation, Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices. London: Sage
  • La Grange, Ashley (2005), Basic Critical Theory for Photographers, Oxford: Focal Press
  • Mitchell, W J T (1986) Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, London: The University of Chicago Press
  • Morgan, John and Welton, Peter (1986) See What I Mean: An Introduction to Visual Communication, London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd
  • Wells, Liz (2004) Photography: A Critical Introduction, Third Edition. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge