Part 0 – Notes on ‘Beneath the Surface’ Article

Digesting the article written by Sharon Boothroyd called ‘Beneath the Surface’ on the OCA website gave me a really excellent grounding on how to build in photographic theory into critical reviews of photographs.  In particular I found it useful to make a note of some of the terminology used as well as the method of construction of her critique. She used the image Insomnia by Jeff Wall to demonstrate the skills needed. I’ve summarised my learning from it below:-

Decoding images involves reading the connotations they contain and advertising images etc. depend heavily on these connotations being communicated clearly.  You use photographic theory to deconstruct a picture and decipher some of the levels of understanding that can be applied to one single image.

There are 2 levels:-

  • The Formal Level (‘denotations’) i.e. the specific meaning commonly applied to a thing or word. It  strips things of their poetry and operates on facts and functionality.  E.g. the word ‘home’ denotes a building made of brick and stone.
  • The Informal Level (‘connotations’) i.e. information delivered to us via a series of signs and signifiers carefully selected and utilised by the photographer e.g. lighting techniques (harsh/soft) etc. E.g. the word ‘home’ connotes a place of warmth, familiarity and comfort.

Steps used to Analyse the Photograph

  1. Explain at a formal level i.e. describe the denotations
  2. Explain at an informal level i.e. describe the  connotations (signs and signifiers selected and utilised by the photographer)
  3. Include a personal reading of the image based on personal experience/memories
  4. Explain the work in the context of art, literature and film, and include the photographer’s references to other photographers in his/her images
  5. Explain the ‘context’ of the image e.g. the size it is printed, it’s position, it’s intended audience etc.


Boothroyd, S. (2014) Notes beneath the Surface. At:


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