Discourse Analysis

Corrine Linnecar

We perceive a photograph as more than a system of dots upon a page. As humans we are able to read images, much as we do words. Within the realm of linguistics, verbal systems of communication have been identified as a system of codes, with comprehension of language dependant on an individuals ability to decode. Within this essay I will conduct a linguistic examination of a visual concept.


In the accompanying essay to Annie Leibovitz’s Women, in which I found an image of Louise Bourgeois, Susan Sontag states, “a photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?” (Sontag, 1999: 36). Linguistics has made it clear that within verbal systems of communication there are systems of codes. Comprehension of language is dependant on an individual’s ability to ‘decode’ these systems which requires familiarity with the codes and conventions in play (Wells, 2003: 110). However, the debate as to how non-verbal systems of communication produce meaning is still under debate. The importance of semiotics, the science of signs, is stressed greatly in understanding how we read a photograph. Theorists do still differ on their arguments as to how images should be analysed in terms of meaning, with Barthes believing analysis should be undertaken in terms of the layering of signification and Eco suggesting the rhetorical function of the image comes primarily from iconographic emphasis (Wells, 2003: 110,111). Barthes brings about some interesting issues when he relates the word ‘image’ back to it’s root ‘imatari’ meaning a kind of copy or re-presentation (Barthes, 2003: 114) raising the question as to whether a ‘copy’ can shape meaning and how meaning enters an image initially. However, what is certain is that we are able to read a photograph as more than just a system of dots on a 2D surface, as Barthes stated, “We read images, understand that they assemble in a common space a number of identifiableobjects, not merely shapes and colours” (2003: 116). In this essay I will analyse Leibovitz’s photograph Louise Bourgeois: from her book Women: 1999. I will analyse this image in order to understand the rhetoric of the image and in order to do so I will look at the different messages we receive from the image, for example the conotational message. Though a photograph can be seen to be divorced from its original context I will look at the original context in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the photograph.

Photographs give us messages, the first of which being denotational (Barthes, 2003: 115). This portrait is a black and white image in landscape format, a renaissance perspective. It pictures one woman, alone in front of a chipped and slightly grubby wall. Within the frame the woman is positioned with both her face and her body angled away from the lens with only her right hand face on to the camera in a loose grip like posture. The shot shows us only the woman’s head and shoulders; her left hand is omitted, as is a small part of her right shoulder. We are therefore concentrated on only her head, very upper body and predominantly her right hand. The woman has straight hair swept back off her face which hangs down her back; it looks to be quite long though we do not see its entire length. Her hair is dark, with some very obvious grey within it; it seems old, brittle and perhaps uncared for. The woman is very elderly; her face is extremely wrinkled and worn with her skin drooping downwards. She also appears quite frail; the small part of her wrist and arm we see appears thin and fragile exaggerated by the oversized shirt or jacket she wears. Her expression is blank. Her face seems to tell us nothing of her mood or emotion and we are even unable to depict whether her eyes are open or shut or even whether she is alive. 

 The woman is not glamorised within the image and neither is the setting. The portrait has not been taken in a conventional photography studio; instead it is taken against a slightly worn plain wall that is perhaps even unpainted. From the overall styling of the woman she appears not to be a celebrity, she is not made up and romanticised and her only decorative item she wears is a very plain hoop earring. The portrait is simple and uncomplicated and perhaps this is the beauty of it. The foremost component of the image is the wrinkles, delicate and harsh all at once. The lighting is such that it highlights the contours and small details of her face and clothing, also blackening her eyes so we are unable to depict expression from them.

 The second message a photograph gives us in conotational. Within this image we see the eighty six year old Louise Bourgeois worn and wrinkled. However; though her thin wrist, wrinkled skin and lifeless hair connote a frail elderly woman there is something powerful about her persona. Her hand gesture is not a strong definite pose instead her hand is held in mid-air with a loose grasp, disturbingly similar to the natural posture hands return to when one sleeps, or when one dies. From this we could depict that she is finally relaxing after a long and hard working career or more gloomily that she is nearing death, her body is tired and her hands exhausted. Emphasising the idea of death, her clothes are as rags to a skeleton, drooped loosely over her tiny frame looking as though many years ago they may have fit her before her body grew old and shrunk to the tiny skeleton like creature framed within this shot.  All the same, the importance of the hand within this portrait is unquestionable, hands are said to show our true age and perhaps more importantly for Bourgeois they are the tool she has crafted her career with, the working force of her success. Looking at the image for a matter of seconds and are eyes are drawn across the image, left to right and immediately back to the hand. It’s illuminated with strong lighting stressing the delicate, deep lines within her skin allowing us to observe every detail. The positioning of her hand, face on to the lens, next to her face and body which are angled to the right looking towards her hand, accentuate it’s significance and it appears almost as if she is looking through her hand out at the world. She seems to be viewing the world with her hands. 

 Due to the context in which I found this image, Annie Leibovitz’s Women 1999 the artist is shown to be American, as the book is a collection of images of women within America. However; Bourgeois is in fact a French born American sculptor yet she always regarded herself as an American artist not a French one (Sewell, 2007). There is no hint at her French origins within this image, perhaps stressing the unimportance of her heritage. In fact Bourgeois is so weathered looking, at first sight she looks very similar to an American Indian, perhaps being another reason Leibovitz chose this image for collection of American Women.

 Much as with language where the importance of pragmatics is highly valued in regards to understanding meaning, it is essential to involve a certain amount of context in my analysis to truly understand the rhetoric of this image. Bourgeois had a troubling childhood involving the betrayal of her father, the death of her mother and an attempted suicide (Telegraph, 2010). In later life it wasn’t a sudden turnaround either. Her marriage to the American art historian Robert Goldwater appeared more of an escape than any great love affair and for most of her life instead of being known for her art, she was merely known as Goldwater’s charming French wife (McNay, 2010). Bourgeois never let go of her distressing childhood and instead expressed it harshly through her art, with one piece named Destruction of the Father which she explained by describing it as “a kind of dream in which the children turn on the father over the dining table and dismember him” (McNay, 2010). It wasn’t until Bourgeois was in her 50’s that her art began to be noticed. She emerged as a feminist angry at her past (Sewell, 2007).

 In the introductory essay by Susan Sontag to Women 1999 the aims and inspiration for the collection of photographs becomes clear. The collection is an exploration of modern feminism, what it is to be female, the diversity, the confirmation of stereotypes and the challenge to those stereotypes. Sontag and Leibovitz also appear to be proving a point as Sontag states that each sitter in this book will be looked at as a model, because they are all women, whereas a book of men would never be analysed in the same way (Sontag, 1999: 20). It is therefore interesting to note that Bourgeois, a feminist herself and one whom goes against many female stereotypes was chosen to be included in this collection. Within the context of the book the importance of Bourgeois’s age, career and lack of stereotypical glamour and beauty are undeniable. She could be said to represent the challenge to many female stereotypes. Bourgeois is an example of many things; unhidden ageing, as she does not hide behind makeup or kind lighting, instead she appears to embrace her natural appearance and age. She also is an example of a great and successful career that has impacted upon society, a widow, a mother, a talent and a feminist.

 A photograph is dislocated from its original context and space. It is a piece of time, yet what is selected to be included within the frame of a photograph and what is excluded from the frame creates and breaks certain relationships, the spatial and temporal dislocation cause a re-representation of a social reality yet in small discontinuous parts (Sontag, 2005: 33,34) It is due to this spatial dislocation that we are unable to identify what, if anything Bourgeois is looking out at. It is especially important here to note that a photographer’s picture is never accidental but it is purposely selected and all within that frame is there for a reason much as all that is absent is so for a reason (Szarkowski, 2005: 100). Perhaps Bourgeois is looking through her hand out at the world, or perhaps this is more a representation of how she views the world, viewing it with her eyes yet realizing it with her hands as she does with her sculpting. Divorcing this image from its context allows us to view Bourgeois purely as her, not distracted by her art or surroundings. By placing Bourgeois in front of empty space Leibovitz is causing us to really look at her, at every detail. 

 This image goes against female stereotypes as it is not picturing a youthful sexy woman to be objectified by the male eye. Feminist art historians Griselda Pollock and Deborah Cherry criticise how woman are conventionally positioned within art, “circulating Woman, as the beautiful image for the desiring male gaze”, however within Leibovitz’s image this seems far from the position intended for Bourgeois. The two art historians go on to say that by positioning women in art in such an objectifying way women are denied as being known as products of culture and meaning (Pollock and Cherry cited in Barrett, 2006:195) so perhaps by denying Bourgeois the role of the beautiful woman to be objectified, she is instead viewed as a being of culture and meaning especially when her career in which she has made a great impact on culture is brought into consideration. However; Leibovitz believes one of the greatest realisations from her book Women 1999 is that elderly women are beautiful too (Leibovitz, 2005) and this is a strong example of this, Bourgeois beauty is not stereotypical within this image but admirable. 

This image seems strongly to resemble death. The blank expression of Bourgeois with perhaps closed eyes and her pose which seems as though she has died in her sleep, lying on her side with her hand up by her head scream death. Realism is brought into the image by the use of a black and white colour scale, but this could also have been to build on the some what gloomy atmosphere of the image and the age of the sitter. The profile view is virtually a death mask with such emphasis on her harshly wrinkled skin. The great impact of this image appears to be because of the intense focus on the face and hand. When searching for this image on google thousands appear, mainly from blogs and articles; many of which report on the death of Bourgeois in May 2010 (McNay, 2010) yet none of the leading newspapers have used this image on their report of her death. Perhaps the resemblance to death was thought too harsh and would be thought of too literally as her ‘dying image’ which may have caused controversy especially as most newspapers reported on her death on the actual day or merely a few days later. In the world of Art however websites have not strayed from the image and it is used on many articles and memorial pages including that of Art Lyst, London’s art network website. 

Leibovitz has captured an intense realism to death within this image, picturing a woman who embraces her age rather than strays or hides from it. Much of Leibovitz’s work from her collection of photographs Women 1999 seem to attempt to capture the character of the person, not wanting to glamorise the unglamorous, or roughen up the beautiful. By focusing strongly on the hand we are forced to ask its importance and with some contextual knowledge it seems obvious that a lot of its importance is due to Bourgeois being a sculptress. By use of exaggeration, with the wrinkles, and lack of colour the image is brought to life and in turn Bourgeois is brought to a death like creature. This photograph tells the story of an independent, aged woman who much like Leibovitz likes to do the unexpected both in her art and in her portrayal of herself straying from stereotypical norms.


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  • Cherry, D and Pollock, G cited in Barrett. (2006 ). Criticizing Photographs . 4th ed. New York : McGraw-Hill . 195.
  • Sontag, S. (1999). Women. London: Random House. 20, 36.  
  • Sontag, S. (2005). On Photography. In: la Grange, A Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Oxford : Elsevier Ltd. 33, 34.
  • Szarkowski, J. (2003). Introduction to the Photographer's Eye. In: Wells, L The photography Reader. London: Routledge. 100.
  • Wells, L. (2003). The Photography Reader . London: Routledge . 110, 111.
  • Sewell, B. (2007). Curse of The Spider Woman. Accessed 16 January 2012.
  • McNay, M. (2010). Louise Bourgeois Obituary. Accessed 10 January 2012.
  • Unknown Author. (2010). Louise Bourgeois.Accessed 19th January 2010.



Corrine Linnecar


brightONLINE student literary journal

10 Aug 2012