In this post I am going to consider the of semiotic genre of; ‘icon’ for its emphasis on semantics or the signified / signifier, denotation / connotation relationship rather than what I perceive to be the more arbitrary general aesthetic or subject classifications of ‘landscape’ and ‘people’, for example. In this post I give a brief explanation of the iconic.

The photograph can shift from the indexical into the iconic (without losing its indexicality) by becoming an ‘image’. The signifier can be said to resemble the signified.

It becomes a signifier with a signified as well as a referent. The changes invoking this process are;

  • Acquiring a cultural independence (to varying degrees) and can stand on its own to constitute a sign.
  • It becomes subject to language. For the indexical, language informs about the ‘when and where’ only, however for the iconic it must supply the ‘what and why’. The aforementioned constitution as an ‘image’ in circulation requires answers and justification of the viewer’s attention and placement within a cultural context.
  • Connotation superadds itself to denotation. In other words it now has both a signified as well as a referent. Underpinning the co-existence of the iconic and indexical.As images photographs become the way we represent things (events, people) to ourselves rather than being substitute realities to which we respond.
  • Photography leaves one world in which it has features not shared by other arts and enters one in which they are, although their specific modes of operation may be different. For instance both photography and painting are framed, although photography derives its framing from the perceiving mechanism (camera) rather than form the support canvas. Photography’s framing does not guarantee compositional values in the way that paintings does (More detail on these points warrants another post at a later date).

(Scott 1999)

As the first paragraph states the signifier resembles the signified; or the iconic resembles the subject, such as a sign for a bend in the road. Marilyn Monroe’s association with Hollywood, glamour, femininity (cultural bias and specificity), as is put forward in this example, is to a point culturally specific.

Scott (The Spoken Image 1999) states the landscape photograph is iconic in the first instance as it looks like what it signifies. Implying that any use of language can only really fulfil a spatial placement and more would become tautologous.

Icon presents imagery through which we can examine our collective cultural understanding, the way that we attribute meaning through recognition to objects or even people through sharing and assimilation.


Scott, Clive 1999: The Spoken Image, Reaktion Books, London P.31.