A code is a term in semiotics that designates a set of related signs or signifying practices that correspond to a system of meaning. While each sign has a unique signifier, what is signified is generally understood as a marker of difference within a larger group of signs. For instance, the number sign “2” has no meaning without the number system as a whole; when listeners hear the word “2,” they inherently understand that it represents a specific quantity different from 3, 4, and 5, etc., which were not uttered by the speaker. Likewise, together color names comprise a code that corresponds to the color spectrum; “red” is meaningful as a sign because it is not green or blue. Morse code is a set system of dots and dashes that correspond to the alphabet. Knowing the whole code allows an encoder and decoder to communicate by selecting configurations from the code.
In media, codes operate at technical/production, formal/aesthetic, social, professional, and ideological levels. A significant aspect of being a professional photographer is knowing how selections from these codes result in a photograph that communicates the desired message for a specific media context and audience. Thus, codes are also rules or norms that guide professional practice. The degree to which communication takes place between an encoder and a decoder is based on their shared understanding of codes.
Codes In Photography
Consider how codes operate in photography. Taking a photograph involves dozens of technical decisions that affect its look and meaning. Each decision is derived from a technical code or set of related technical choices the photographer makes, among different format sizes, film speeds, shutter speeds, lens types, aperture settings, lighting setups, and whether to use a film or a digital camera. For instance, to create a grainy photograph and its associated meanings, a photographer must make the appropriate selection from each code: a high ASA film, dim lighting with a large aperture opening, a slow shutter speed, etc. Other choices could have been taken, but they would result in a photograph with a different style and meaning.
Formal codes refer to sets of choices photographers make when composing photographs. These formal elements are too numerous to catalogue but include choices like camera placement, distance, angle, how the subject is framed and balanced, and whether it is posed or treated candidly, how the background depth and perspective are constructed, where horizon lines are composed, the use of leading lines to direct attention, and how light, shadow, and color are treated to create depth, pattern, and texture. Formal codes underlie photography’s representational qualities because the visual range between realism and abstractionism derives largely from formal choices. So too, different genres of photography, such as landscape, portrait, news, fine art, postmodernism, advertising, and wedding photography employ different formal codes.
Social codes refer to broader sets of signs that appear in a photograph’s content. Thus, in decoding a commercial photograph, readers employ their existing social and cultural knowledge and experience to make inferences about the meaning of content – say, about the model, her dress, make-up, jewelry, and other props in the picture. Kate Moss playing pool and sipping a can of beer signifies something different than Cindy Crawford dressed like a businesswoman and drinking from a champagne flute. The photographer depends on the reader’s shared knowledge of the codes of fashion models, modes of dress, appropriate vs edgy behavior, and kinds of drinking vessels to communicate meaning.
The Professionals’ Use Of Codes
Photographers rely on professional codes to anticipate the kinds of pictures they should take and the kinds of production practices and values they should follow to fulfill their professional obligations. Professional wedding photographers know the kinds of pictures the bride and groom expect to see in their wedding album, just as news photographers know how to photograph public officials in meetings. Both come prepared with the right technology and expertise to position themselves to photograph the appropriate people at the appropriate moment so the results fit the visual code for their profession.
News photographers understand what editors expect relative to the assignment’s news value and context, whether they be close-ups, long shots, portraits, action shots, sentimental pictures, and so on. Working knowledge of other journalistic codes, such as graphic design, helps photographers anticipate whether vertical and/or horizontal photos might be needed for a news package, and how their photos’ meanings and significance might be combined in layout with headlines, stories, illustrations, and graphics.
Photographic production values are codified as well, and news photographers must understand how certain practices correspond with specific contexts but not others. In investigative news coverage, photographers know the content of their pictures is more significant than their aesthetic value. If a presidential candidate is caught in a compromising situation, a grainy photo would be of little concern. But a blurry food photograph for the cover of a feature section would never even be shown to the editor for consideration.
Professionalism includes knowledge of different ethical codes that prescribe different behavior for different picture-making contexts. In hard news photography, ethical guidelines prohibit photographers from staging their pictures and limit manipulation and retouching. News photographers violating these norms may be fired. On the other hand, commercial photographers win awards for staging, manipulating, and even manufacturing photos through montage and illustration.
Ideological codes result from the fact that adhering to technical, formal, social, and professional codes leads to patterns of photography that repeat narratives, which shape and reify people’s expectations and social norms. Pictures tell us who is powerful, beautiful, and heroic, and who is not. They situate, enculturate, and politicize our gaze toward men, women, and children and their race, class, and ethnicity. Some groups are left out of the frame altogether.
For instance, in reading fashion advertisements, ordinary readers quickly infer that buying the product will make them sexy and rich like the pictured model. Ideological codes frame the readers’ inferences because the assumptions that the ideal woman is sexy and wealthy, that “flaunting it” is desirable, that we want to be like her, and that buying products make us and our lives better are taken for granted and go unquestioned. Thus, particular ideological understandings of how gender, wealth, and desire operate are codified in highly redundant forms and narratives found in everyday communication practice.
The power of ideological codes is that they can operate at an unconscious level in both encoding and decoding. Fashion photographers must apply technical, formal, professional, and social codes to make their pictures fit the fashion industry clients’ expectations. Professional models also know the code of poses they must strike to make acceptable pictures. Neither may recognize that in applying these codes they are ritualistically reproducing an ideology that subordinates women to men. Fashion magazine readers generally flip through these magazines decoding them very quickly. Their familiarity with advertising codes generally does not extend deeply into the realm of technical, formal, or professional codes. But readers have been socialized to take for granted that the signs in the ad are relevant to the product (which often they are not). Knowing these social codes quite well allows readers to make quick inferences that idealize the product.
Such naïve, uncritical encoding and decoding are what Stuart Hall has called the preferred meanings, which situates photographers and readers within the dominant, hegemonic view of the social order. Without a critical attitude toward the way businesses and advertisers codify and thus present the world to us, photographers would seem to be just taking pictures of the natural world. Hall also pointed out two forms of critical decoding. A negotiated reading questions some aspects of the message while an oppositional reading questions all of its assumptions. So, a woman might negotiate the meaning of an ad, criticizing its portrayal of women without criticizing the consumer culture. A devout Muslim’s oppositional reading might see the ad as a sign of the west’s materialist overindulgence and a loss of its spiritual direction, and reject not only the ad but the society that created it.
Signs and the codes in which they are embedded are socially constructed and thus are always politically and ideologically accented. Reproducing messages from within these codes reproduces the ideologies they frame, while oppositional readings are counter-hegemonic and challenge the existing order of things. Hall has written, “One of the most significant political moments . . . is the point when events which are normally signified and decoded in a negotiated way begin to be given an opposition reading. Here the ‘politics of signification’ – the struggle in discourse – is joined” (Hall 1980).
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