Review: Annie Leibovitz, Semiotics of Portrait Photography. Can a photograph only be successful, if, according to the structuralist mantra, there is an overriding structure to all human artistry, specifically photography?

Umberto Eco once stated that Ian Fleming’s novels, about the eponymous British spy James Bond, are effectively ‘narrating machines’. Here, Eco is inferring that in literature there appears to be a structure or process to fictional writing that makes it successful. The Structuralist Movement of the 1960s purports to this notion of there being an over-arching structure to the anthropological, sociological and linguistic elements of human culture; it rests its understanding on ‘the belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations [thus] constitute a structure….’[1] Saussure, the founder of structural linguistics, argues that words and concepts gain their meaning from their relationships and contrasts with other words within the same culture; this is for Saussure the process of sign, signification and the referent.[2]

Umberto Eco employs this understanding of structural linguistics to argue that the success of Fleming’s novels lie in their adherence to a conceptual and linguistic structure, which would seem to imply that Fleming’s deviation from this process would have made the James Bond franchise less successful or simply unsuccessful. This divulgence in literary criticism may seem tangential when reviewing a series of photographs by American portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz, but what I am seeking to demonstrate by extrapolating Eco’s criticism, and semiotics, is that the portrait photographs by Leibovitz also appear to have a formal structure in order for them to be regarded as “successful”. Moreover, if we use the logic of structural-linguistics, in that, if we are to accept that language is an on-going, all-encompassing system that commands and forms humans’ concept of reality, accordingly, the formulation of speech and cognitive reasoning must be restricted by the limitations of this linguistic reality. Thus, any construction of a photograph, or any attempt to describe or ascribe meaning to photographs, is thence only enabled through language, and restricted by it. Roland Barthes in conjunction, states that ‘The conventions of photography…are themselves replete with signs.’[3] The implication of this is to assert that meaning, and thus the reception of photographs or images, and specifically the photographs of Leibovitz are dependent on the understanding of language and its overall effective structural composition. Moreover, can we instead think of photographs having their own language and syntactical structure, like language.

Annie Leibovitz has had a long and fruitful career in the commercial photography industry. Her work and labour is highly sought after, having previously been commissioned to work for Vogue and Rolling Stone magazines. Presently I have chosen some of her most well-known photographs which document some of her professional works. It is important to make clear that just as the portrait photographer conducts the subject and the objects in the photographs, I am choosing particular photographs that conform to my argument; about there being a relationship between the construction of a photograph and an over-arching semiotic-like structure.  Andrew Quilty correspondingly states of Leibovitz’s:   

‘…in terms of her [Leibovitz] professional work, these portraits [A Photographers Life 1990-2005; Photographs] and others like them direct more curiosity toward the creation of the image than to the subjects themselves.’[4]

This statement infers that the idea of the creation of the image is to suggest that there is some necessary formal element to its composure, and that the subjects within the images are part of a structural composition in the construction of fashion portraiture photography. What appears to make Leibovitz’s unique, are certain structural components present in the photographs, such as gender, sexuality, and moreover technical processes such as lighting, tone, focus and her use of colour. However, these features that seem to make Leibovitz unique are according to the structuralist mantra, de facto the product of a system of signs,   and in similar fashion to Eco’s criticism of Fleming’s works, have led to their success. Let us now look at some examples in the hope of demonstrating this hypothesis.

The specific formal features of the photos in general are of great importance as to how we may draw some conclusions about the structural, linguistic elements and their apparent contingent appearance in the photos. All the photographs I have selected apart from figure 4 are set against very neutral, unfurnished backgrounds; this allows for a sharp and concentrated focus on the subject in the photo. Evident also is the minimalistic clothing in the first five photos, also adding to a simplistic and organic tone. Although figures 1, 2, 3, and 4 are all sharply focused, they have a seemingly dull, muted tone; which would suggest soft key lighting, whereas figure 5 looks to have been exposed to a greater concentration of light, creating a more vibrant focus on the subject and extenuating the colour. The camera is also focused specifically on the subject in figure 5, so as to not be distracted by the objects in the setting. What should also be noted is the use of colour in all of the photos. Leibovitz has used both colour and black and white photography in her works, but I have chosen to select only coloured photos to show the varying formal features of the photographic process.

Moreover, it is important to highlight the role of the photographer in these instances. It is a common critical argument that in literature the author is subject to his or her contextual atmosphere; their works both consciously and unconsciously reflect the political, social, and critical sentiments, amongst a plethora of other influencing factors, of their environment. So too, I would argue, is the photographer. Much of the debate over agency in artistic endeavour is centred on the question of whether or not the creative being is autonomous. In Leibovitz’s case it is difficult to deduce: however I would suggest most convincingly that Leibovitz is a product of her context and is unfortunately simply a reproductive agent; she is a being that is commanded by not only her context, but also the structural boundaries of her industry; just as language is governed and limited by the same structure.

As shown above in the more detailed analysis of the photos, the images that I have chosen are portraits. Moreover, the fact that they are fashion portraits, commissioned by Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and are thus commanded by the rules or perhaps the “language” of fashion and portraiture photography. In a very much deterministic fashion, the photographer and their work, according to the premise of structural linguistics, is both created by the grammar of fashion and portraiture photography, and restricted by this structure. For example, Vanity Fair would not commission a photograph of the ocean, the premise of fashion magazines and fashion photography is commanded by the need to have a subject. In order for Leibovitz’s work to be used by Vanity Fair for example, she and other fashion photographers have to adhere to the formal structure of fashion portraiture photography. There has to be a subject, the subjects face must be on show, more particular features such as the focus and lighting in the photographs have minor differences, but nevertheless are consistent with the structural boundaries of this particular form of photography. Much like Fleming, Leibovitz’s work is successful because it unwillingly rests its construction and narrative on a preconceived, all-encompassing, omnipotent structure. Victor Burgin evidentially concludes:

‘photographs are texts inscribed in terms of what we may call ‘photographic discourse’, but this discourse, like any other, engages discourses beyond itself, the ‘photographic text’, like any other, is the site of a complex ‘intertextuality’, an overlapping series of previous texts ‘taken for granted’ at a particular cultural and historical conjecture.’[5]

Early understandings between semiotics and photography argued that there are:

‘…codes of analogy by which photographs denote objects in the world, the codes of connotation through which denotation serves a secondary system of meanings, and the ‘rhetorical’ codes of juxtaposition of elements within a photograph and between different but adjacent photographs.’[6]

However, work of this vain showed that there was in fact no single signifying system in photographs, but rather there was a ‘heterogeneous complex of codes upon which photography may draw’; a structure of “codes” or language exclusive to photography. Leibovitz is thus in this case, determined by these modes and of the “language” of photography. [7]  

Conclusively, if we are to maintain the structural-linguistic premise of language being an all-encompassing system that commands our concept of reality, we must sustain the logic that we are thus restricted by this linguistic construction of reality. Photography, as a medium of capturing our reality through light exposure onto light-sensitive film, or image sensor, is thus only facilitated through language, and restricted by it. Any attempt (including this review), to ascribe meaning or comprehend photographs, are conditional because of the limitations presented by language. Moreover, not only are we limited in our descriptive capacities, it can also be argued that if we do not necessarily agree with the first premise, the structural photographic “grammar” or language, is thence limited by its own logic. Thus, Leibovitz, like Fleming as I stated in the beginning, is successful because the construction of her photographs are reliant on a successful structure. Like the James Bond novels, they possess a respected and celebrated structural composition that enables them to be successful. Leibovitz does not necessarily have a structure herself, there is no sign (Saussure) unique to her, but she is governed by the structural boundaries of fashion portraiture photography, shown in the structural composition of the photos I have selected. Her photos are successful because of the structure within which she works and is contingent of this; her success as an artist is thus dependent on this.



Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (The Noonday Press, 1972) [ACCESSED 24/01/2014]

Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (Vintage, 1993)

Blackburn, Simon, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 7.

Burgin, Victor, ‘Looking at Photographs’, Screen Education, 24 (1977), pp. 17-14. [ACCESSED 18/01/2014]

Leibovitz, Annie, Annie Leibovitz: Photographs (Thames & Hudson, 1984)

Leibovitz, Annie, Photographs, 1970-1990 (HarperCollins, 1991)

Saussure, Ferdinand de, Course in General Linguistics, in Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, eds., Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd ed., (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)

Quilty, Andrew, Review: A Photographers Life 1990-2005, [ACCESSED 16/01/2014]

Photograph Online Sources:

Figure 1


Magazine Cover:

Figure 2


Magazine Cover:

Figure 3


Magazine Cover:

Figure 4


Magazine Cover:,,EntPeopleTax:DaveMatthewsBand,00.html

Figure 5



[1] Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 7.

[2] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, in Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, eds., Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd ed., (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp.59-71.

[3] Roland Barthes, Mythologies (The Noonday Press, 1972), p. 92. [ACCESSED 24/01/2014]

[4] Andrew Quilty, Review: A Photographers Life 1990-2005, [ACCESSED 16/01/2014]

[5] Victor Burgin, ‘Looking at Photographs’, Screen Education, 24 (1977), pp. 17-14. [ACCESSED 18/01/2014]

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. 


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