Informing Contexts, Coursework - Into the Image World

The most significant indexical power of the photograph may consequently not lie in the relation between the photograph and it’s subject but in the relation between the photograph and its beholder (p69. Olin, 2012)

In this statement, Margret Olin notes that the relationship between a photograph and it’s viewer may be more significant than the relationship between a photograph and the subject it depicts. All images are made up of signs, which the viewer decodes to create meaning. Therefore, every image has the potential to be read in numerous ways depending upon the individual viewer, or ‘decoder’. This is important for photographers to be conscious of, as the intended meaning of one’s work could be easily misconstrued.

Advertising images are loaded with ‘signs’ which are designed to trigger a desired reading from a target viewer or potential customer. As I am currently creating work in rural communities in America, I have become interested in the way that the American West is portrayed in popular culture. Looking at advertising campaigns which present this part of the U.S. may help me to strengthen the intended reading of my own photographs. The Marlboro Man was a hugely successful advertising campaign for Marlboro cigarettes, which ran in the United States for over fifty years. A brief semiotic analysis of this advertisement allows us to identify a few of the key ‘signifiers’ and what may be ’signified’ by them.

  • Cowboy 

Signifies - American, America, Outside, The West, Masculinity, Mysterious, Independence 

  • Cigarette

Signifies - Recklessness, Rebelion, Addiction, 

  • Colour Red

Signifies - Anger, Passion, Boldness, Heat

  • The Word ‘Weekend’

Signifies - Freedom, Relaxation, Time, Enjoyment 

  • Marlboro Font

Signifies - Familiarity, Classic

  • Rope & Sadle 

Signifies - Manual Work, Ruggedness, Equestrian, Outside, Nature, Masculinity, Strength, Farming, Rodeo   

Although I know that this imagery is constructed, and is an unrealistic portrayal of Marlboro’s consumers, the advertisement is still successful as I assume that my reading of the image aligns with Marlboro’s intended meaning. I am also aware that this advertisement is targeted towards male consumers, but yet the meaning remains more or less the same for me. This is considered the ‘dominant’ reading. As there is the potential for multiple readings of any imagery, a different viewer may instead have an ‘oppositional’ or ‘negotiated’ reading of the same advertisement. For example, in some cultures, the cowboy character might not be seen as a hero, or as a representation of freedom, and the resulting reading would be very different. 

When looking at Marlboro advertisements, I thought of Richard Prince’s ‘rephotography’ of imagery from the same series of print advertisements. Looking at Princes Untitled (Cowboy), I find that I read Prince’s photograph in a very similar way to the advertisement above. I decode this image as - America, The West, Freedom, Masculinity, Nature etc. However, I also note an additional meaning - Marlboro. I have also shown this image to other people who are unaware of Prince’s work, who have the same response. This shows how impactful the original advertising campaign was, as divorced of any accompanying text, it still brings to mind the cigarette brand.  

Olin, M. 2012. Touching Photographs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Time Magazine. 100 Photos, Richard Prince Untitled (Cowboy) [Online]. [Accessed 20 February 2018] Available From:

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