Judith Williamson

This weekend I have spent some time reading three articles by Judith Williamson on the interpretation of advertisements.  What is of interest to me as a photographer is the degree to which one can interpret the advertisement and how it sets about having an impact on the reader.  This is important from my perspective to see how I should both interpret an image and how I may build meaning into an image of my own.

The first article was analysing a ‘Camcorder Advertisement[1] in which she compares it to a similar advertisement some 35 years earlier.  The link with capturing memories is key and the inclusion of children.  I find two other elements interesting:  The fact that the moment to be captured is depicted as being untamed.  The association of having to capture something that is untamed is key.  Also, that the recent advert brings in the element of time being precious and limited.

In A Currency of Signs[2] she describes how linkages are made through colour in adverts.  Examples of these links are “Connecting an object with an object” or ‘Connecting the object and a person” etc.  Although the colour itself is not important, it is the link or correlation that it makes that is important.

“what is important is that ads in all media make these connections, through formal techniques, not on the level of the overt signified but via the signifiers”

She then goes on to expand on her theory through discussing different ways in which the connections are made:  Differentiation, The finished connection:  ‘An Objective Correlative”, Product as signified, Product as Signifier, Product as Currency.

In her analysis she states:

“Advertisements appropriate the formal relations of pre-existing systems of differences. They use distinctions existing in social mythologies to create distinctions between products: this seems like the reverse of ‘totemism’, where things are used to differentiate groups of people: however the differentiating process in advertisements works in both directions simultaneously.”

This seems to be the critical issue, being able to connect elements that we know and have a feeling or emotion to with the product that is being advertised.

Finally, an analysis of Judith Williamson in Critical Social Research by Lee Harvey[3].  This is a particularly good summary of Judith Williamson’s method of analysis and can be summarized as:

“An advertisement, then, makes a connection that evokes meaning for the reader between the object being sold and some referent. This is done through juxtaposition and other formal elements in the advertisement. The link between the product and the referent can be made by colour; by formal arrangement; by linguistic connection, such as a pun, or replacing one for the other in a narrative.”

Much is said and written about the interpretation of photographs and the use of metaphor in images.  Having read these articles provides me with some insight into this and how the process of interpretation may take place.  By no means so I fully understand this nor am I able to apply this theory fully in practice, but at least I have a starting point and the beginnings of an understanding of how to proceed.


[1] Judith Williamson in the Autumn 2012 (Issue 72) of SOURCE magazine.

[2] Williamson, Judith. A currency of signs. In Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Marion Boyars, 20-39. Reprinted with the permission of Marion Boyars Publishers Inc.

[3] Harvey, L., [1990] 2011, Critical Social Research , available at qualityresearchinternational.com/csr, last updated 9 May, 2011, originally published in London by Unwin Hyman

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About Doug Bell

Having recently retired I am now undertaking some studies in photography through the OCA which, I hope will lead to a degree in photography.
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