What can a photograph tell us?

“illiteracy of the future will be ignorance of photography”(Moholy-Nagy:90)

Moholy-Nagy, in his quote, echoed the sentiments of Vachel Lindsay’s “the acres of photographs in the Sunday newspapers make us into a hieroglyphic civilisation” (1916), and in these quotes the purpose of this essay is outlined.

I intend, with the support of classical critical tools, to present an interpretation, reading, of Wim Wenders’ Wall in Paris,Texas. In keeping with the theme of literacy and hieroglyphics, this will be my interpretation of the intention of the artist and his creation. An intention I believe to be of social commentary through photographic history.

Several tools of photographic interpretation were theorised by Roland Barthes, particularly the concepts of ‘Denotation’ and ‘Connotation’ in his essay The Photographic Message (1961) and ‘Stadium’ and ‘Punctum’ in Camera Lucida (1980). These concepts along with the work of Charles Sanders Pierce and Ferdinand de Saussure on Semiotics, specifically the ideas of ‘Signifier’ and ‘Signified’, will be my avenues of discussion.

A chance encounter in Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art 3rd ed. (2014) lead to the selection of Wall in Paris,Texas, partially through the impact of the images aesthetic quality and equally through the desire to select a previously un-encountered image which, theoretically, I have no prior interpretation of, or attachment to.

What we see in this image, the studium, is; a wall, cracked and exposing a painted brick surface beneath white rendering which is obviously aged with weathering and dirt; a road, again aged with weathering cracking the asphalt surface; a pavement or walkway aged with use and marked yellow; a window, small and covered by a blind ; cables crossing the frame and finally, a shadow on the road at an angle to the cables and walkway. These elements present us with familiar information with which we can make the conclusion that what we see, is a street, a simple idea but that is what denotation, the association of objects with literal places and experiences, can tell us. It is with connotation, the association with a feeling or preconceived perception, that ‘seeing’ becomes ‘reading’. The whole area is showing signs of ill repair, connoting an area of low income with little to spare for repair. An area of low interest, left behind by the movement of people away from the area and the sense of past, an image from history and a place with history. It is here that the knowledge of photography expands on those connotations. 

The style of image evokes several conceptual art movements. Abstraction, seen in the incompleteness and dislocation of the scene from its locale. Separated from its neighbours and even obfuscating the building as a whole. Its neutrality and straight on framing reminiscent of the New Topographic photographs of urban industrial subjects sharing association with The New Vision, which Moholy-Nagy was heavily associated with, a form of abstract documentary of the industrial 1920’s and 1930’s. The image rejects Pictorial fuzziness and Modernist idealism. All these choices contribute to the sense of difficulty in placing the scene at one location or time period.

With this knowledge one can re-evaluate the image, this time as an exercise in semiotics. I would argue that the ‘Signs’ in this image are also what Barthes called the ‘Punctum’ or the juxtaposition of conflicting, interesting or exciting information. This, for me, is the broken patch on the wall’s facade combined with the crossing cables and shadows. Whilst the connotation of a run down town is valid, they remind me of the aftermath images of war, especially the painted advertisements on walls of 1940’s France, which in turn leads the cables and shadows to be reminiscent of the structure, shape and shadow of the Eiffel Tower, connotations drawn from the knowledge of photographic and world history. These connotations do not appear from the void but are hinted at in the title ‘Wall in Paris, Texas’. For those with the knowledge of photographic history, there is the added association with, oft argued, creator of photography Louis Daguerre and his presentation of the new medium in Paris 1839.

Ansel Adams said, whilst speaking on the blending of art and documentary,“What you’ve got are not photographers. They’re a bunch of sociologists with cameras” (1973:8). One could argue that Wenders, traditionally known as a film director, was merely researching his next locations and this image was never intended to be read, I believe that any image can be read. As a result of the seemingly endless barrage of images and information we are presented with in everyday life, it would naive to think that any photograph has not been realised through the photographers preconceptions and intentions. When Moholy-Nagy and Lindsay spoke of the literacy of photographs and the hieroglyphical nature of visual language it was in opposition to the neutrality of the photograph, warning us of the power to deceive us and the importance of recognising those deceptions.

Therefore I believe Wall in Paris, Texas is best summed up by a quote from Gustav Flaubert, a critic of photography and French mass culture in the mid 19th century, describing France as “a whorish country” filled with “fake materials, fake luxury and fake pride”.

Wenders’ image ‘signifies’ the crumbling of the facade of American culture and prosperity, much in the vein of Flaubert’s opinion of France and the oncoming industrial revolution. Wenders masks this intent in a banal photograph of a wall, aesthetically an interesting image, alluding to photography’s Parisian history and evocative of Robert Frank’s The Americans (1955). But here we see an America that has slowed to a halt as opposed to Frank’s transient, fast paced progression. Where Frank showed the issues of continuous development, Wenders shows the results of that high speed journey on the freeway.

If you’ve enjoyed this essay you may enjoy my other work!

You can see my photography at



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