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  • Writer's pictureKonrad Gwozdz

Signs: Symbols and Icons

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

The old saying goes that 'A picture is worth a thousand words'. Have you ever wondered what makes a still image better at conveying content than dozens of words? What allows photographs to affect us by evoking emotions? Understanding this phenomenon is the key to understanding art.

Signs and symbols.

A sign is an observable element of reality. It is important not because of its own characteristics, but because of its relationship with other elements of reality to which it relates. An example of such relationship would be black clouds indicating that rain is coming.

Signs consist of two elements. The first one is the actual dimension of a sign which has a literal meaning. The second one is a signifier, a mental, symbolic element.

We can diversify signs into symbols and icons. It is worth noting here that each symbol is a sign, but not every sign is a symbol. Signs can only be signs, for example pictograms, but some signs can also have additional symbolic meaning.

A symbol doesn't say anything directly, leaving room for reflection and guesswork. A symbol can be ambiguous, almost spiritual, it does not communicate but shows something, allowing viewers to relate to subjective experiences, feelings or emotions. It reveals the invisible. A symbol can give a photograph a new meaning, assigning it universal values.

Content captured in a photograph can be divided into several levels. One of them is the information level from which we learn about the appearance of the figure, its clothes, and relationships between people in a photograph. The next level carries symbolic content, whereas the third level brings detailed information, such as wrinkles and facial expressions, or a sophisticated hairstyle.

Most photographs are uniform and can be subject to unambiguous analysis. The factor that distinguishes the photograph from among hundreds of others, arousing in us emotions and curiosity, may be the element that, apparently, does not completely disturb the whole, but focuses a viewer's attention, giving a photo a new value - a symbol.

to be continued...



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