Roland Barthes’ semiotic theory focuses on a structured system of signs, specifically photographs, as social phenomena. His theory emphasizes how these signs are codes of cultural knowledge and ideologies. In order to fully comprehend all of the implied meanings in an image, one must understand the cultural background that is revealed to the viewer. According to Barthes’ theory, messages are composed through denotation and connotation. Denotation is the literal meaning or reference of a sign, whereas connotation is the meanings suggested or implied by a sign. Therefore, a photographic image by itself without a sign or code appears to be purely denotative. However, Barthes states that the denotated status of a photo "has every change of being mythical" (Barthes, 1977). His use of the word "mythical" is pertaining to the characteristic of a photograph that represents and conveys cultural ideological norms. As a result, there is a photographic inconsistency in which there is a co-existence of denotative and connotative messages in an image.
Connotation is basically the obvious symbols that viewer sees when first looking at the picture. Denotation is the more significant meaning of analysis of the photo. For example, in Helen Levitts’ A Boy Drawing on the Sidewalk, one would immediately see a small boy drawing with chalk on a sidewalk, dressed in a coat and boots. The more significant meaning of the photograph, is to capture the lifestyle and hardships of people in New York City during the Great Depression. There are modes of connotation used to identify cultural ideologies and messages within a photo. The first mode is perceptive, where we automatically categorize what we perceive. The second mode is cognitive, where we recognize things that we know about, depending on one’s knowledge. And the last mode of connotation is ideological or ethical, where we recognize values that are depicted such as beauty ideals and fashion. Connotation relies on the historical and cultural knowledge known by the viewer; therefore misunderstandings rise as a result of different meanings due to one’s knowledge.