The image analysed is from Vogue Magazine’s March 2019 edition. Vogue is a fashion and lifestyle magazine, representing the trends of popular and celebrity culture. The photo is thus interesting as a means of analysing the perceptions of a time, and its relations with sensationalism; the presentation of stories to invoke public interest, at the expense of accuracy (Oxford Dictionary. Accessed 22/02/19).
'In popular culture, celebrities are constantly judged and how they are presented in visual culture is fundamental to their status, image and value. This, with the growth in visual media forms such as Instagram and online magazines, makes Semiotic techniques the foundation of meaning making and critique for/of those celebrities and how they are depicted.'
The photograph depicts Justin Bieber, a famous music artist and Hailey Bieber a Professional Model, as a magazine coverage story about their relationship and marriage. This is a platform to exert a certain message, both for the magazine and for those depicted. With a photographer (Annie Leibovitz) and three stylists from Vogue Magazine, this was an orchestrated shoot with the intention of illustrating meaning and purpose. Semiotically the use of modesty as meaning makings was used with the intention to re-brand the individuals photographed, who are as by virtue of being celebrities perceived untouched by the challenges of everyday life, a preconception which is becoming outdated with;
“Nine in ten Generation Z consumers believing companies have a responsibility to address environmental and social issues” (Mckinsey, 2019 p45)
Semiotics is fundamentally the Study of Signs. French Linguist and an early founder of semiology Ferdinand de Saussure (1916) defines ‘the sign’ as the combination of a signifier referring to the utterance of the word and the signified the attached meaning of thus word. The ‘sign’ has no mere meaning on its own and a sign’s extension as object is coined as the referent; the real-world visualisation of the sign. Contrary to Saussure’s dyadic definition, Charles Sanders Pierce gives a triadic definition beyond ‘How systems of arbitrary signs operate’ (Iversen. 1986, p85) consisting of the icon; the physical manifestation of the signified, the index; a denotation of what is being represented and the symbol; a culturally learned connotated connection, with no resemblance between the signifier and the signified. This as framework of semiotic analysis allows for the creating and analysis of meaning.
“Images are made and used in all sorts of ways by different people for different reasons, and these makings and uses are crucial to the meanings an image carry” (Rose 2001, p 14)
Meanings are categorised into the ‘manifest meaning’, which relates to an images face value, and the ‘latent meaning’, relating to the interpretive meaning, Meanings are most commonly derived from binary opposites- Good/bad and that of ideology and myth, associated with purpose or narrative. Beyond Semiology as a means to greater understanding, it is important to note, “there is no law which can guarantee that things will have `one, true meaning', or that meanings won't change over time, work in this area is bound to be interpretative - a debate between, not who is `right' and who is `wrong', but between equally plausible, though sometimes competing and contesting, meanings and interpretations” (Hall, 1997, p9). Thus, the critical analysis of semiology is as interpretive as that which is being critiqued.
A Manifest meaning of the photo is that of the binary opposite. The location of the photography is a modest unknown working-class home with everyday objects displayed in the background (even the coffee cup on the bench), contrasting to the binary that is the extraordinary fame of the celebrities in the foreground of the shot. This illustrates the ideological image building of the celebrities to be presented as fundamentally ‘one of the people’. Justin Bieber is mimicking meditation with eyes closed, indexing a relaxed attitude detached from the viewer. Hailey, through playing with hair, shows innocence or flirtation. She is looking away whilst making a pouting gesture symbolising a romantic action. These in turn allow those depicted to be perceived as loving, at ease and relatable. However, this is not their home but a photographic set to portray, legitimise and advertise their change in ethos. This is further manifested in the written caption alongside the photo, stating “Upon interview before photo. Justin Bieber and Hailey Bieber mentioned they liked to lounge around the house, watch movies, listen to music and dance in their kitchens” (Robert Haskell. Vogue Magazine Instagram. Posted 7/2/19). These all phrased signs associated with a happy couple; emphasized through the matching outfit in print which illustrates togetherness and the simple things in life.
However, the latent meaning through ideology can be seen to be that of cultural appropriation; an idealisation of a working-class lifestyle, used to further the celebrity’s image and value, rather than an honest representation of a humbler life lived. This aestheticism of working-class culture is tainted to the real-world issues surrounding gentrification and their social implications, such as increased house prices leading to marginalisation both economically and socially.
Imagery such as the photo above are the unconscious ideological prefixes which lead to the cultural appropriation of the working class, as a Marxian, Althusser states ‘Ideology is used to legitimise power relations’ (Rose 2001 p 70)
The bourgeoise are able to appropriate when the proletariat do not have the means to do so. This is particularly poignant given that the image appears in a high-end glossy magazine, unaffordable to most working-class families.
'Images, like the one analysed, are a reaction to the growing trends within society to a more purpose-driven, ethical lifestyle, which celebrities adopt to appeal to a younger generation.'
This is illustrated in the floral, earthy clothing and yoga references. Younger generations hold companies and individuals to account for their ethical practices to a greater extent than previously, “Millennials are four times more likely than baby boomers to actively avoid buying products from big food companies and three times more likely to see new brands as better or more innovative” (Mckinsey. 2019 p74). Presenting the Biebers in a humble, almost “hippy” manner, enables them to appear current, part of the ‘millennials’ culture and ethically engaged.
To conclude, celebrities have power in relation to cultural influence. It is paramount for those creating visual culture content to assess the implications of promoting such imagery as that analysed and question their own ethicality. The image promotes a lifestyle away from the rapid consumerism that exists today, whilst also appropriating a culture with minimal social capital, illustrating the power struggles raised by Althusser.
'It is important to discuss not just the imagery itself semiotically but its varying interpretations and social implications.'
De Saussure, F. (1915) ‘Course in General Linguistics’. Edited, Bally, C., Sechehaye, A. McGraw-Hill Book Company: New York, Toronto, London.
Hall, S. (1997) ‘Representation- Cultural Representation and signifying practices’. The Open University. London: SAGE Publications
Iversen, M. (1986) `Saussure v. Pierce: models for a semiotics of visual art',Rees and F. Borzello. The New Art History. London: Camden Press, pp. 82-94.
Rose, G. (2001) ‘Visual Mythologies’. London: SAGE Publications
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sensationalism . Accessed 22/2/19
BoF, McKinsey The State of Fashion 2019 file:///C:/Users/Angus/Downloads/The-State-of-Fashion-2019.pdf . Accessed 22/2/19
Vogue Magazine March edition 2019 https://www.vogue.co.uk/magazine https://www.instagram.com/voguemagazine/?hl=en
Image : https://www.vogue.com/article/justin-bieber-hailey-bieber-cover-interview by Annie Leibovitz