henry woide | photographer

The Index and The Icon

PHO702 Contextual Research / MA Falmouth University 

Photography is changing, our understanding of this photographic language is evolving with the medium. The language can be seen as is iconic, indexical and symbolic (Pierce, 1914). This learnt language of how we see the world is inherent to photography, photographs disclose meaning through identification of the subject and dominate our perception uniquely compared to other visual art forms (Sontag, 1977).

How do we validate or authenticate what is show to us? Imagery has an indexical nature in that it is a stencil of the subject infront of the camera (Sontag, 1977) but how can we be so sure that the subject itself is in fact ‘real’ and if we cannot see the subject or visit the place an image is taken then how can we authenticate the image as a fact of that thing existing. Is a photographers role to tell the truth or to construct the truth?

How can an instrument which measures the world through one eye with various focal lengths that displays a three dimensional world on a two dimensional image depict an image which is real to our eyes (Synder & Allen, 1975). It is a sign of the subject, a referent but it is not what we see in front of us, it is what the camera sees. However an image’s peculiar relationship with it’s subject is that it cannot exist without the subject (Barthes and Roland, 1993) unlike many other forms of visual arts which can be freely constructed through the imagination, the image is inherently tied to reality.

The peculiar relationship between mechanical and constructed representation however do give a uniqueness to the medium that may not exist in other forms of visual arts, “the manifest presence of authentic physical reality”(Synder, 2011, P5) .

Fig 1. Joel Peter Within (2007) A Night in a Small Town

However what happens when you cannot Indexically authenticate a subject that features in an image. For a example a unicorn in a photograph, if one occurs is not real as we can disprove it with common knowledge that these mythical creatures are not real (Price, 1994) Therefore we understand that the depiction is a construction of the photographer. If photography does not just qualify whether what it depicts is real then what else can it do and if we know that an image is constructed and we cannot indexically prove the existence of the subject, does photography have value or a new kind of truth.

The work of Joan Fontcuberta challenged my thinking this week his series From Landscape Without Memory (2005) goes against the idea of indexicality and we ourselves being able to authenticate the subject in the imagery as they’re landscapes no-one has even seen - a collapse of reality and representation. Therefore we know the image is constructed and this questions our very beliefs of authenticity in the image depicting the subject accurately. The 3D rendered landscapes question the authorship of the photographs also the AI of the computer interpreting the scene much like we do in landscape photography itself, cropping, viewing, constructing the image makes us question here who owns the work.

fig 2. Joan Fontcuberta (2005) from Landscapes without Memory

A landscape without memory it certainly is, there is no history here, no human has constructed or interfered with these landscapes. It questions the boundaries of the medium and it’s unquestionable truth as the iconic status of the author (Bruno, 2006). It questions if the natural nature really does exist or can it anymore and the answer is no. These images constitute a sort of postmodern statement that nature no longer depends on the direct experience of real life but instead on the interpretation of previous images made in nature that the viewer builds a picture of reality from. (Feustel, 2010).

We see this in a fortitude of exaggerated HDR landscapes on instagram and not just there but in my own photography the ideological nature of the depiction of beauty of the landscape or the impact of consumerism and ecological damage to our green spaces in this photograph of a waste pile of rubbish in a west London park. I thought through indexical nature of the co-ordinates placed in the details of the image so someone could verify the existence of this sad view of our consumerism that they could confirm the truth of the photograph but this is in fact creating a constructed view, a symbolic and possibly iconic image of what we’re doing to these spaces but it is not how the viewer would experience it in real life. Much like the pile of rubbish in the image the image itself is constructed by myself trying to depict an idea to the viewer.

By The M25. Henry Woide, 2021.


JOEL SNYDER and NEIL WALSH ALLEN. 1975. ‘Photography, Vision, and Representation’. Critical inquiry 2(1), 143–69.

Sontag, Susan, 1933-2004. On Photography. New York :Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

BARTHES, Roland and Richard HOWARD. 1993. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography London: Vintage.

Pierce, C.S. (1910) ‘Logic as Semiotic - The Theory of Signs’ in Buchler, Justus (ed.) (1995) Philosophical Writings of Pierce New York. Dover

Joan Fontcuberta (2005) from Landscapes without Memory - https://aperture.org/exhibition/landscapes-without-memory-photographs-joan-fontcuberta-parallel-memories-photographs-bruno-rosier/ 

Rosier, Bruno (2006) Landscapes without Memory photographs by Joan Fontcuberta and Parallel Memories photographs Available at: https://aperture.org/exhibition/landscapes-without-memory-photographs-joan-fontcuberta-parallel-memories-photographs-bruno-rosier/ (Accessed 9 February 2021)

Feustel, Marc (2010) Interview: Joan Fontcuberta, Landscapes without memory Available at http://www.marcfeustel.com/eyecurious/interview-joan-fontcuberta-landscapes-without-memory (Accessed 9 February 2021)


1. Within, Joel Peter Within (2007) A Night in a Small Town - https://www.artsy.net/artwork/joel-peter-witkin-night-in-a-small-town-new-mexico (Accessed 9 February 2021)

2. Fontcuberta, Joan (2005) from Landscapes without Memory - http://www.marcfeustel.com/eyecurious/interview-joan-fontcuberta-landscapes-without-memory (Accessed 9 February 2021)