chapter  4
Reading historical photographs
Class and gender in nineteenth-century images of Wigan pit brow women
BySarah Edge
Pages 15

Photographic theory, characterized by the work of Roland Barthes, drew upon linguistic theory to examine the distinctiveness of photographic communication. Identifying how the photograph is made up of two signifying systems the indexical sign and iconic sign system impacts on how the photographic message works. However, the methodology of critical photographic studies draws constructively from Barthes' semiotic approach to affirm that histories are not backdrops to set off the performance of images' because photographs are never "evidence" of history; they are themselves the historical'. In this context, reading a photograph of the past is particularly complex as the popular cultural language that activated its meaning has often been lost, a problem obscured by contemporary culture's tendency to employ historical photographs as a source of evidence of the past as illustrations of how things used to be.