Research notes – Rethoric of the image

The following observations are made after reading the essay “Rhetoric of the Image” by Roland Barthes (1).

Barthes breaks down the signs contained in a photograph in three distinct layers, each of which he calls a “message”. The layers include the “linguistic message”, the “denoted image” and the “connoted image”. With regards to the linguistic message, which includes the subtypes of “anchor” and “relay”, as described in the course guide (2), an important point mentioned by Barthes is the constant accompaniment of text and images in today’s society, to the point that he believes that “In order to find images given without words, it is doubtless necessary to go back to partially illiterate societies” (3). This is something we may take for granted, and I personally had not thought about this before, but indeed, it is hard to find an example where there is absolutely no text accompanying a photograph these days. Even in the case of an untitled image hanged on a wall, at the very least one would expect to see the name of the author somewhere. The significance of the text context is explained by Barthes later when he discusses the photograph’s polysemous nature. As an image may have multiple interpretations and society has developed techniques (including the use of the linguistic message) to guide the spectator towards certain signifieds in order to “…counter the terror of uncertain signs” (4). Barthes seems to suggest that without adequate guidelines as to which are the intended signifieds, people may be overcome by anxiety when confronted with an image in its pure state, resulting from an “uncertainty…concerning the meaning of objects and attitudes” (4). I would like to explore this idea further with a little experiment, the details of which are included in a separate entry in my blog (link).

Throughout the essay Barthes makes reference to his view that photography poses a message without a code. This seems to derive from the analogical nature of the photographic image, which reproduces without relay the entirety of a scene. This results in photographs having a “having-been-there” quality to them “…for in every photograph there is the always stupefying evidence of this is how it was…”(5). This evidence seems to derive from the photographer’s limited ability to thinker with the object of the photograph (other than by trickery), as opposed to other forms of reproducing objects such as painting or drawing, which rely on a style or norms of reproduction (ie codes) to decide how and how much of nature (ie the object) is reproduced. Barthes essay was written way before advances in post processing have made quite trivial for the photographer to alter the object photographed in a way that could distort that evidence of “how it was”, but his point is still valid in the context that is very difficult for the photographer to completely erase the evidence, for there are small details that will always scape our eyes; and in any case, no matter how distorted the final image is, some evidence should remain unaltered in the final result.

Barthes also mentions that the interpretation of the linguistic and iconic elements of an image draws from our cultural background. In the essay, he uses as an example a french advertisement for pasta products (see here), and at some point he remarks that the use of an italian word (“Panzani”) and imagery that denotes “italianicity”, are more likely to be noticed by a French viewer, based on “…a familiarity with certain tourist stereotypes”(6) than for an Italian, who is very likely to encounter both icons and language in real life frequently and would therefore rarely notice them in a photograph. The direct implication of this is that the message or content of an image needs to be targeted to its audience; but in the context of a photographic project, which tends to be fixed from the perspective of the author, it helps explain why some images are not always understood by the viewer. The challenge as a photographer, then, is to find imagery that transmits the photographer’s message in a way that appeals to as wide as possible audience. This can be particularly relevant for me as a migrant, in as much as there may still be nuances of the local culture that may escape my understanding and vice-versa.


(1) Barthes, R., 1977. Image, Music, Text. HarperCollins UK. Pp 32-51

(2) Boothroyd, S., 2017. Photography 1: Context and Narrative. 4th ed. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts, p. 55

(3) Barthes, op. cit. p. 38

(4) Idem, p. 39

(5) Idem, p. 44

(6) Idem, p. 34


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