Research notes – The Photographic Message

The following observations are made after reading “The Photographic Message”, an essay by Roland Barthes (1)

Barthes suggests in this essay that the photographic image, in its purest form, has a denotative status that derives from its capacity to reproduce reality with great fidelity (he refers to the photograph as being the perfect “analogon” (2)). This denoted message is capable of being received without intermediation and cannot be effectively described or re-codified in any other way, as its analogical nature, with its infinitesimal level of detail, would not allow it (3). Barthes goes on to describe the photographic image as “a message without a code”, in reference to the purity and objectivity of the denoted element of the photographic image.

This is not to say that a photograph is always purely denotative, and on the contrary, Barthes spends most of the essay talking about how connotation (ie secondary meaning derived from the image, usually from a cultural or historical interpretation of the elements within the frame) is embedded into the image. Barthes seems particularly concerned about procedures that alter what is portrayed in a concealed way, taking advantage of the “objectivity” of the photograph’s denoting analogon, to connote a particular message. Some of the procedures identified by Barthes include trick effects (ie photomontage, cloning), pose (altering the position or posture of the subject to evoke a particular feeling in the viewer), objects (inserting objects into the frame or realigning them to evoke a particular feeling or conveying a message), photogenia (embellishing the subject by artificial means, either in pre-or post processing), aestheticsm (pictorialism, re-composition of the subject in a paint-like manner to achieve a particular message), and syntax (the combination of images to connote a particular message that each individual image is not able to convey)(4).

Barthes also makes a brief reference to text accompanying images as a way of adding connotation to the images, and in particular to sublimate interpretations quickly into a desired message. The closer the text to the image, the more it can use the image’s perceived objectivity in order to conceal its connotation. Captions, which are particularly close to the image, are a good example of this “concealment”. At first, it seems that the caption is merely “describing” the image, but because it is actually not possible to do so faithfully (as an image is analogous and its denoted message cannot be translated into a digital code like language without loss of fidelity), the caption is actually used to provide stress or emphasis in a particular element of the image that may trigger desirable connotations, or to alter the meaning of the image by inventing circumstances that are not necessarily those depicted.

Towards the end of the essay, Barthes briefly touches upon the possibility of a purely denoting photographic image, an image without any connotations. Barthes believes this is only possible if the photograph depicts an extreme act of violence, something that generates a deep feeling of trauma. This is because, in his view, “The trauma is a suspension of language, a blocking of meaning” (5). In these circumstances, it is not possible to rationalise any meaning out of such image, and it becomes “structurally insignificant”(6). I am left wondering if there could be any other cases, other than traumatic images, of insignificant photographs, and more importantly, what would be the point of them? Could a picture of total darkness, for instance, something that exists naturally, be capable of generating connotation? Barthes seems to focus his discussion on insignificant images on circumstances that would block our ability to think (eg being in front of something shocking), but I am wondering if not having anything to think about (ie a non-image photograph) would also result in an insignificant photograph.

Barthes focused in this article on press photography or photographs used to illustrate newspaper / magazine articles, but I guess his line of thinking likely applies to most genres of photography, including photography used for artistic purposes.

(1) Barthes, R., 1993. Image-Music-Text. Fontana Press. Pp 15-31
(2) Idem, p 17.
(3) Idem, p 18.
(4) Idem, pp 21-25.
(5) Idem, p 30.
(6) Idem, p 31.


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