BA Phot

Roland Barthes

Rhetoric of the Image


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Panzani ad.

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[8Mar21] This page was adapted from I&P Exercise 4.2.

There's a copy of Rhetoric of the Image here.

Before delving into this, it is a happy coincidence that I happen to be reading Campany's On Photographs at the moment and just reached, when discussing Stezaker's Pair I, 2001

IT IS IN THE NATURE OF IMAGES, all images, to misbehave and exceed meaning in ways that are anarchic, elusive, enigmatic and ambiguous. This is why images are so often accompanied by words that tame and stabilize them. Essentially, however, they remain wild, and therefore have always been a source of great fascination, and great suspicion. David Campany On Photographs, p.32

It might well be that Campany is more useful (he's certainly more elegant and succinct) than Barthes.

Central to Barthes' essay is a pasta ad, top right. He uses it to demonstrate the semiotic analysis of images.

He identifies Three Messages

Linguistic - the text, including the food labels
if we remove the text, there are 4 signs or iconic messages:
(a) shopping at a market
(b) the combination of components suggest 'Italianicity'
(c) Panzani represents 'naturalness' by association with the natural produce
(d) the composition of the image evokes Still Life art.

The four signs require cultural knowledge - they are Connoted by that knowledge.

If those signs are removed, what is left is an assembly of generally recognisable objects and that is the literal Denoted message.

The denoted and connoted components are linked in that they derive from the same picture so Barthes asks 'to what extent have we the right to separate them?', concluding that it is 'justified' so long as it leads to a useful outcome

The Linguistic Message
The text can act as and anchor or a relay
The purpose of a anchor is to 'control' the viewer's interpretation of the iconic (connoted) message. It is 'commonly found in press photographs and advertisements'.
An example of relay is text in 'cartoons and comic strips' with image and text in a 'complementary relationship'.

The Denoted Image
It is hard to mentally remove connotations. The photograph is more 'pure' (my word) than a drawing because there is 'no drawing without style' (Barthes' words).

But if we posit a denoted image, then the next bit is interesting. A photograph, in itself, is a record that exists in a 'myth of photographic "naturalness" …,

… the scene is there, captured mechanically, not humanly (the mechanical is here a guarantee of objectivity). Man's interventions in the photograph (framing, distance, lighting, focus, speed) all effectively belong to the plane of connotation; it is as though in the beginning (even if utopian) there were a brute photograph (frontal and clear) on which man would then lay out, with the aid of various techniques, the signs drawn from a cultural code Barthes, Rhetoric of the Image

[the lengthy quote is included because it might prove useful elsewhere: here's the interesting bit] although the photograph evidences for the photographer their 'being-there' (Barthes' italics), to the viewer it gives a sense of imagery 'having-been-there' and the disconnect between the viewer’s current situation and the image's past situation creates what Barthes describes as,

spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then. Barthes, Rhetoric of the Image

This is a notion that will merit exploration elsewhere. At the back of my mind, I'm harbouring a plan to rephotograph Hoppé's statue images in Borenius' Forty London statues and public monuments and that will provide a double dose of 'spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority'.

Barthes reaches the preliminary definition (returning to this question after discussion of the third message) that 'the denoted image naturalizes the symbolic message; it innocents the semantic artifice of connotation, which is extremely dense, especially in advertising'.

Rhetoric of the Image

Connotations tend to be multiple and simultaneously discontinuous and overlapping. Barthes goes on to list some tangential associations such as nets and fishing. He explores the ambiguity of Italianicity which is an example of metonymy in this case but elsewhere could manifest as an asyndeton (asyndetonically?)

He concludes, several paragraphs of contorted complexity later that connotation is cultural, denotation natural (another manifestation of nature and nurture) and that the two are intertwined.


The baggage that viewers bring to photographs are many and varied and complicated. These overlay and interact with the intrinsic, 'natural' components of the image.
Text also interacts with the visual aspects of the image in the viewer's interpretation in a variety of ways more complex than Barthes duality of anchor and relay (he does not seem to take account of the viewer's reaction to text being as complex as their reaction to imagery and for the same reasons). Another factor that Barthes ignores here is what Barrett (2011) describes as the 'presentational environment'.

As Sue Sontag memorably tells us,

photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer Sontag, On Photography, quoted in La Grange, Basic critical theory for photographers, p.37

and Dave Campany usefully notes,

It is in the nature of images, all images, to misbehave and exceed meaning in ways that are anarchic, elusive, enigmatic and ambiguous. This is why images are so often accompanied by words that tame and stabilize them. Essentially, however, they remain wild, and therefore have always been a source of great fascination, and great suspicion. Campany On Photographs, p.32

The starting point for this analysis was, 'How might [Barthes' ideas of anchor and relay] help your own creative approaches to working with text and image?'

My intuitive view, expressed elsewhere, is that titles are best factual and minimal, leaving interpretation and description to the whims and fancies of the viewer. I remain of that view when it comes to objective, representative, Window photographs. In the case of more subjective, interpretive, Mirror imagery there is a stronger case to be made for extended and fanciful prose, examples being biographical studies that quote the words of the subject, such as Julian Germain in Part 2, photographing Charles Snelling and some intances of autobiography such as Nikki S. Lee (C&N Part 3) and to explain the masquerades of Hans Eijkelboom (I&P Part 3)

Accordingly, I will be prepared to take a more prosaic approach when appropriate.


1. text

2. text

3. text

I&P Part nReferences

author (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author, (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn January 2020].

author, (year) Book Title. Location: Publisher.

author (year) Title. Journal. Vol, pages.

author (year) Title. Newspaper. Date. pages.

Page created 07-Mar-2021 | Page updated 08-Mar-2021