Project – Rhetoric of the image

Barthes begins by defining the word ‘image’, from its origin from the word ‘imitation’ thereby introducing us to the problem of images as ‘a true system of signs’ (Barthes, 1993: p 33). I think ‘the most important problem’ he  identifies seems to be the lack of specificity of images as signifiers with respect to their signified. So for example he tells us that linguists refuse the title ‘language’ to many communications that are not based on digital units (like phonemes) (Barthes, 1993: p 33).

At the heart of this seems to be the theory that in a language a sign has to have a one-one relationship with its signified. Thus, although oar and ore and awe may sound alike, they are spelt differently and each unique word has a one-one relationship with a unique signified (Barthes mentions phonemes, but phonemes do not seem to be one-one which is confusing). In contrast, two elevated 2nd and 3rd fingers may mean ‘two’ or ‘get lost’ so the unique signifier has a many-to -one relationship with more than one signified.

Barthes continues, by saying that people generally feel the image to be less intelligible, and that ‘The image is weak in respect to meaning’ (Barthes, 1993: p 33). The aims of his essay are to investigate how meaning gets into an image, where it ends and if there is anything beyond.

For the purposes of this investigation we are guided through the analysis of an advertisement image-  because here we know that the signs have been examined and made clear (Barthes, 1993: p 34) The image is for Panzani (a food Brand) and contains a string bag, pasta packets, a sachet, a tin, some mushrooms and tomatoes. The text by the image is in French but the word Panzani also suggests Italianicity (via assonance of the Italianate vowel sound ‘a’) so the linguistic message  text has two layers of meaning (Barthes, 1993: p 34).  Assonance occurs when two or more words close to one another repeat the same vowel sound but start with different consonant sounds  such as  “Men sell the wedding bells.” (literarydevices, 2013)

As for the image, the half open bag revealing its contents signifies  both freshness (individual shopping in a market -cf supermarket mass shopping), and Italianicity (the yellow/green and white of the fresh produce recall the Italian flag) Another sign- the variety of objects signifies that Panzani can supply everything needed, and  that the tins/packets ingredients are identical to the fresh ingredients. The look of the food and bag also suggests a  ‘still life’ and transmits any cultural ideas of this genre. Barthes summarises-there are four signs within this image, reading them requires some cultural knowledge, and they have aspects of euphoria and positivity (Barthes, 1993: p 35).

There is a third message still however; the photos of the objects signify the real objects.  But as this relationship is not arbitrary as in text (the way the word  Pig has been arbitrarily developed to signify an animal we know as a pig- it could just as easily be called a PLUG or a YOP and function as well). The third message is a ‘message without a code’ and is ‘quasi tautological’  (Barthes, 1993: p. 35). All we need to know to interpret this message is to know that images of ‘things’ correspond to those ‘things’ in real life-  and this is a widespread skill which develops from around the age of four. This message is called the perceptual message  (Barthes, 1993: p. 36). We call this the literal, as opposed to the symbolic message.

In total we have a linguistic message, a coded-iconic message and a non-coded iconic message. The author questions to what extent can these last two (the perceptual and the symbolic or cultural) be separated? We see the perceptual and the symbolic message at the same time. Barthes concludes that we have a literal image (which is denoted), a symbolic image which is connoted (it takes the sign of one system as it signifier), and a linguistic message.  (Connote- To suggest or imply in addition to literal meaning 2. To have as a related or attendant condition (The Free Dictionary, 2017) .

Examining the linguistic message in more detail, what is the nature of the relationship between the image and text? Since the age of the book text became inextricably linked with images (Barthes, 1993: p. 36). In today’s world of mass communication image is always linked by text, whether in adverts, films, books, cartoons….This is still a ‘civilisation of writing’ and not of ‘images’ Barthes reflects (Barthes, 1993: p. 37). One could also add to this list exhibits in a museum or gallery, which have text accompaniaments, though see John Berger’s critique of ‘bogus religiosity’ and the way words can subordinate the true meaning of a painting (Berger, 1972). Try too to read those chapters in the book which contain printed images only. This revolutionary format is exhausting to read, as it allows us the freedom to interpret the works as we see fit, without the controlling influence of the text on our thoughts.

Barthes classifies the relationship of text to image  as either one of anchorage, or of relay. Images have many meanings (they are polysemous), and beneath the signifiers there is a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds (Barthes, 1993: p. 37). Consequently how we interpret their meaning is uncertain, and the text helps us to identify or ‘fix’ the image. (Barthes, 1993: p. 37). The denominative function provides Anchorage of all possible denoted meanings suggested by the objects (eg. viewings objects in a bowl we may decide more easily what they are … apple, a pear, a melon, or a combination if the scene is titled ‘still life with citrus fruits’). As for connoted meanings, the anchorage helps us interpret the symbols (stops the meaning chain multiplying, and keeps it in check). The principle function of text is to direct ‘the reader through the signifieds of the  image, causing him to avoid some and receive others;…’ (Barthes, 1993: p. 38).

Text as anchorage elucidates the image, but is also selective, and thus is repressive from the point of view of  interpretation and message. Less frequently the text acts as Relay, For example in in cartoons or comic strips, where small units of dialogue and images are interpreted as  part of a higher story or meaning.  Relay is uncommon in fixed images, but is very common in  film. It can provide meanings not found in the images, perhaps adding to the structure of a plot, or the building of character in absent players?  Both anchorage and relay can be found together in an image, but one usually dominates, and gives the piece its character. Anchorage text, for example is less laborious for the reader to negotiate; the image retains more meaning. Relay requires a greater effort because the text is harder to read than an image (Barthes, 1993: p. 38).

Barthes now turns his attention to the denoted image.  In an advert the literal and symbolic meaning occur simultaneously. One would rarely see just text in an advert- or if there were the lack of an image would itself connote a meaning, such as naivety or loneliness (Barthes, 1993: p.38). The literal message is only ever relational, not substantial. It evicts certain meanings and leaves others; the   text corresponds to the ‘first degree of intelligibility’ and below this only line/form/colour is perceived. Viewed as an identification of the scene, the denoted image can be thought of as ‘edenic’ (utopian) and being unbound from its connotations. It has become objective or innocent (Barthes, 1993: p. 39).


In the photograph in particular, this innocence is reinforced by the its status of  ‘message without a code’. Barthes distinguishes the photo from the drawing because ‘only the photograph is able to transmit the (literal) information without forming it by means of discontinuous signs and rules of transformation’ (Barthes, 1993: p. 39). This is a debatable claim. Certainly drawing involves transformation, but does not the taking of photographs also? Are not all photos unlike the real? They are flat, they are usually smaller, and they can be taken using all sorts of techniques which makes the real more abstract; aren’t they exactly like the transformed drawing? – see Bourdieu’s essay ‘The social definition of Photography’ for a defence of photography from those who would tautologically seek to label it as more real than other art forms (Bourdieu, 1993).

Barthes highlights the three codes he sees at work within a drawing. Firstly, drawing requires a set of rules (such as perspective). Secondly, drawing necessarily selects the important from the unimportant (the author proceeds to tell us how photography can do this too, but rather irrelevantly states that it cannot ‘intervene within an object except by trick effects’ (Barthes, 1993: p. 39). Lastly, drawing requires an apprenticeship. All three statements illustrate a narrow view of photography (and drawing) which is ‘barbarous’ and genre-centred (Bourdieu, 1993). Rules like perspective are no more necessary in photography as they are in drawing, and both photography and drawing may be good or bad, but neither requires an apprenticeship.

Barthes restates the differences between the denoted status of drawing and photography by saying that in a photo we have a relationship between nature (denoted?) and culture (connoted?), but in a drawing the relationship between denoted and connoted is ‘profoundly modified’ to be denoted/= connoted and connoted (culture) (Barthes, 193: p 39).

Barthes believes that ‘man’s interventions in the photograph …….all effectively belong to the plane of connotation’ onto which he layers the signs and symbols of his cultural code. This opposition of cultural code and natural (non-code) accounts for the ‘anthropological revolution’ that the photograph has had (Barthes, 193: p 40).  Although the author does not describe the characteristics of this revolution, it is worth bearing in mind that Bourdieu would counter that photography, far from being revolutionary,  ‘In its traditional form… strictly identifies aesthetic with social norms….’. On the other hand Osip Brik believes that ‘the photographer captures life events more cheaply, quickly and precisely than the painter’ (and therefore presumably the drawer as well), and that ‘herein lies his strength, his enormous social importance’ (Brik, 2003: p. 472). Brik’s list of the photography’s advantages do indeed seem to lend photography an advantage over drawing when it comes to revolutionary matters.

Barthes now describes the consciousness that the photo engenders, which is unique; the ‘having-been- there’, not the ‘being- there’…..  ‘which any copy could provoke’ (Barthes, 193: p 40).  This does seem inarguable, and perhaps more pertinent to the photograph’s special relationship to reality. Those light rays which bounced off the subject have directly touched the photographic paper- and caused an instantaneous record via chemical reactions. The image from the developed film is therefore a direct link to that original photographed ‘real’ time and place; the subject, the light, and the chemicals were all there at the same time.

Barthes section on the denoted image (as a message without a code) finishes with his idea that the denoted image plays a special role in the  structure of the iconic message. Because it exists in addition to the symbolic message, it helps to naturalise and reduce the connoted message. This is described as a paradox, as the more technology allows us to use images to  communicate (connoted/symbolic) messages, the more it allows us to subtly hide the real, constructed meaning beneath or within the reality of the denoted image.



Barthes, R (1999).  ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   P33-41

Berger, J (1972) ‘Chapter 1’ in Ways of Seeing. Great Britain, Penguin.   p.  7-34

Bourdieu, P (1999) ‘The social definition of photography’ in  visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p.162-180

Brik, O. (1993). ‘Photography versus Painting 1926’. In Harrison,C. and Wood,P. (eds). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 470-473

Literary devices (2013) ‘Assonance’  online at [accessed 1 April 2017]

The Free Dictionary (2017), ‘Connote’ online at [accessed 1 April 2017]


Author: PhilHepArt

This site contains my BLOG for my Open College of the Art's module 'Understanding Visual Culture'. I am currently on Level 1 of the degree pathway BA Painting.

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