Barthes – The Photographic Message

Posted on October 8, 2014


As I explained in my previous post, over the next few posts I plan to document the key influences on my ‘Lifting the Curtain’ work. I will look at this both in terms of the ideas of critical thinkers and the work of other photographers.

Barthes book ‘Image Music Text’ has been of particular relevance. (1) In particular, the essays ‘The Photographic Message’ (2) and ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ (3) have been highly instructive. This post reviews the former. It will be followed by a further post considering the latter.

The Photographic Message

This essay considers what Barthes calls the ‘press photograph’, which he describes as a photograph accompanied by text in the form of a title, caption and possibly an article.

Barthes proposes what he calls ‘the photographic paradox’.(4) On face value Barthes perceives the photograph itself as a ‘message without a code. (5) A photograph transmits meaning through its representation of a literal reality, albeit in a reduced form (proportion, colour, perspective and so on). There is no need to set up a means of interpreting the image (such as language).

However, he goes on to suggest that the purely denotive status of the photograph has ‘every chance of being mythical’. (6) He suggests that the photographic message presents both a denoted message (the analagon itself) and a connoted message which is ‘the manner in which the society…communicates what it thinks of it’. (7) This process of connotation is constituted by a ‘stock of stereotypes’ (8) – a set of signs in the form of gestures, expressions, colours and so on understood by a particular society. The photographic paradox Barthes refers to is the co-existence of two messages within a photograph – the analogue (message without a code) and the connoted message with a code based on the ‘art, treatments or rhetoric of the image’. (9)

In the rest of the essay goes on to discuss how the creators of photographs impose second meanings on photographs through ‘connotation procedures’, (10), the interaction between image and text and the way in which connotation works.

Connotation Procedures

Barthes enumerates the various ‘procedures’ at the disposal of the creator of a photograph for imposing connoted meaning.

Trick effects – photographs can be faked to create false messages. Here the creator is relying on the ‘special credibility’ (11) of the photograph to pass off a fake as real.

Pose – how someone is posed or poses themselves in a portrait will influence the reading of the representation. Here connotation relies on the existence of a ‘store of stereotyped attitudes’ (12) derived from painting, theatre, association with ideas and so on. This observation formed the fundamental question that I investigated through a series of projects during my OCA Advanced course under the title of “Disarming the Pose’.

Objects – how objects are posed around a subject induce associations of ideas about the subject. (13) For example, placing a portrait subject next to a bookcase suggests that the subject is an intellectual. This question is fundamental to my project ‘Portraits in Context’ which I am progressing as part of the OCA Your Own Portfolio course.

Photogenia – here Barthes is referring to the way in which a connoted message is ’embellished…by techniques of lighting, exposure and printing’. (14) My decision to shoot my ‘Lifting the Curtain’ photographs in low light conditions relies on this principle. My intention is to create chiaroscuro images which are psychologically charged invoking an association between shadows and the past.

Aestheticism – by imitating the aesthetic principles of painting the creator is able to represent the work as ‘art’ or to impose ‘ a generally more subtle and complex signified’. (15) In effect, photography borrows from the connotative principles of art.

Syntax – by combining photographs into a series a photographer is able to construct a more complex signification. Barthes suggests that in these circumstances the ‘signifier of connotation is….at that….of the concatenation’ (16) This very much applies to my ‘Lifting the Curtain’ work. Looking at a single image/text pairing a viewer might see a coincidence that a social issue of the past continues to have resonance today. However, by showing that this applies across a range of issues in a series of image/text pairings the viewer is perhaps lead to the broader conclusion that human nature and fallibility does not change.

Image and Text

Barthes talks about the interplay between text and the photograph in the press. He suggests that the ‘image no longer illustrates the words’  but that the text is a ‘parasitic message designed to connote the image’.  (17) He also suggests that the effects of connotation varies according to the way in which the text is presented  – ‘The closer the text is to the image the less is seems to connote it;’ (18) He singles out the caption in particular as being so close to the image as to be overwhelmed by the denotive power of the photograph. These observations are highly relevant to the way I organise image and text in my panels for ‘Lifting the Curtain’. I do not want the text to appear as a caption, but rather as a separate piece of information to connote the image ‘to quicken it with one or ore second-order signifieds’. (19) This means that I need to consider very carefully how I arrange the image and text within the panels or indeed to think about other means of presentation (this will form part of Assignment 5 for the course).

Forms of Connotation

In the final part of the essay Barthes discusses how connotation takes place. He refers in the first instance to what he calls ‘perceptive’ connotation. Here he is referring to the fact that when we look at a photograph we describe what we see in terms of language and that all languages take up a position ‘with regards to things’. (20) In addition he considers what he calls ‘cognitive’ connotation, where specific signifiers in a photograph are picked out and interpreted according to the culture of the reader – an image with signs written in Arabic are signs of ‘Arabness’ for example. (21) Finally he refers to ‘perceptive’ connotation which is essentially ideological or ethical in nature. (22) We read into photographs meanings which support our particular ideological or cultural position. He points out that the same image will be interpreted differently according to the political positioning of the reader.


From the above it is clear that Barthes essay is relevant to my own work on a general level, as I am concerned with how photographic meaning is created, but also at a detailed level on a number of specific questions. For ‘Lifting the Curtain’ his observations about how a creator of a photograph manufactures connoted meaning through the use of objects, photogenic and syntax are particularly relevant. As are his observations about image and text. By gaining a better understanding about the nature of connotation I will also be better armed to deconstruct my own work and validate its relevance and importance for my project.


(1)     Barthes R. (1977) Image Music Text  London: Fontana Press

(2)     ibid. p. 15

(3)     ibid. p. 32

(4)     ibid. p. 16

(5)     ibid p. 17

(6)     ibid p. 19

(7)     ibid. p. 17

(8)     ibid. p. 18

(9)     ibid. p. 19

(10)   ibid. p. 20

(11)    ibid. p. 21

(12)   ibid. p. 22

(13)   ibid. p. 22

(14)   ibid p. 23

(15)   ibid p. 24

(16)   ibid. p. 24

(17)   ibid. p. 25

(18)  ibid. p. 26

(19)  ibid. p. 25

(20)  ibid. p. 29

(21)  ibid. p. 29

(22)  ibid. p. 29

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