Barthes – Rhetoric of the Image

Posted on October 9, 2014


This is my second post discussing the relevance of Barthes writing on photographic meaning for my ‘Lifting the Curtain’ project. Once again my source is Barthes book ‘Image Music Text’ (1) and in this case his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’. (2)

The essay concerns itself with the question ‘How does meaning get into the image?’ (3) For his analysis Barthes takes a Panzani advertisement.

Panzani Advertisement from Barthes's Rhetoric of the Image

Panzani Advertisement from Barthes’s Rhetoric of the Image

Barthes conducts a structural analysis of the advertisement and concludes that the photograph ‘offers us three messages: a linguistic message, a coded iconic message and a non-coded iconic message’. (4) He points out that whilst the linguistic message is readily separated out, the two forms of iconic message – the coded (denoted) and non-coded (connoted) – cannot be separated. We received these messages at one and the same time. This is what Barthes refers to as the photographic paradox. The essay goes on to discuss the linguistic message, the denoted image and the connoted image in turn.

Linguistic Message

Barthes points out that text can be both denotive and connotive, containing both a literal and symbolic message. At the literal level the text ‘replies ….to the question: what is it?’ (5) At the symbolic level the ‘linguistic message no longer guides identification but interpretation’. (6)

Barthes describes the most frequent use of the linguistic message as anchorage and in this form the text ‘directs the reader through the signifiers of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others’. (7) This is the form most commonly found in press and advertising where the creator is seeking to direct interpretation.

Barthes also refers to text used in ‘relay’, where text and image stand in a ‘complementary relationship….and the unity of the message is realised at a higher level, that of the story, the anecdote, the diegesis…’. (8) This is exactly how I hope my use of text and image in ‘Lifting the Curtain’ will operate. My intention is that the text will prompt the viewer/reader to imagine the scene that Charles Booth witnessed and to project this narrative onto the blank canvas of the image.

Barthes points out that ‘the two functions [anchorage and relay] of the linguistic message can co-exist in one iconic whole’. (9) It is likely that this will apply in the case of my image/text panels for ‘Lifting the Curtain’. The text will not only stimulate visualisation of the ‘story’ but also cause the viewer to fix interpretation of certain signifiers in the scene. Take for example the image/text below:

Bethnal Green Road ©Keith Greenough 2014

Bethnal Green Road
©Keith Greenough 2014

The signs ‘WELL HEELED’ and ‘PROVIDENCE ROW’ will take on particular meanings given the text’s reference to ‘none spend it well’. At the same time however I would hope that the viewer/reader is also encouraged to imagine the scene in Booth’s day this area when this area was populated by cabinet makers, glass blowers and costers and how their lives were both enriched and impoverished by the perils of drink. My intention/hope is also that the viewer/reader will also move on to consider how the social issue of drinking is impacting on modern day life.

The denoted image

Here Barthes returns again to his theme that the photograph ‘by virtue of its absolutely analogical nature, seems to constitute a message without a code’. (10) In this sense the photograph appears to be radically objective. He draws comparison with drawing where decisions are made by the artist on how to transpose the image (use of perspective for example) and what to include and what not to include. He concludes that the ‘execution of drawing itself constitutes a connotation’. (11)

Barthes goes on to discuss the unprecedented nature of photography as a form of representation. In particular he concludes that photography  creates ‘a new space-time category: spacial immediacy and temporal anteriority offering an illogical conjunction between the here-now and  there-then’. (12) This capacity of a photograph to invoke a sense of history is relevant to ‘Lifting the Curtain’, where my aim is to encourage the reader/viewer to imagine past events.

Rhetoric of the image

Rhetoric of the image is a term coined by Barthes to refer to way in which images create meaning through connotation. Barthes points out that connoted meaning will vary from person to person depending on their knowledge (practical, national, cultural, aesthetic and so on). Whilst admitting that this leads to ambiguity in meaning for photographs (polysemy), Barthes sees no problem with this. He suggests that the language of the image comprises the totality of all meanings.

He goes on to discuss the difficulty in in analysing connotation because of the absence a universal language for interpreting signifiers. Clearly, my own image/text pairings for ‘Lifting the Curtain’ will be subject to different interpretations depending on the background of the particular viewer/reader. I am totally comfortable with this. Indeed, my intention is that the work is open to interpretation and needs the active participation of the viewer/ reader to create meaning. I will discuss this latter point further when I review Umberto Eco’s The Open Work  and its relevance for ‘Lifting the Curtain’.


In many ways this essay reiterates the points raised by Barthes in his essay ‘The Photographic Message’ see here. So the conclusions I reached on reviewing the latter are also relevant here. Barthes analysis of the way in which image and text interact to create meaning in this essay is of great significance for my work. I need to consider carefully how each text is operating alongside its corresponding image. My intent is for them to work in relay, albeit accepting that to some extent the text will also anchor the meaning of some signifiers. The capacity for photography to invoke a sense of history is also relevant to my work, as is the inherent ambiguity of photographs. I am comfortable with viewer/readers finding a range of meaning and interpretations for my image/text panels, but expect that the text will to some extent direct or restrict the field of connoted meaning through the process of anchorage.


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

2)    Ibid. p. 32

3)    Ibid. p. 32

4)    Ibid p. 36

5)    Ibid p. 39

6)    Ibid p. 39

7)   Ibid. p. 40

8)   Ibid. p. 41

9)   Ibid p. 41

10) Ibid p. 43

11) Ibid p. 43

12) Ibid. p. 44





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