Research Point 1 – Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image

Works of mass communication all combine, through diverse and diversely successful dialects, the fascination of a nature, that of story, diegesis (narrative), syntagm (an orderly combination of interacting signifiers, e.g. a sentence) and the intelligibility of a culture, withdrawn into a few, discontinuous symbols which men ‘decline’ in the shelter of their living speech. Barthes 1977, 162-3. (the purple words are mine)


Panzani advert that illustrates Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image.

I’ve written a little before about the idea of anchor and relay in Context & Narrative, but looking back at what I said, it is only the bare bones. I did confirm though that I have read Rhetoric of the Image before. It is a pretty dense piece of writing, which requires full concentration and access to a dictionary and as always, Barthes used twenty abstruse words where five simple ones would do the same job, but I now think I have understood the gist of it.

I will talk relatively briefly about Anchor and Relay, as required for the Research Point, because I think there are more interesting ideas which are explained later in the essay.

Barthes opines that one can combine text and images in two different ways:

  • anchors – where the text  which accompanies an image is directive; it focuses the viewer’s understanding of the image down a particular pathway, thus limiting the image’s potential range of meanings.
  • relays – the text alters or advances the meaning, by adding other possible ways of reading an image. The resulting understanding might still be tied down, but it is much more open to interpretation than the anchoring text.

In the coursework lead-up to this exercise, we are referred to Scott’s break-down of the relationship, which is directional and orientational (both are anchors in Barthes’s terminology) and complementary, which equates to Barthes’ relay. I explained these terms, with examples, here. The notion of relaying text is very popular in current photography, with seemingly unrelated pieces of text co-located with images, in a completely undirected way which requires to viewer to derive his/her own meaning from the pieces. More of this later though.

Barthes then goes on to introduce another semiotic concept – connotive and denotive signs using an advertisement for spaghetti as a springboard for his theories. Connotive refers to the literal part of the image, in this case, a shopping bag which holds a number of cookery ingredients, while the denotive part of the image is the symbolic signs that are held within that image and which are what makes it an advert rather than simply an image of some shopping. He goes into some detail about how these are presented in the image, through signifiers and what they signify. A basic example is the various traffic signs that we see on our roads. The signs are simple but they hold larger messages about particular safety issues we should beware of, such as this below.

no right turn

Here, we “know” that the red circle with a line through it means Don’t Do Something, and the black arrow indicates what that Something is – No Right Turn.

That is simple, but one can apply the same concept to much more complicated situations, particularly when using text alongside an image. Barthes writes that the specific signifiers in an image are underlain by an infinite range of potential signifieds – the meanings that the signified might refer to. The idea that limits those signifieds are each person’s cultural and personal experiences, i.e. those things that lead the person to associate a particular object or sight with a specific idea. Naturally, there are some general ones which are widely understood, such as generic toilet signs, for instance, but surprisingly few are globally understood. With each person’s own experiential assumptions laid on top of this, it is clear that every person who looks at the same image may draw different conclusions about its meaning (See Death of the Author for more on this), and this is why advertising needs to be very general and directive in its signifiers – to avoid misunderstanding of the messages that the seller wants to say.

This is where we return to the idea of anchors and relays, as most usually text is used as an anchor, to tie down/limit/repress the potential signified meanings of the image, as in advertisements. However, by using a piece of text as relay instead, a much more open relationship with the image is produced, allowing and even encouraging the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions about what the artist means, and potentially producing a gap between the words and the image for the viewer to fill in with his/her own interpretation, based on a very personal understanding of the ideas and themes the artist is exploring.

There is considerably more to the article along the lines of how the photograph differs from all other art works as it simply records a scenario, rather than transforming it into a representation of the scene, but that is for another post. In the meantime, the course question asks us how this might help my own creative approach to working with text and images? I am actually quite comfortable with the idea of non-explanatory text alongside images, and my current project on nude photography and the gaze is using it. Fellow student Stefan513593 taught me a new word today which references my thinking about how the project is progressing – ekphrasic – a vivid, often dramatic verbal description of a visual work of art, real or imagined (Wikipedia, 2017), which in the case of my project, involves sewing words which have significant meanings upon the image to subvert our initial understanding of it as a signifier and to question the history behind it.  The current state of that work can be seen in this post here.

More important though is the idea that the connotators within the image are discontinuous, scattered traits, which hint at a lexicon, without detailing the whole of it. Barthes (1977)

diegesis – narrative


Barthes, Roland (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press (accessed on 20 August 2017)


4 thoughts on “Research Point 1 – Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image

  1. Stefan J Schaffeld

    Thanks for referencing me, Holly. Your interrogation of Barthes seems relevant to your nude work in my opinion as it refers to layers of signification. I can sense your urge to make more than text+image. Did you look at Magritte? He worked intensively on signifiers and arbitrariness versus deferring signs. How language points at one point to objects through images and the same time are disconnected from them. What it does to uplevel the viewer and makes the process of seeing and meaning a conscious approach



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s