Category Archives: Project 1 – Captions and titles

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syntagm (an orderly combination of interacting signifiers, e.g. a sentence) and the intelligibility of a culture, withdrawn into a few, discontinuous symbols which men ‘decline’ in the shelter of their living speech.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-preview

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

References

Barthes, Roland (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ekphrasis (accessed on 20 August 2017)

Barbara Kruger, Sarah Sense and abstract layers of meaning

You know how it is – when something new and specific comes into your mind, then suddenly evidence of that thing seems to be everywhere. I recall that feeling when I was pregnant the first time, and evidence of pregnancy and babies that I had not noticed before suddenly came into sharp focus. I am having the same experience with the idea of Text and Images at present. It’s as if suddenly my eyes have been opened to the significance of something I’ve never thought about before.

The course text refers us to Barbara Kruger, as a photographer who uses advertising conventions to subvert their messages. Her work is political in nature and asks us to question prevailing thinking. Her images fit in well with the current zeitgeist and I notice that she has been using Trump in her work recently, reflecting the so-called “Fake Media” view of him. Her work fits in well with the low-level trolling and poking fun at the new American President which is aimed at needling him into making a fool of himself. (Go, Barbara! I’m right behind you. The man is a menace.)

For example, this image below is brilliant – funny, scathingly truthful and covertly taking a swipe at Trump and his alt-right fans.

Barbara Kruger 2

© Barbara Kruger

There are reminders of the work of other political photographers, such as Peter Kennard, whom I heard lecture back during TAOP. Both use collage and iconic images to make their points in clever, easy to grasp ways.

The interesting thing about Kruger’s work is that she takes a piece of text and pastes it over a seemingly entirely unconnected image, and the result is a space where the viewer has to work to fit the two messages together. The photographer provides clues, but the viewer has to join the dots, as it were. In the image above, we have the following elements:

  • an image of a person, who we assume is Hitler because of the moustache and uniform, although his eyes are covered.
  • two bits of text (well, three really, but the upper two are connected)
  • a message about mind control
  • another message about not believing internet trolls
  • a third message, which sits in the notional gap between text and image (not the physical gap) about Hitler’s use of psychological warfare and disinformation during WW2, and
  • a fourth message (also within the gap) warning people to beware of current re-use of those techniques to direct the population’s thinking via the internet. i.e. don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and attempts to direct our thinking may well be organised and coordinated. The small type point of the “If” at the beginning of the text also implies that the default position is that our minds are controlled, and only clear-thinking people can see above this to the wider point.

All this in one image. It is a very powerful way of making a point quickly that is much more complex to explain in words.

Our coursework text argues that there are three ways an image and some text can be related:

directional – the words are explanatory of the image. One thinks of basic reportage in this category, where the pictures are an illustration of the words, such as this below from today’s BBC website.         Directional text
The image illustrates the words and the words explain the image. I very much doubt whether anyone was commissioned to make the image. It was simply lifted from a stock photo library of happy, smiling girls. (Why is it always girls?)

orientational – the words give some general information about the image, such as the place it was taken, such as this image below, taken from the Landscape Photographer of the Year website. The text explains the location of the image and who it was by.

John Gibbs

complementary – the text and the image together produce a space into which a third idea is placed. Each of the elements has value on its own, but together they produce another idea altogether. That idea relies on the viewer taking enough time to work it out for his/herself, and it is a concept that is currently very popular in Art Photography.

Which brings me to Sarah Sense. I found her work while I was doing research for assignment 3 of Context & Narrative, and was struck by her method of deconstructing and reconstructing images to say something about her mixed heritage roots and in particular some of the symbolism used in basket-weaving by different groups. Yesterday, I returned to it, in relation to my post on Thomas Kellner, and discovered that she has move on since I last looked at her site. An example of her recent work is shown below, and it combines both the physical re-weaving of the image she is known for, but also integrated and external text. It is part of a series called Remember, which along with its predecessor Chocktaw Irish Relation, takes the words of her grandmother’s memoirs and reproduces them both within the image and as accompanying text, both handwritten. (Both can be viewed on her website here). The result gives a sense of her relationship with her grandmother, and their shared heritage through what are on first sight fairly straightforward landscape images. But like the Barbara Kruger image above, once can unpeel the ideas of the image like an onion, to find others beneath them which are more abstract.

Sarah Sense-Remembering

© Sarah Sense, 2016

From a personal standpoint, I am intrigued by the idea that one can use physical layers to produce abstract layers of meaning, and would like to try it out in some of my own work.

Exercise 4.1

In this exercise, we are asked to pick one of Dawn Woolley’s blog posts from her series Looking at Advertisements and to comment on it. I have chose No 16,  which is about this advert by L’Oréal. In her review of the advert, Woolley does not include a link to the original work, but paints a picture of the ideas and messages it portrays, and questions how the “selfie” has become such a fundamental part of our culture.

In the advert, which is short at 20 seconds, a young woman who is dressed to go out partying is initially shown in a football goal, failing to stop any of the many balls that are thrown at her at once. The caption “I may not be infallible…. but I am always selfie-ready” overlays it. The action then moves on to show how wearing this make-up makes the wearer selfie-ready for “up to 24 hours”, and we see her surrounded by selfie sticks, ready at a moment’s notice to take her own photo.

So where does one begin to unpack all this? Firstly, the colour scheme of an eye-hurtingly loud yellow appears to have no relevance to the advert, except perhaps to make one remember the colour. Then the footballs. Why the footballs and goal net? It is utterly ireelevant to the storyline. I could think of a hundred ways of portraying the idea of fallibility that are better than a woman in a party dress and stilletos.  It makes no sense at all. The action then moves on towards a fairly unremarkable explanation of how to apply the makeup, followed by the short, but admittedly quite funny, selfie-ready scene. The whole thing is accompanied by muzack, the intention of which seems to be to indicate that the woman is constantly in a hurry, and a man’s voice doing the voice-over.

There are two particular points of interest to me in the advert. The first is how much the selfie has become a part of our culture that it is considered to be a good vehicle for explaining the product. Everyone knows about selfies – they are ubiquitous and people do it all the time. I have posted previously about the selfie here and how it is a form of self brand promotion – how people want other people to see them. I’ve also asked my two step-daughters why they take selfies, and was told that they are a way of making them look their best to people who they are friends with. That may well be the case, but there is also something in there about wanting other people to see you, and about projecting a persona that might have little to do with who you really are. As an example, people who use dating sites usually moan about how nobody looks like their photos in real life. The posted photo is a combination of them at their best (even if it was 10 years ago) and what they think other people will find attractive. The truth is an inevitable disappointment.

Then there is the intrusion of the male viewpoint into the advert. The footballing reference and the voice-over. These produce a subtle message that looking beautiful is for them, not the woman concerned, and also that men expect women to be a) fully party ready at all times and b) ditsily taking selfies everywhere. There is no sense whatsoever about a woman being a strong individual who doesn’t need outside praise – the advert is all about looking for external approbation and a striving for perfection to please other people. I find the whole thing disgusting. Surely L’Oreal can do better than that!