Roland Barthes Essay The Rhetoric Of The Image

Roland Barthes

This essay is a classic semiotic text where Roland Barthes analyses an advertising image and uses it as a means of teasing out how different messages are conveyed by a system of signs. The ad he uses is the Panzani advert, within which he finds a rich layering of meanings.

Barthes commences by remarking that the word image stems from a Latin term meaning ‘imitation’ and then poses the central question of his essay – can images truly function of conveyers of meaning given that they are essentially imitations (or direct analogical representations) of something else. Do they really constitute a language, and if they do, how does meaning work within this language? He uses an advertising image to analyze these questions, as advertising images clearly have intended meanings. The image used is the Panzani ad which is reproduced below.

He starts by identifying three classes of message within the image:

1. The linguistic message (text)

He sees two kinds of linguistic messages at work: a denoted message comprising of the caption and the labels on the produce, and a connoted message – the word ‘Panzani’ connotes Italianicity.

2. The symbolic message (or connoted image)

Four signs are then identified from the non-linguistic part of the image and the constitute the symbolic message, or connoted image:

  • The half-open bag signifies return from market
  • tomatoes and peppers signify Italianicity
  • the collection of objects signifies a total culinary service
  • the overall composition is reminiscent of, and therefore signifies, the notion of a still life.

3. The literal message (or denoted image)

This is non-coded in that the image of the tomato represents a tomato, the image of the pepper represents a pepper, and so on. He remarks that in this case we have a signifier and a signified which are essentially the same – this is a message without a code.

Panzani advertisement

He then proceeds to look at each of these three types of messages in turn and attempts to untangle the precise nature of their operation and the relationships between them.

The linguistic message

Almost all images, in all contexts, are accompanied by some sort of linguistic message. This seems to have two possible functions:

  1. Anchorage – images are prone to multiple meanings and interpretations. Anchorage occurs when text is used to focus on one of these meanings, or at least to direct the viewer through the maze of possible meanings in some way
  2. Relay – the text adds meaning and both text and image work together to convey intended meaning e.g. a comic strip.

The denoted image

We can’t really remove the connotations of an image and this behold a purely literal, denoted image. If we could we would be comprehending the image at what Barthes calls the ‘first degree of intelligibility’, the point at which we see more than shapes. colour and form, but instead see a tomato. This would be a message without a code and crucially, Barthes identifies photography as the only medium with this characteristic – drawing, for example, relies on all sorts of conventions and what he calls ‘rule-governed transpositions’, which essentially constitute a code whereby signifieds can be represented as pen strokes. This absence of a code reinforces the myth of photographic ‘naturalness’ (or Sontag’s notion of a photograph as a trace of the real), but Barthes rejects this idea since he denies the possibility of the purely denoted image.

He identifies the specific characteristic of the ‘pure’ photograph as being an object that is here-now in the present, but which connects to something that undisputably existed in the past. He sees this as being revolutionary, as a means of eluding history.

The role of he denoted image in the overall image structure/meaning is one of naturalizing the symbolic message – supporting and contextualizing the connoted elements, making them innocent. In effect allowing the image to say – “Look! I’m just a picture of a tomato! Nothing funny going on here!”.

The connoted image

Analyzing the connotations of the image is a challenging task fraught with a number of difficulties. One of these is that each image can connote multiple meanings, we saw four earlier and there are probably more. Which ones are taken, depends on the viewer. A meaning is derived from a lexicon, which is a body of knowledge within the viewer. A single lexia stimulates multiple lexicons which may or may not be shared among viewers. So meaning is constructed not solely by the creator, but also by the consumer, and the intersection of his/her lexicon(s) with the signs contained in the image. Barthes refers to the collection of lexicon within a person, as his/her idiolect.

A further difficulty with analyzing the connoted signifieds is that there is no apt language for expressing or articulating them. The common domain of signifieds of connotation is an ideology, which seems odd until one consults a dictionary and finds a definition of ideology as a “systematic body of concepts”. How do we talk about this, other than through language, which is itself a system of signifiers and signifieds, and hence subject to all the ambiguities this entails?

Barthes calls the signifiers within a particular medium (or ‘substance’) the connotators. So, the connotators within an image are all the visual elements that can be used to connote signifieds. The entire set of such connotators is the rhetoric, so the rhetoric of the image is all the visual elements within an image that can be employed as signifiers.  He stresses that not all the visual elements are connotators so there always remain purely denoted elements within the frame.

My main issue when going through the text was a question about to what extent this approach to the analysis of images extends to non-advertising images. Advertising images have clear intentionality at their core – they are constructed to convey specific meanings and specific messages – and Barthes is quite upfront about the fact that this is why he uses one. We can use Barthes’ approach to unpack how this works, but what about other genres of photographs? For example, casual snapshots might have no intended connotations associated with them on the part of the creator, but might mobilise a particular lexicon within a viewer that constructs a very specific meaning, unintended by the creator. Does this matter? Similar questions arise with respect to documentary photographs. Are the creators of documentary images dealing purely with denotation? i.e. here is a picture of something that happened that I want to show you. Or, are they consciously (or unconsciously) embedding connotations also?

One genre of photographs that are perhaps close to advertising images in that there is clear intentionality of meaning at work, is publicity photographs for bands. They are clearly constructed to convey specific messages to the viewer and usually are trying to ‘say something’ about the group. The image below is a publicity shot of the long-running (but now defunct) Ohio indie rock band, Guided By Voices. I thought it would be interesting to try and apply Barthes’ methods to unpack the messages contained in this.

Guided By Voices

Firstly there is no real linguistic message associated with this, other than the caption I inserted with the name of the band. Almost certainly though, this image would have associated text in whatever context it is used. This might be text giving information about the band, a gig, a record release and so on. This text would be used as relay – in that it would be providing extra information not provided by the image itself.

In terms of denoted image, we can identify a number of things here, all obvious. There are five people in Guided By Voices, one of them has an extremely ill-advised hairstyle, one is wearing a blue-striped shirt and so on.

I think there are quite a few meanings at work in the connoted image also and I’ll try and pick them apart now.

  • The composition of the band members within the shot seems haphazard, their clothing is questionable- together these signify alignment with a certain slacker aesthetic that would see itself as being very distinct from mainstream rock music. It is saying that they don’t care too much about the taking of this photograph and by extension are not to be associated with the mainstream music industry and it’s reliance on image and professionalism.
  • The cigarette hanging out of the mouth and the stumbling posture of the two band members to the front signify drunkenness and this would be in keeping with the image of the band who were well-known for their drink-fueled performances and dissolute lifestlyes, an image they actively cultivated themselves.
  • The closeness of the four members to the left and in particular the arm-around-the-shoulder stance signify a gang. Again, this would reflect the fact that they were a close-knit bunch of friends who grew up together.
  • The band member to the far right however, stands slightly apart and aloof from the others. This is Robert Pollard, the main songwriter and creative force. His apartness signifies distance and difference and perhaps superiority with respect to the rest of the group, which again would be very in keeping with the history of the band – as Pollard would be the constant core of the group all through their career and write most of their giant catalogue of songs. His expression almost seems to suggest disapproval and in fact, not long after this photograph was taken, he sacked the entire band and replaced them with other musicians.

The first three of these are probably conscious, intended connotations on the part of the band and/or the photographer. The last one seems more likely to be an unconscious one – unless Pollard was sending out a message that this unkempt bunch of wasters to his right were soon for the chop. I wonder though how much of the connotations I am identifying here are particular to a very specific lexicon – that concerning US underground/indie rock in general and Guided By Voices in particular. Would someone less versed in this take the same meanings from the image?

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Posted in Writing | Tagged guided by voices, ncad, photography, rhetoric of the image, Roland Barthes, semiotics, visual culture | 19 Comments

Roland Barthes

The work of Roland Barthes (1915-80), the cultural theorist and analyst, embraces a wide range of cultural phenomena, including advertising, fashion, food, and wrestling. He focused on cultural phenomena as language systems, and for this reason we might think of him as a structuralist. In these notes, I provide a short profile of this influential figure, together with a synopsis of his seminal essay, "Rhetoric of the Image," a model for semiological analysis of all kinds. See also my notes on semiology.

* * * * *

This cultural theorist and analyst was born in Cherbourg, a port-city northwest of Paris. His parents were Louis Barthes, a naval officer, and Henriette Binger. His father died in 1916, during combat in the North Sea. In 1924, Barthes and his mother moved to Paris, where he attended (1924-30) the Lycee Montaigne. Unfortunately, he spent long periods of his youth in sanatoriums, undergoing treatment for TB. When he recovered, he studied (1935-39) French and the classics at the University of Paris. He was exempted from military service during WW II (he was ill with TB during the period 1941-47). Later, when he wasn't undergoing treatment for TB, he taught at a variety of schools, including the Lycees Voltaire and Carnot. He taught at universities in Rumania (1948-49) and Egypt (1949-50) before he joined (in 1952) the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, where he devoted his time to sociology and lexicology.

Barthes' academic career fell into three phases. During the first phase, he concentrated on demystifying the stereotypes of bourgeois culture (as he put it). For example, in Writing degree Zero (1953), Barthes examined the link between writing and biography: he studied the historical conditions of literary language and the difficulty of a modern practice of writing. Committed to language, he argued, the writer is at once caught up in particular discursive orders, the socially instituted forms of writing, a set of signs (a myth) of literature--hence the search for an unmarked language, before the closure of myth, a writing degree zero.

During the years 1954-56, Barthes wrote a series of essays for the magazine called Les Lettres nouvelles, in which he exposed a "Mythology of the Month," i.e., he showed how the denotations in the signs of popular culture betray connotations which are themselves "myths" generated by the larger sign system that makes up society. The book which contains these studies of everyday signs--appropriately enough, it is entitled Mythologies (1957)--offers his meditations on many topics, such as striptease, the New Citroen, steak and chips, and so on. In each essay, he takes a seemingly unnoticed phenomenon from everyday life and deconstructs it, i.e., shows that the "obvious" connotations which it carries have been carefully constructed. This account of contemporary myth involved Barthes in the development of semiology.

During the second phase, the semiotics phase dating from 1956, he took over Saussure's concept of the sign, together with the concept of language as a sign system, producing work which can be regarded as an appendix to Mythologies. During this period, Barthes produced such works as Elements of Semiology (1964), and The Fashion System (1967), adapting Saussure's model to the study of cultural phenomena other than language. During this period, he became (in 1962) Directeur d'Etudes in the VIth section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, where he devoted his time to the "sociology of signs, symbols, and representations."

The third phase began with the publication of S/Z (1970), marking a shift from Saussurean semiology to a theory of "the text," which he defined as a field of the signifier and of the symbolic. S/Z is a reading of Balzac's novel Sarrasine, plotting the migration of five "codes," understood as open groupings of signifieds and as points of crossing with other texts. The distinction between "the writable" and "the readable," between what can be written/rewritten today, i.e., actively produced by the reader, and what can no longer be written but only read, i.e., passively consumed, provides a new basis for evaluation. Barthes extends this idea in The Pleasure of the Text (1973) via the body as text and language as an object of desire. During this period, he wrote books as fragments, suggesting his retreat from what might be called the discourse of power, as caught in the subject/object relationship and the habits of rhetoric. He tried to distinguish "the ideological" from "the aesthetic," between the language of science, which deals with stable meanings and which is identified with the sign, and the language of writing, which aims as displacement, dispersion. He offers a "textual" reading of himself in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975). In 1976, he became professor of "literary semiology" at the College de France. In his last book, Camera Lucinda (1980), he reflects on the levels of meaning of the photograph.

Barthes died on 26 March 1980, having been knocked over by a laundry van (reports suggest that the driver was drunk).

As we have seen, Barthes' work ranged widely, but always it exerted an enormous impact on modern critical thought, on literary studies and semiotics especially. What follows is a synopsis of his essay, "The Rhetoric of the Image" (1964), which provides a conceptual framework for studying word-and-image relations in cultural artifacts.

To begin with (Barthes points out), the most important problem facing the semiology of images is: Can analogical representation (the "copy") produce true systems of signs? Can we think of an analogical "code" (as opposed to a digital one)? It must be remembered that any system constitutes a language only if it is doubly articulated (Barthes, 1977, p. 32). Let's start with an advertising image: the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional. Doubtless, the signs are full, formed with a view to optimum reading.

Here we have an advertisement for Panzani pasta: some packets of pasta, a tin [of concentrate], a sachet, some tomatoes, and onions, peppers, and mushrooms, all emerging from a half-open string bag, in yellows and greens on a red background. We begin by skimming off the different messages it contains.

1. the linguistic message

This (first) message is made up of all the words in the advertisement, i.e., the caption and the labels, these being inserted into the scene (p.33):

The denotational message: The code from which this message has been taken is that of the French language.

The connotational message: The sign "Panzani" yields by its assonance another signified, i.e., "Italianicity."

2. The literal image

This message yields a series of discontinuous signs. It should be remembered that the order of these signs (outlined below) is not important; they are not linear.

The first sign: the scene represents the idea of a return from the market, a signified which implies two values: that of the freshness of the products and that of the domestic preparation for which they are destined. Its signifier is the half open bag, which lets the contents spill out over the table, "unpacked" as it were. To read this sign, we have to understand the widespread culture of "shopping for yourself," as opposed to the "stocking up" of a more technological civilization.

The second sign: its signifier is the bringing together of red (tomato), green (pepper), and yellow, the colors of the poster, i.e., the red, green, and yellow of Italy or rather "Italianicity." This sign stands in a relation of redundancy with the connoted sign of the linguistic message, i.e., the assonance of the name Panzani. The knowledge it draws on is specifically French. An Italian would barely notice the connotation of the name because it is based on a familiarity with certain tourist stereotypes (p. 34).

The third sign: the serried collection of objects which transmits the idea of a total culinary service, as though (i) Panzani furnishes everything that is needed for a balanced meal and (ii) the concentrate in the tin were equivalent to the natural produce surrounding it (pp. 34-35).

The fourth sign: the composition of the image conveys an aesthetic signified, namely, the still life. Note: some signs tell us that this is an advertisement, i.e., place of the image in the magazine and the emphasis of the labels, not to mention the caption (p. 35).

Thus, four signs comprise this image. We will assume that together they form a coherent whole. After the linguistic message, then, we see a second, iconic message.

3. The Symbolic Image

The symbolic message is in fact the second "iconic" message. The signifiers of this (the third) message are constituted by the real objects in the scene: the signifiers have been photographed. The sign of this message is not drawn from a institutional stock: it is not coded (p. 36). Here were we confront the paradox of a message without a code. All the knowledge we need to read this message is bound up with our perception: We need to know what an image is and what the objects are. The first message is literal; the second message is symbolic (p. 36).

If this reading is adequate, we can say (by way of summary) that the photograph yields three messages: (1) a linguistic message, all the words in the advertisement; (2) a coded-iconic message, the visual connotations derived from the arrangement of photographed elements; and (3) a non-coded iconic message, the "literal" denotation, the recognition of identifiable objects in the photograph, irrespective of the larger societal code. Notice that the linguistic message (1) can be detached from messages (2) and (3); that messages (2) and (3) share the same (iconic) substance.

However, it should be obvious that the distinction between (2) and (3) is not easily made. The viewer receives at one and the same time the perceptual message and the cultural message. This confusion in reading these iconic images corresponds to the function of the mass image (pp. 36-37).

This distinction has an operational validity, analogous to that which allows the distinction in the linguistic sign of a signifier and a signified.

What is at issue at this point is not a naive analysis but a structural description of the messages, one which grasps the principle tying the elements together: the linguistic, the literal (denoted), and the symbolic (connoted). We are thus interested in the inter-relationships of the three messages. The first (literal) iconic image is in some way imprinted on the second (iconic) image.

1. The linguistic message

Since the appearance of the book, text and image have been linked. Today, the linguistic message is present in every image, as title, caption, accompanying press article, film dialogue, comic strip balloon, and so on. It would seem that we are still a civilization of writing (p. 38). What are the functions of the linguistic message with regard to the (twofold) iconic message? We can identify two:


All images are polysemous: they imply a "floating chain" of signifieds. Every society develops techniques to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs. The linguistic message serves as one of these techniques (pp. 38-39).

At the level of the literal message, the text answers the question: What is it? This text thus helps us focus our attention, in terms of identification and interpretation. The text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and to receive others. Thus, the text directs the reader to a message (ideology) chosen in advance (p. 40).

In all these cases (of anchorage), language serves to elucidate (in a selective way). Language thus serves as a means of control. Note: Anchorage is the most frequent function of the linguistic message; it is commonly found in press photographs as well as advertisements (pp. 40-41).


Here (in cartoons and comic strips) text (a snatch of dialogue say) and image stand in a complementary relationship. The words, as well as the images, are fragments of a more general syntagm, and the unity of the message is realized at a higher level, namely, at the level of the story, the anecdote, the diegesis (p. 41).

This relay-text is very important in film, where dialogue serves not simply to elucidate but to advance the action by setting out (in the sequence of messages) meanings that are not to be found in the image itself. Obviously, the two functions of the linguistic message can co-exist in the iconic message, but the dominance of the one or the other is of consequence for the general economy of a work (p. 41).

2. The denoted image

We have seen that, in the image, the distinction between the literal message and the symbolic message is operational. We never encounter (at least in advertizing) a literal image in a pure state. This is "message by eviction," constituted by what is left in the image when the signs of connotation are mentally deleted. Only the photograph is able to transmit literal information without forming it by means of discontinuous signs and rules of transformation (pp. 42-43).

In its literal state, the photograph (a message without a code) must be opposed to the drawing (a message with a code). The coded nature of the drawing can be seen at three levels:

  • A set of rule-governed transpositions is needed to reproduce an object or a scene. Thus, the codes of transposition are historical, notably those concerning perspective (p. 43).
  • The operation of the drawing, i.e., the coding, immediately necessitates a certain division between the significant and the insignificant. The drawing does not reproduce everything. A drawing can reproduce very little and still be a strong message. The photographer has to use trick effects as it were to achieve the same results. The denotation of the drawing is not as pure as that of the photograph (we can't have drawing without style).
  • Like all codes, the drawing demands an apprenticeship. The execution of the drawing constitutes a connotation. In the photograph, at the level of the literal message: the relationship of the signifieds to the signifiers is not one of transformation but of recording, i.e., the scene is there, captured mechanically not humanly (p. 44).

3. The Connoted image

Our interventions in the photograph (framing, distance, lighting, focus, speed) all effectively belong to the plane of connotation. The type of consciousness the photograph involves is unprecedented: having-been-there, as opposed to being-there, i.e., a new space-time category. At the level of denotation: the message without code, we can understand the real unreality of the photograph. This is the unreality of here-now.

Film should be distinguished from photograph vis-a-vis this opposition. Film can no longer be seen as animated photographs. The having-been-there gives way to being-there. This means that the denoted image naturalizes the symbolic message: it innocents the semantic artifice of connotation, which in advertizing is extremely dense. Although the Panzani poster is full of "symbols," a kind of natural being-there of objects remains (in the photograph). Nature seems spontaneously to produce the scene represented (p. 45).

The (historical) paradox is: The more technology promotes the diffusion of information (and notably of images), the more it provides the means of masking the constructed meaning under the appearance of the given meaning (p. 46).

We have seen that the signs of the third message (the symbolic or cultural message) are discontinuous. Even when the signifier seems to extend over the whole image, it is nonetheless a sign separated from the others. The composition carries an aesthetic signified, in much the same way as intonation is a separate signifier in language.

We are dealing with a normal system whose signs are drawn from a cultural code (even if the linking together of the elements of the sign appear to be analogical). What gives this system its originality is that the number of readings of the same lexical unit or lexia (of the same image) varies according to individuals.

  1. We identified four connotative signs in the Panzani advertisement. We can identify others, such as the net bag, which can signify the miraculous draught of fishes, plenty, etc. (p. 46). The image (in its connotation) is thus constituted by an architecture of signs drawn from a viable depth of lexicons; each lexicon is coded as if the psyche itself were articulated like a language (p. 47). The further one "descends" into the psychic depths of an individual, the more rarefied, the more classifiable the signs become. (What could be more systematic than the readings of Rorschach tests?)
  2. The language of the image is not merely the totality of utterances emitted, but is also the totality of utterances received.
  3. Another difficulty in analyzing connotation: no particular language corresponds to the particularity of its signifieds, i.e., Italianicity, still life, and so on. The metalanguage which has to take charge of them at the moment of analysis is not specialized (pp. 47-48).
  4. To the general ideology correspond signifiers of connotation which are specified according to the chosen substance. These signifiers will be called connotators and the set of connotators a rhetoric, rhetoric thus appearing as the signifying aspect of ideology (p. 49). Rhetorics invariably vary with their substance (here articulated sound, there image, gesture, etc.), but not necessarily by their form.
  5. Thus, the rhetoric of the image (the classification of its connotators) is specific to the extent that it is subject to the physical constraints of vision, but to the extent that the "figures" are never more than formal relations of elements. Note: the tomato signifies Italianicity by metonymy. A series of scenes in another advertisement, i.e., coffee in beans, coffee in powder, and coffee sipped in a cup, releases a logical relationship in the way asyndeton does. The important thing simply is not to inventorize the connotators but to understood that in the total image they constitute discontinuous or scattered traits (p. 50).

    The denoted message in the Panzani advertisement: the Mediterranean vegetables, the color, the composition, the very profusion, rise up as so many scattered blocks, at once isolated and mounted in a general scene which has its own space, its own meaning. They are "set" in a syntagm which is not theirs and which is that of the denotation (p. 51).

    It is precisely the syntagm of the denoted message which naturalizes the system of the connoted message. Again: Connotation (only a system) can only be defined in paradigmatic terms: iconic denotation is only syntagmatic. The discontinuous connotators are connected, actualized, spoken through the syntagm of the denotation.

  6. In the total system of the image, the structural functions are polarized: on the one hand, we have a sort of paradigmatic condensation at the level of the connotations (of the symbols); these are strong signs; on the other, we have a syntagmatic flow at the level of the denotation. Syntagm is very close to speech: it is the iconic "discourse" which naturalizes its symbols. The world of total meaning is torn internally (structurally) between the system as culture and the system as nature.

    Barthes, R. 1964. "The Structuralist Activity." From Essais Critiques, trans. R. Howard. In Partisan Review 34 (Winter):82-88.

    ---. 1967. Writing Degree Zero, trans. A. Lavers and C. Smith. 1953; rptd. New York: Hill and Wang.

    ---. 1967. Mytholgies, trans. A. Lavers. 1957; rptd. London: Hill and Wang.

    ---. 1967. Elements of Semiology, trans. A. Lavers and C. Smith. 1964; rptd. New York: Hill and Wang.

    ---. 1974. S/Z, trans. R. Howard. 1970; rptd. Oxford: Blackwell.

    ---. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text, trans. R. Howard. 1973; rptd. New York: Hill and Wang.

    ---. 1977. Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, trans. R. Howard. 1975; rptd. New York: Hill and Wang.

    ---. 1977. "The Rhetoric of the Image." In his book Image-Music-Text, trans. S. Heath. 1964; rpt. London: Wm. Collins Sons and Co., pp. 32-51.

    ---. 1981. Camera Lucinda, trans. R. Howard. 1980; rptd. New York: Hill and Wang.

    ---. 1983. The Fashion System, trans. M. Ward and R. Howard. 1967; rptd. New York: Hill and Wang.

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