Rhetoric of the Image


Johnathan Culler (1) suggests that the cultural theorist Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980), outside France at least, has replaced Jean Paul Sartre as the leading French intellectual; whilst soon after his death, The New York Times described him as “one of the high priests of contemporary intellectual opinion” (2). In the years between 1953 and his death in 1980 he wrote a series of analytical essays primarily focussed on literature and contemporary writing but also recording his thoughts on a wide range of popular cultural topics ranging from striptease to photography. Barthes was, according to Culler, “above all a structuralist, perhaps the structuralist” (1: loc. 196); he believed in systems of written and visual language based on the Saussurean principles of semiotics which he used to create schemes for categorising the signs and codes contained in a text, a photograph, an advertisement or a cultural myth.

Along with Susan Sontag’s On Photography and John Berger’s About Looking Barthes’ Camera Lucida has become an essential text despite it being, at its core, an intimate discourse on finding the essence of his deceased mother in a photograph. From a photographer’s perspective he has “established” a set of principles that Susie Linfield (3) argues have had too greater influence on contemporary criticism but that whether we like it or not have become acquired wisdom. Linfield makes the point that Barthes, like Sontag, had a dark view of photography, he saw the photograph as “flat, platitudinous, stupid, without culture, a catastrophe and – the cruelest cut – undialectical” (3: p6); this negative viewpoint, which has strongly influenced the postmodern critics, should be seen as a health warning when applying his theories; ultimately he had no love for the medium.

Barthes’ writing style can, at times, appear impenetrable and his tendency to use ten long words to describe a simple concept can make the reader yearn for a summary at the end of each essay or chapter; I am unsure whether this verbose style has the tendency to make his theories on photography appear more profound than they really are or whether his principles are now so embedded in photographic theory that they appear less profound than when first written.

I took two significant ideas from Camera Lucida; the photograph has a studium and a punctum, a culturally determined context and a detailed point that pricks our attention; and, the subject starts to pose as the image they wish to be as soon as they aware of the camera. Beyond that I find his generalisations regarding the photograph and death to be obsessive, circumstantial and overly influenced by his recent bereavement. It is an obvious truth that the implied meaning of all photographs is “This has been” but it is a dark view of life to see the photograph of a new born child as a sign of its death.

In the Death of the Author, which is not about photography but because of its postmodern connotations has become another “essential text”, Barthes pursues one of his strongest beliefs, the idea that literary criticism and by association photographic criticism is over concerned with investigating the artist’s original intent when it should be directed at extracting the viewer’s own meaning. This is an idea of some importance, not because it directs us to ignore the artist’s intent, an idea that taken to its logical conclusion makes the study of photography history an irrelevance, but because it highlights the inherent ambiguity of the photograph. This tells the viewer to beware of context and the photographer to make a conscious decision on how much meaning they intent to lockdown.

Despite having told us in Camera Lucida that the photograph has no code and therefore unavailable to semiotic analysis Rhetoric of the Image is an exercise in semiotics using a photograph, an advertisement for pasta as its subject. A statement in Camera Lucida might explain his choice: “If we except the realm of advertising, where the meaning must be clear and distinct only by reason of its mercantile nature, the semiology of photography is therefore limited to the admirable work of several portraitists.” (4: p.37) Culler tells us that the older Barthes often criticised the younger Barthes (1: loc. 236) so an evolving position should not be too surprising but The New York Times suggests that in his later years he sensed a  “disparity between the way semiotics described the world and the way he perceived it as lived” (2).

Barthes choses an advertisement for this exercise because ” in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional” (4: p.33), a choice that makes it of limited use as a template for photographic analysis and one that can confuse photography with advertising photography and tempt students into introducing clichéd and simplistic symbols into their work. The signs that Barthes sees in the advertisement are unsubtle so his analysis takes the reader more into the mind of its creator than revealing hidden meanings. However, putting that rather negative thought to one side, what he does offer is a system for analysing an image.

He begins by identifying three types of message in the advertisement:

A linguistic message whose substance is  supported by the caption and the labels. The caption and most of the words on the labels are written in the “code” of the French language so, for readers of French they are easily understood but he also points out that the word “Panzini” is a signifier and connotes “Italianicity”. He says that “linguistic message is thus twofold ….. : denotational and connotational.” (4: p.33)

A coded iconic message that uses symbolism to communicate a series of connotations. The half open bag is a signifier that says a shopper has just returned from the market, the signified, which he argues in turn implies freshness, domesticity, shopping for oneself (although I would suggest it implies shopping for one meal which now has connotations of celebrity TV chefs who regularly use a simple set of ingredients to create a special meal for an in-studio guest).

Barthes suggests that there is a second signifier in the form of the red tomato and the tricolour hues of the labels so the overall advert signifies “Italianicity”. I accept his argument regarding the colours of the label which connote the Italian flag but I am less convinced that the red tomato is there for the same purpose; if the designer has wished to achieve “Italianicity” in the produce I would have expected him to introduce a green pepper to work with the red tomato and the white mushroom. However, Barthes also sees the tomato and pepper as being typically Italian to French eyes.

The third sign is the “serried collection of different objects” which transmits the idea of a “total culinary service ” a balanced meal with the additional connotation that the contents of the tin equals the fresh ingredients that surrounds it.

Barthes sees a forth sign in the form of the arrangement of the bag and its contents which creates a still life. He admits that knowledge of this sign is heavily cultural and I am unclear what he believes it signifies unless it is artfulness.

A non-coded iconic message which is the literal or denoted one. When he removes all the signifieds mentioned above we are left with a bag, some product packets, a tin, a tomato and so forth. His point being that the picture of a tomato is not just a red blob of colour, it denotes a tomato, the signifier and the signified are the same. This, he argues is a message without a code, because it is a matter of practically anthropological knowledge what each of these items are.

Before providing to look at each of these three message in turn he inserts a philosophical twist. We can separate the linguistic message because it uses different parts of the image but the coded iconic and the non coded iconic message share the same signifiers, we read both messages simultaneously; we see a tomato and read it both as a tomato (the perceptual message which is denoted) and a symbol of “Italianicity” (the cultural message which is connoted).

The Linguistic Message

Barthes proceeds to consider the relationship between text and image noting that to find pictures without words we need to go back to “partially illiterate societies” (4: p.38). He concludes that in contemporary society and at the level of mass communication the linguistic message is present in every image.(i) He believes that there are two functions of the linguistic message; anchorage and relay.

Barthes now uses one of my favourite phrases:

“All images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a floating chain of signifieds”. (4: p.39)

In essence the photograph is always ambiguous, full of signs that the viewer can selectively read or not. Barthes points out that society develops various techniques to fix the floating chain of signifieds to counter the “terror of floating signs” (4: p.39). The caption anchors the floating signs and is common to press photographs and advertisements.

The relay is less common as the use of words to form a complimentary relationship with the image, adding meaning such as the speech bubbles in a cartoon strip

The Denoted Image

Barthes argues that we never encounter a purely literal image in advertising. Its characteristics are relational, their message only exists when we mentally remove the connoted image. He argues that the photograph is unique in being able to contain a message without a code, by representing the tomato as a facsimile of the tomato the photograph has not used any conventions, rules or codes to move from signifier to signified. It is a process of recording as opposed to transformation. However, the denoted image “naturalises” the symbolic image, the Panzini tomato is loaded with connotations, Barthes talks about Italianicity but we could add freshness, ripeness, sweetness or even drift into Edward Weston territory and find similarities in its shape to the human form. However, the denoted image of the tomato is a literal message – here is a tomato, all its connotations which in the advertisement are constructed are masked by its appearance as itself.

The Connoted Image

Barthes returns, in some ways, to his point about floating signifiers by pointing out that the connotations we identify in the Panzini advertisement will depend on our own experience, they depend upon, what he calls “different types of knowledge – practical, national, cultural, aesthetic”. Any one person will read the image based on these factors and a common view between the creator and the viewer only occurs when they share one or more levels of experience. The image is therefore the sum of the messages inserted by its creator and the sum of the messages read by the viewers which may not result in an infinite number of connotations but certainly gives rise to a ever changing number which no one person is likely to be able to identify.

Barthes then moves into difficult waters in an attempt to define the rhetoric of the image. He argues that if we were able to create an inventory of systems of connotation we would find that connotations have typical signifiers depending on the medium in which they are used. The signifieds of connotation are a systematic body of concepts or an ideology which is specific to any given society and history. This ideology would contain signifiers of connotation for any chosen medium; “these signifiers would be called connotators and the set of connotators a rhetoric”. (4: p.49)



Barthes was a man of systems, perhaps a blend of linguistics, literature, structuralism and semiotics inevitably leads the philosopher to search for predictable systems, an algorithm that defines human activity. The idea that it would be possible to inventorise the connotations of any given signifier within an image is fanciful, it is an attempt to count the drops of water at a specific point in a waterfall, before you start the drops have all moved. His system of breaking down the messages into three component parts has some merit, we can analyse the reasonably static linguistic message and be quite precise about the literal components. Beyond that we are acutely conscious of the presence of signifiers but can only create our own signifieds based on our knowledge, we may guess at how others would read the signs based again on our knowledge of others but we will never exhaust the possible connotations.

To attempt to systemise the reading of photographs is to attempt to systemise the reading of the landscape, of a crowd of a tree or of a person you meet in the pub because whilst the photograph records what was there then and gives the illusion of simplifying the captured scene the only real simplification is to freeze time inside the photograph and to evolve the meaning of that frozen moment by constantly and remorselessly increasing the time between then and now.

Notes on Text

(i)  It is apparent that a philosopher needs licence to make these sweeping statements to support their theories; it is easy enough to argue that there is a move in the photographic art world to dissociate the image from text but I would also accept, as discussed previously (here), that the photograph has a tendency to collect, shed, collect afresh and shed again any text that is at any time associated with it.



(1) Culler, Jonathan (1983) Barthes: A Very Short Introduction (Kindle Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press

(3) Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

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


(2) The New York Times (1981) Death in the Photograph (accessed at The New York Times 18.7.16) – http://www.nytimes.com/1981/08/23/books/death-in-the-photograph.html?pagewanted=all

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2 Responses to Rhetoric of the Image

  1. Catherine says:

    “a floating chain of signifieds” – like cooked spaghetti, or even the bag containing the produce.
    I’ve also wondered about the usefulness of applying semiotics to photographs and whether it’s better suited to advertising. I think nowadays there’s a split between advertisements telling how easy and nutritious packaged food can be but, on the other hand, how much better to make your own past; grow the tomatoes etc.
    A very useful summary and a good reference text. Thanks Steve.

  2. Apart from his apparent distrust or dislike of the medium the problem I have with Barthes’ analytical approach is that it makes photographs appear so dull, a lifeless corpse awaiting dissection by the great philosopher. I love photographs and take great pleasure in studying a collection or a single shot whilst trying to measure my emotional response, yes that involves seeking meaning but all looking is an act of seeking meaning and we tend not to resort to a systematic or formulaic checklist when admiring the view on a beautiful evening.

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