Rhetoric of the Image – Roland Barthes

A challenging and enduring study, this post is both summary of, and my understanding of Roland Barthes’, Rhetoric of the Image. In his essay, Barthes, through deconstruction and analysis, explores the functionality of photographs in the communication of specific messages. Barthes opts for an advertising image for his study because “in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional”, and if the image is to contain any signs, then surely in an advertisement, “these signs are full, formed with a view to the optimum reading”. 

Below: The Panzani advertisement analysed by Barthes.

Panzani Advertisement

Barthes states that the image contains three different messages: the linguistic, the symbolic and the literal, with the symbolic and literal forming the pure image.

The linguistic (written) message is delivered by captions and product labels within the image, on two levels: denotation (statement of fact) and connotation (allowing for interpretation). ‘Panzani’ obviously denotes the company name, but also, by connotation, expresses “Italianicity” through it’s assonance, allowing the product to be seen as genuine and superior.

Examining the linguistic message more closely, Barthes states that regardless of its’ position or length, “the linguistic message is indeed present in every image: as title, caption, accompanying press article, film dialogue, comic strip balloon”. The linguistic message appears to have two functions: anchorage and relay. Anchorage is the most commonly used function of the linguistic message, extensively used in newspapers and advertising. It “directs the reader through the signified of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others; by means of an often subtle dispatching, it remote-controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance.” Less commonly used with the fixed image, Relay functions in a complimentary relationship giving equal status to image and text (particularly in comic strips), allowing for ambiguity and interpretation, where “the unity of the message is realized at a higher level”.

Other exercises I carried out where Anchorage and Relay were used are linked as follows:

Anchorage and Relay in newspaper articles.

Anchorage in advertising.

Setting aside the linguistic message, Barthes presents the pure image in the form of the symbolic and literal messages. The image reveals a number of signs which can be interpreted to form the symbolic message (connoted image). The signs are not linear but do work together to deliver a coherent message. The half-open bag signifies the idea of freshness following the return from market and the domestic preparation for which the products are bound. The tomato, pepper and tricoloured hues (yellow, green, red) signify ‘Italianicity”. The collection of products present the idea of a total culinary service, “as though Panzani furnish everything necessary for a carefully balanced dish” , and as if “the concentrate in the tin were equivalent to the natural produce surrounding it”. The composition of the image itself evokes memories of art, signifying the “still life”.

The symbolic message is coded, and to read it as Barthes does, one must have a certain knowledge of culture (still life) and stereotypes (Italianicity). The literal message (denoted image) on the other hand is a “message without a code”. It’s the image at its most basic, it’s a statement of fact, in that for each sign, the meaning and what we actually see are one and the same, a tomato is just a tomato and an onion is just an onion.

The literal and symbolic messages are not easily separated, as they are delivered to the viewer simultaneously. Barthes suggests that the literal message appears in support of the symbolic message, or that the denoted image is in support of the connoted image. To remove interpretation and connotation from the image would be to reduce the image to what Barthes calls, “the first degree of intelligibility” (the point “below which the reader would perceive only lines, form and colour”), or an “Edenic state of the image” where a tomato is just a tomato and an onion is just an onion. According to Barthes, of all image types, only the photograph can transmit the literal information in this way, as drawings for example, are coded “even when denoted”. Drawings rely on a set of rules (“rule-governed transpositions“) and skills developed through practice; and are, by their very nature, representative, in that form is represented on a surface by a series of lines. In a photograph “the relationship of signifieds to signifiers is not one of transformation but of recording”, thus reinforcing the myth of photography’s “naturalness”. However, Barthes dismisses this idea, as man’s composition and other photographic interventions (framing, focus, speed, aperture etc.) render the photograph within the realm of connotation. Simply, the photograph cannot be a pure replication of reality because the photographer’s decisions ultimately dictate how the photograph will look.

The profound reality of the photograph is that it makes an “illogical conjunction” between the present (here-now) and the past (there-then). This has allowed it to elude history, as despite technological advancement, the photograph has remained relatively unchanged (“a flat anthropological fact”) since it’s dawn. Barthes already suggested that the denoted image (literal) appears in support of the connoted image (symbolic). He believes that the true function of the denoted image through it’s literal innocence, is that of naturalizing the symbolic message. Applying this to the Panzani advertisement, and despite all the symbols present, there remains as far as the literal message is concerned, a simple collection of objects.

A difficulty which arises when analyzing the symbolic message is that “the number of readings of the same lexial unit or lexia (of the same image) varies according to individuals”. According to Barthes, viewers have lexicons, essentially stores of knowledge on varying subjects, allowing meaning be applied to the connoted image. These lexicons form a library of knowledge a viewer draws from, referred to by Barthes as “a person’s idiolect”. This idea of people having an idiolect, which contains lexicons both common and unique, seem to be in keeping with the idea from Barthes’ essay, Death of the Author, where interpretation and meaning of a text (image) ultimately lie with the reader (viewer) regardless of the author’s intentions. The post I wrote on Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author is linked here.

Barthes suggests that an added difficulty when analyzing the connoted image is that “semiology can only be conceived in a so to speak total framework”, meaning that to communicate the analysis of signs within an image, one must rely on a language which is itself a system of signs, and open to misinterpretation. The question is, how can you effectively communicate your interpretation of another persons creative work (image), which is itself interpretive by its very nature? Barthes answers this question in stating that the “common domain of the signifiers of connotation is that of ideology”, or simply, that ‘known’ specific and generic concepts are used to interpret an actual image. All the signifiers on a particular subject, will be referred to as “connotators and the set of connotators a rhetoric”. Barthes believes in the probability of there being a “single rhetorical form” common to all methods of creative expression. However, he concludes in saying that rhetoric of an image is the visual elements within the image which may be signified and have meaning assigned.

The language used by Barthes makes any study of his work difficult, and I found deciphering Rhetoric of the Image particularly laborious. However, his essay is a fascinating lesson in photograph deconstruction and analysis.

A photographer creates an image based on their view of the world, knowledge, education and life experience (or what Barthes calls, their idiolect). Once created, the photographer loses control (Death of the Author), for each viewer interprets and finds meaning in an image bases on their view of the world, knowledge, education and life experience. By understanding how images are read, one can utilize this knowledge to guide viewers towards intended meaning.

Barthes’ method of deconstruction can be applied to any image, and it was interesting to see how effective his method is when applied to advertisements, where signs are optimized. Non-advertising images on the other hand may prove more open to ambiguous reading. This is where careful attention to the symbolic message within an image is important. However, the photographer may always fall back on the linguistic message, to try and direct or divert the viewer’s understanding.


Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text, translated by Heath, S., London: Fontana Press.





One comment

  1. […] going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. 1966, and met the challenge presented by Roland Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image, I found Boothroyd’s analysis of Insomnia refreshingly […]


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