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Rhetoric of the Image by Roland Barthes

In Roland Barthes’ ( ) essay, The Rhetoric of Image, he explores, ‘How does meaning get into the image? Where does it end? And if it ends, what is there beyond?’, through a detailed analysis of a Panzani advertisement (see featured image), which is a French food brand. For his analysis he uses the tools of semiotics, which has its origins in the study of language and, at the same time, argues that this theory of linguistics (‘digital’ information) can equally well be applied to images (‘analogue’ information).

The essay is widely available online (as well as in the book referenced) and my intention is not to summarise it here, but to note the main insights I gained through reading the essay:

  • The essay is an excellent example of semiotics in action – a source of practical reference when seeking to understand the theory. He examines the signifiers (images and text) and the signified (meanings) in the context of the sign (the advertisement).
  • In the advertisement, Barthes finds ‘three messages:a linguistic message,a coded iconic message [connoted – implied or suggested],and a non-coded iconic message [denoted – literal or described]. Iconic refers to the use of a visual icon, as distinct from textual descriptor.
  • The linguistic message is not simply used as a literal description of the product, but also to connote the Italianess of the product through the use of words (although it is a French brand and a French advertisement). I also note the Italian tricolours used to shape the white lettering. So, font as imagery.
  • The coded elements of the visual relate to the power of suggestion, for example the open string basket – home-spun, market  freshness etc, and the echos of still-life, the traditional, in the composition (an ‘aesthetic signified’). Whereas the non-coded relate more to the indexical attributes of the photo – how does the product look, what should I buy.
  • Barthes explains that ‘all images are polysemous [carry multiple meanings at the same time]; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a “floating chain” of signifieds’. This is where textual content comes in, to direct understanding or to place boundaries on interpretation. The purpose of text is to guide us through the two-fold iconic message; Barthes states, ‘[through] anchorage and rely … [it] helps me to choose the correct perception, permits me to focus not simply my gaze but also my understanding… the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others’.

A useful essay!


Barthes R. (1964) Rhetoric of the Image. From Image Music Text edition (1977). London, Fontana Press.


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