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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.


The death of the author

Roland Barthes’ (1915-1980) essay, The Death of the Author, is about the personality and perspectives of the author as an individual getting out-of-the-way of the writing and allowing the reader to work at their interpretation of the text. So, moving away from the traditional literary criticism of ‘what the author means’ to ‘what does the reader understand by the text’. This encourages the participation of the reader in the work.

The example Barthes provides is of a Greek tragedy where all the characters speak ambiguously but do not realise their own ambiguity. It is then the audience who hear the ambiguity and understand its tragic consequences – the audience must participate in the ‘text’ to interpret what is happening. There can be more than one meaning, depending on one’s perspective. There is no single meaning, ‘a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination’ (Barthes). Hence not with the author but with the reader and therefore, ‘the death of the author’.

In photography, the understanding of the image itself is necessarily with the viewer as the image has no words to direct the viewer to the photographer’s meaning. So, the viewer must necessarily work at understanding the meaning. However, if textual context is provided this will direct the viewer and we would do well to consider careful the textual content to avoid limiting the viewer’s possibilities for interpretation and participation in the work.


Barthes R (1968). The death of the author. From Image Music Text edition (1977). London, Fontana Press.

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography  by Roland Barthes  (1915-1980) is recommended reading for the OCA photography 1 course.  Here I share my thoughts on the book.

It is a rewarding, but not an easy book with its frequent use of obscure language borrowed from phenomenology (the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness), as Barthes tells us (p20). It is translated from the original French, which may make some passages less clear than they were in the original. I keep in mind that the book was written in 1980, before the digital manipulation of images.

In summary, the book is Barthes’ search to discover the essence of photography and what distinguishes it from other forms of image. Barthes is not a photographer, but an essayist and literary critic (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/54319/Roland-Barthes – accessed 18.3.15).

One of his assertions is that a specific photograph is not distinguished from what it represents as there is no photography without someone or something. As a consequence, he says that this involves photography in the vast disorder of the world and the choices that must be made about what to capture in a photograph.

Analyses the attraction he felt for certain photographs. The concepts here are useful for helping our understanding and articulation of why we like or dislike certain photographs:

  • studium – a general liking and enthusiasm for an image but without any special urgency or extreme feelings. He describes this as always ‘coded’ by which I mean to take to follow some describable conventions (in composition for example). In studium there is a self-contained frame in which everything happens – no blind field.
  • punctum – the ‘accident’ in the photography that stings, pricks, bruises or is poignant to the viewer. Often in the detail (a partial object). In contrast to studium this is not ‘coded’ and difficult to name or describe. Creates questions that fall outside the frame of the studium – a blind field. Photographs with punctum make the viewer linger to discover more about the thing or person. An analogue he gives uses is: erotic images (where things are left unsaid), contrasted with pornographic images (where everything is said).

In the second part of the book Barthes distils the essence of a photography by reflecting on his favourite photograph of his own mother as a child.

  • He raises the important point that while a photography captures a moment in time, it does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.
  • Unlike images created through other media, photography never lies as to the existence of the thing being photographed. ‘Every photography is a certificate of presence’ [not strictly true in 2015]

In the end, Barthes concludes that the essence of a photograph ‘is simple, banal; no depth; “that has been”. This makes a photograph distinct from other forms of image because it confirms that an object has existed, whereas in other art there is not this confirmation as it can be pure invention.

Reference list

Barthes R (1979)  Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography Vintage 2000 ed.