Rhetoric of the Image (1964) – Roland Barthes

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The image is something of an enigma for me with regards to meaning and, according to Barthes (1964), this mystery can be seen from two fronts. Firstly, linguists say that compared to language, the image is fairly simplistic: ‘the image is an extremely rudimentary system in comparison with language’ – (Barthes, 1964:33). Secondly, ‘those who think that signification cannot exhaust the image’s ineffable richness.’ – (Barthes, 1964:33). I would put Vilém Flusser in this second category who talks of the ‘magic’ of images recurring infinitely: ‘the image is none other than the world of magic, a world in which everything is repeated and in which everything participates in a significant context.’ – (Flusser, 1983:9).

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Barthes chooses an advertising image (the Panzani advertisement) to dissect the meaning from a photograph because the advertising image is a clearer and more deliberate a type of image and so the signs are easier to find. Also the advertising image is an attempt to sell something so the signs can’t be dismissed as accidental. Barthes finds 3 distinct messages within the image.

The first type of message is the linguistic message – the words within the image or accompanying the image. They can be found in the Panzani advertisement by the caption and also on the labels for the pasta and other food items. With the linguistic message, according to Barthes, ‘the linking text and image is frequent’ (Barthes, 1999:36) and ‘Today, at the level of mass communications, it appears that the linguistic message is indeed present in every image’ (Barthes, 1999:37). This interested me because while Barthes states image and text is prevalent as a combination, he never rules out the possibility of the image existing without the linguistic attachment. He does however, counteract this possibility by saying nowadays it ‘appears’ this attachment is ubiquitous: ‘as title, caption, accompanying press article, film dialogue, comic strip balloon.’ (Barthes, 1999:37). I would probably add that since this essay was written another linguistic attachment: ‘meme’ might make an appearance on this list as one of the more popular uses of linguistic message and image!

Barthes separates the linguistic message into two groups, the more common of these groups being ‘anchorage’. Because all images are ‘polysemic’, anchorage is used to ‘fix the floating chain of signifieds’ (Barthes, 1999:37). The text acts as a kind of pointer to lead the viewer’s attention towards a certain meaning. I could see this coming in very useful for ‘Showing, Not Telling’ for Part 3 of Body of Work. Interestingly, Barthes asserts: ‘With respect to the liberty of the signifieds of the image, the text thus has a repressive value’ (Barthes, 1999:38). While this must be true for most use scenarios of the linguistic message, I can perceive a possibility for a more playful approach to anchorage. This would be if the creator of the image gave anchors that weren’t entirely true or led the viewer playfully to other conclusions. I could imagine you would most often see this playful diverting of the truth in art photography.

Relay, the second of the two types of linguistic message, appears much less frequently, especially in fixed imagery but can appear in cartoons and comic strips. Here, the image and text work in combination so the viewer is able to gather information that wouldn’t be tellable without the text.

The second message is a coded iconic message and comes in the form of the connoted image. Four signs are evident in this coded iconic message (some were more evident to me than others). To read these connotations it is helpful to have a knowledge of signs or semiotics; the basics which I had learnt about. The sign is made up of a signified (what the object or thing means) and the signifier (what the object or thing is). I found this helpful in decoding the image somewhat but Barthes decoding was more thorough. The connotations he found in this coded iconic message included the freshness of the product, the Italian influences of the product, the well-roundedness of the product encompassing the needs of the consumer and finally that the image itself is composed like a still-life.

I will admit I was only able to see the linguistic message and the coded iconic message. This was at first before Barthes pointed out there was a third message, also iconic, the denoted image or ‘a message without a code’ (Barthes, 1999:39). Here, the message is what we see and understand to be objects in an image and the image itself. We develop this knowledge early in our lives (around the age of 4) and so take this for granted.

I struggled more with the denoted message as it seemed a lot more complicated to grasp and at the same time simplistic compared to the linguistic or even connoted messages. I would even say the complicated yet simple analogy would tie in with the denoted message itself. This is because once you take away the complexity of ‘evicting’ the signs of the connoted message and add the simplicity of the ‘sufficiency’ of ‘the first degree of intelligibility’ (Barthes, 1999:39), you are left with the denoted image. This brings up an important point: ‘the characteristics of the literal message cannot be substantial but only relational.’ (Barthes, 1999:38). Therefore I inferred from this the denoted image has to seen in context.

Drawings are different to photographs because they have a code even in the denoted image. The photograph as denoted image however, is a message without a code. I agree with Barthes here but didn’t realise there were 3 separate levels to the coded nature of drawing. These are namely perspective coding, the amount that is included in the drawing and a learnt response to the medium.

Because the denoted image of a photograph doesn’t have a code, according to Barthes (1999:39), the scene is an objective recording. All intervention belongs to the coded iconic message; things like ‘framing, distance, lighting, focus, speed’ (Barthes, 1999:40). Because the coded iconic message and the denoted iconic message are perceived at the same time, each photograph possesses ‘an awareness of its having-been-there.’ (Barthes, 1999:40), which is peculiar to the photograph.


Barthes, R. (1999) ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) Visual Culture: A Reader. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp. 33-40.

Flusser, V. (1983/2014) Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 3rd ed. London: Reaktion Books.


5 thoughts on “Rhetoric of the Image (1964) – Roland Barthes

  1. Godo to read this and revisit (I did UVC and we had to write about it in that). I think I need to explore it again to really absorb what is being said. Nowadays we have flickersing signs, according to Kathryn Hayles whose book I have quoted a lot. Unlike floating signs which need achorage, flickering signs pulsate and have the potential to transform into something else at any given moment (things on screens).


    1. Yes, it’s a pretty in-depth essay, Rhetoric of the Image and I had to read it multiple times to get anything out of it! That’s interesting, I’ll have to check out Kathryn Hayles and flickering signs, thanks!


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