The Origin of Photography

Rhetoric of the Image – Roland Barthes

Barthes, has clearly demonstrated that there are signs in photographs. In his theory,

Signs (anything that convey a meaning) = signifier (things that give meaning) / signified (the mental concept of the things presented)

Here, is the famous advertisement that Barthes uses in his text “Rhetoric of the Image” to explain his theory of how to read photographs.


According to Barthes, there are 4 signs here that can be read from this image:

  • the half opened bag and the unpackness signifies returned from the market
  • the tomatoes, pepper and pasta signify Italianicity – the food themselves as well as the colours, constituting to the Italian flag – green, red and white
  • the collection of the objects signifies a dinner to be prepared, the tin of product surrounded by fresh and natural food signifies its equivalence to them
  • the image composed is with relevance to painting categories of “still life”

There are also denoted message here, meaning the signifier is same as the signified. E.g. the image of tomatoes signifies tomatoes, the image of pasta signifies pasta. We still need to acquire these anthropological knowledge to be able to read these messages.

In his text, he claims that there are 3 messages from a photograph:

  • linguistic message
    • anchorage – this is the text which acts as an anchoring point for viewers to derive information from the image. For press photographs especially, the text often directs what information to focus and what information to ignore in an image, “remotely controlling the viewer towards a meaning chosen in advance.”
    • relay – this is text which complements and works alongside with the images in e.g. comic strips or films. Creating a dialogue. The meaning is found in the sequence rather than the image itself.
  • denoted message
    • He said that the denoted and connoted message is relational, not having one without the other. At least, there is no such image of representing just the denoted message.
  • connoted message
    • With connoted message, it truly depends on the knowledge of the person, as the reading of these signs are not fixed but varied – practical, national, cultural, aesthetics etc. And the language of the image is not just the total utterance emitted but also received

All in all, he claims that the denoted message counterbalances or neutralises the connoted message, and while the connoted message refers to culture, denoted message refers to nature. It is what both exists that makes the rhetoric of an image.

The Origin of Photography

The Photographic Message – Roland Barthes

What is a photographic message? Is there a structural analysis into what a photograph transmits?

A lot of the philosophers have been saying how closely photography is related to realism (Walton, 1983). Even Barthes is saying that it is a literal transformation of the reality onto light sensitive photographic paper (what he later calls – the denoted message). Making a photograph does not rely on the beliefs of the creator, as Walton says, unlike a piece of artwork. A photograph, although still depends on the choices of the framing and technical skills of the creator, it in itself is something recorded from what’s in the world. Whereas with art, the creator can create and put onto the canvas of anything that he imagines or hallucinates.

But Barthes argues that there is a second message that photography transmit – known as theĀ connoted message – which derives from the decisions of the creator e.g. frame, composition, style to the extend of how the society receives it i.e. inputting the cultural context into the composition of the photograph. Even with press photographs there are connoted messages – from composition, treatment, words attached to it plus the newspaper company itself are symbols to how the public reads these signs (note: this is especially transparent with the image consumption during the midst of Hong Kong protests). Barthes says that the connotation is realised at the different levels of production of the photograph – trick effects, pose, objects to photogenia, asetheticism and syntax.

Trick effects are often used in propagandas e.g. the American press 1951 photo of Senator Millard Tydings and Communist leader Earl Browder. The heavily connoted message in this photograph is really a sign only for certain society and people with certain values. Without understanding the history or the cultural context of what was happening in USA during 1951, this image is merely an image of two people conversing.

Objects are inducers of association of ideas e.g. a bookself = intellectual. So are people (but the associations are more complex e.g. Mother Teresa = compassion). In a photograph, objects and people are the vocabulary of the visual image, and how they are composed and posed turn this lexicon into syntax. “E.g. a window opening on to vineyards and tiled roofs; in front of the window a photograph album, a magnifying glass, a vase of flowers. Consequently, we are in the country, south of the Loire (vines and tiles), in a bourgeois house (flowers on the table) whose owner, advanced in years (the magnifying glass), is reliving his memories (the photograph album) – Francois Mauriac in Malagar (photo in Paris-Match).” (Barthes, 1971).

With photogenia, it relates to the technology of photographic production (lighting, exposure, printing) through which certain effects (motion blur, double exposure etc) create connotations in the photograph; aestheticism is about connotation based on classical paintings e..g classical rules of compositions and syntax, is about the connotation created by viewing a sequence of images and which emerges from the photographs in relation to each other rather than singly.

What Barthes also mentioned in this chapter from Image, Music, Text (1971) book is the relationship between text and images. Formerly, images illustrates the words but when text are attached to an image, it has a parasitic nature to quicken the understanding of the image and it affects how the image is being read. As Barthes says,

“The relationship is not the image which comes to elucidate or realise the text, but the latter comes to sublimate, patheticise or rationalised the image.”

Sometimes the text accompanied can invent a totally new message or contradict the image to produce a different message to the reader. So the big question is, do we read photographs based entirely on its entity, or the message is eluted or deluded by the surrounding text?