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.