Barthes & the Meaning of Images

If an image has certain meaning we must explore its meaning and why it exists. Why is meaning significant? Where does meaning originate and is it finite or infinite? If it’s the former, then what lies beyond it?

This summary looks at Roland Barthes theories on the messages in images and is based on an essay in his book Images Music Text. Images are constructed intentionally utilizing particular attributes and presented as clearly as possible to an audience. Images in advertising are direct and emphatic.

Barthes states there are three messages, which he attempts to explore in a Panzani advertisement, analyzing colour, composition, cultural baggage and text etc.

Panzani advertisement


The first message is linguistic. The text is written in French and the name Panzani not only gives us the name of the company, it is Italianised. The linguistic message contains two meanings, which Barthes describes as denotational and connotational. Denotation refers to what it indicates; connotational refers to how we interpret the elements. These two messages are lumped together and created as one message. We are left with the pure image. This image has a series of irregular/nonlinear signs that Barthes calls ‘discontinuous’. Barthes makes it clear that the order in which we see the signs is not of importance. The scene represents a return from the market. The concept (termed by Barthes as ‘signified’) contains two values.

  • The freshness of the products and the idea of them being prepared for consumption in a domestic setting.
  • The form (termed by Barthes as ‘signifier’) is the half opened bag with provisions spilling out over the table “unpacked”. Barthes argues we are able to identify with this image because of our knowledge of widespread where shopping around for oneself is opposed to the more mechanical approach of shopping with prepackaged foods.

The message sign is found in the gathering of the vegetables with their tri-coloured hues of red, green and yellow in the poster. These colours suggest Italy or as Barthes calls it ‘Italianicity’. This sign appears redundant with the connoted Panzani name. Barthes continues to explore the image stating there are two other signs.

a)    The collection of objects conveys the idea of a total culinary experience – Panzani provides all that is proper and necessary for an authentic dish. The sauce in the tin contains the same freshness as the produce around it.

b)   The composition harks to a ‘still life’ painting (p.271) In order to for the viewer to discover this, it require that they are culturally aware of the setting.

Other clues include the image may be an advertisement based on where it is located and from the emphasis of the labels. This detail is part of the scene and we know that the advertising nature of the image is primarily functional. Essentially the four images form a whole though irregular and require some general cultural knowledge. Barthes asserts that if these signs were removed we are still left with some information and we will still attempt to make sense of it.

The third message is found in the real objects in the setting. This message is defined by the relationship between form and concept. These objects on their own are simply objects and become what Barthes calls a ‘message without code’. Reading these objects is tied to our perception and cultural knowledge in its most elementary level. For example, we know what an image is from very young. Therefore the message becomes literal. Barthes formulates the theory that the photograph offers three messages:

  1. A linguistic message
  2. A coded iconic message
  3. A non-coded iconic message

The linguistic message can be separated from the two, but the coded and uncoded work individually and together which can be seen in the reading of images in mass culture. The literal message i.e. ‘non-coded’ message appears to support the symbolic one. Barthes asserts that one must be aware that when one system takes over another to create form for a ‘system of connotation’, one may use the term denoted to mean the literal image and the connoted to mean symbolism.

The Linguistic Message

According to Barthes the linguistic message appears in all levels of mass communications whether it is a ‘caption, title, comic strip etc. and more than ever we are a civilization of writing, with writing and speech the basis for informational structure. The linguistic message is indeed crucial as it contains the signified i.e. connotation/symbolism which connects it to the image. There are two functions that allow us to understand the message. These are as Barthes terms, anchorage, which can be interpreted as a base or support and as Barthes calls relay i.e. convey the message delivered for interpretation.

Barthes states all images are polysemous (having multiple meanings), prodding and suggesting, utilizing an object/form containing a network of signifieds, the reader is able to select some and ignore others. Polysemy creates the question of meaning and this querying comes through as a dysfunctional exercise. In each stratum of society various techniques are developed to make sense of the ‘floating chain of signifieds’ (p.274) and these are used to counteract the fear associated with uncertain signs. The linguist message is one of these techniques. I.e. certain text or language is used so that the reader does not feel alienated.

Text implies one to question ‘What is it?’ text helps to identify the elements of the scene and the scene itself. The text gives a literal description of the image, but a description that is not necessarily complete. The text corresponds to ‘anchorage’ i.e. a basic support of all the possible literal meanings of the objects. Barthes states that when it comes to the symbolic message, the linguistic message no longer directs identification, but interpretation holding the meaning so that it does not become too vast. Therefore this places limitations on the projective power of the image. Text ultimately navigates the reader through the meaning of the image, causing him/her to avoid some meanings and receiving others; Barthes describes it as:

‘… It remote controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance.’ ‘Anchorage’ is necessary, allowing language to shed light on what is being communicated although it is selective, revealing certain signs. Anchorage asserts a control holding a responsibility for the use of the message combined with powerful images. The text also contains a repressive value with regards to the meaning of images.

The function of conveyance (called ‘relay’ by Barthes) is less common at least with the fixed image. Relay can be seen in cartoons and comic strips. Text here is seen as a quick reference and the image becomes complementary. In other words, the words just like images are parts of a more general sequence of linguistic units (in relation to each other) and the entire message is realized at a higher level, i.e. the story, the narrative and the fictional world, the latter also known as ‘diegesis’. When text contains a diegetic value it means that society must learn a code of reading.

When the linguistic message is being used as a secondary element, the image holds additional clues, and the image, just like the text, (which also has clues) we are able to interpret the ad/comic strip etc. in its entirety. The image cuts out the unnecessary details that a text may contain, speeding up the process of interpretation for the viewer.

The Decoded Image

In advertising there is never a literal image in a pure state. The symbolic message and literal message work together. Even if it could be argued that an image is naïve it would be considered another sign and the characteristic of the literal message would not be of much substance, only part of a unit. This literal message with regards to naivety is a message by removal/deletion; made up of what is left of the image. The connotations have been removed from the psyche, which under further analysis really isn’t so as our interpretations have already been embedded. This state of deletion corresponds to an abundance of scenarios. Ultimately, ‘it is an absence of meaning full of all meanings.’ (p.276). It is a sufficient message already because it holds one meaning at the level of identification of the scene depicted. As the literal message is both sufficient and removable the denoted image appears utopic, without connotations and therefore becomes objective.

The photograph contains a similar message – it is without a code. Above all kinds of imagery the photograph is able to transmit literal information without it creating irregular signs and rules of transformation. Barthes informs us that the photograph is an opposing medium to drawing. The drawing though denoted, is actually a coded message. The coded nature of drawing can be studied at three levels.

  1. Drawing is guided by rules that change places such as in the area of perspective. There is no clear depiction of the pictorial copy.
  1. The workings of a drawing reveal a demarcation between the important and not so important. A drawing creates all information without delivering a clear message. The subject of the photograph is created and determined, i.e., its point of view, angle etc. but it is unable to intercept within an object except by trickery. In other words, the literal meaning of the drawing is less pure than that of the photograph because there is no drawing without expression.
  1. The drawing demands apprenticeship i.e. bound to employer. Denotation facilitates connotation since it immediately establishes discontinuity in the image. The act of drawing in itself is a connotation. Both connotation and denotation meanings are modified. There is no longer a relationship between nature and culture with the photograph but between two cultures. The viewpoint of the drawing is not the same as that of the photograph.

The literal message of the photograph serves as a record. The absence of code reinforces the myth of photographic ‘naturalness’ i.e. what one sees first and foremost is the photo. The scene has been captured but becomes mechanized by man’s manipulations, as Barthes terms as ‘interventions’. These include effects such as framing, lighting, speed, distance, focus etc. These elements belong to the area of connotation. The merging of techniques with the object itself i.e. the photograph creates the character of the photograph and allows the socio-cultural revolution to represent man’s history.

The photograph is positioned in the immediate i.e. what the viewer see presently but we are also acutely aware that the image is set in a different place and time. The denoted message is an illogical one showing itself as unreal/false. Its reality is actually that of the present, i.e. what we see before us. Barthes describes this as a reality of which we are unawares. He asserts that this kind of push and pull of the ‘real and unreal’ in time possibly diminished the amplification of the image. ‘This was so’ easily defeats that ‘It’s me.’ He explains that the photograph must be related to the viewer’s consciousness and not to the make believe on which film thrives on. This notion reinforces the idea that film works counter to the photograph. Film therefore cannot be visualized as animated photographs. The past gives away to the present of the thing. The photograph is not the last in image making but a kind of hybrid of informational economies representing in a flat format socio-cultural facts.

The denoted image makes the symbolic meaning more natural to digest/interpret and gives the appearance of being harmless and timid, but this is done through trickery. The message appears to be found in the natural signs of culture, which can be described as rudimentary. As technology advances the more it will be employed to mask constructed meaning under the appearance of the given meaning, that which is literal.

Rhetoric of Image

The symbolic message is irregular and is a sign separated from other signs. Composition has aesthetic meaning. The symbolic message is unique because individual may be given the same image to read and he/she will interpret it in a different manner. Four connotative signs have been identified in the Panzani advertisement although there are more. Another can be found in the net representing the ‘draught of fishes plenty’ which has a biblical reference. Based on one’s knowledge whether national, cultural, practical or aesthetic, various interpretations can be made. Within an individual one reading triggers more readings based on the aforementioned knowledge. Barthes states eloquently that ‘there is a plurality and co-existence of lexicons in one and the same person.’ These lexicons refer to various languages, knowledge and techniques used by the viewer to make sense of it all.

Interpretation of the image is made up of an internal bank of signs drawn from a range of personal experiences, knowledge, activities etc. As these interpretations unravel the language must incorporate an element of surprise, which increases overall interest. A challenge of analyzing connotation is that there is no special analytical language related to the particularity of what the concepts represents. What are the meanings of connotation? An attempt was made by creating the term ‘Italianicity’ but other meanings can only be articulated by use of ordinary language. (Remember Barthes used descriptions such as culinary preparation, ‘still life’, plenty). Those words as concepts have a certain language or character attached to them. Barthes explains the word ‘plenty’ does not really cover the true meaning of plenty in the literal sense. ‘Plenty’ from a connotative sense is certainly different to plenty in the denotive sense!

Connotative has typical forms dependent on the different elements utilized such as image, language, objects, and modes of behaviour). Connotation holds all its meanings in common. The same meanings are to be found in the written press, the actor’s gestures and the image, which is why semiology is applied to the entire framework. The notion of meanings of connotation, fall under ‘ideology’, and is the single most thing shaping a society and history.

The forms of which the sign takes are called connotators and the set of connotators, rhetoric. This means the connotators communicate and persuade the viewer and is an aspect of ideology. Rhetorics vary by their content and not necessarily by their form. In the Panzani advertisement metonymy is employed. For example, the tomato represents Italianicity. Metonymy gives the image the greatest number of connotators as well as elements/details, which creates the whole interpretation. We must remember though that connotators are made up of discontinuous traits. These connotators do not reveal the entire story, meaning not all we read/see can be interpreted.


About s o l o s t u d i o

Graphic Designer and Tutor View all posts by s o l o s t u d i o

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