Roland Barthes – Rhetoric of the image

In his feedback on my Decisive Moment assignment, my tutor sent me a link to Roland Barthes’ essay Rhetoric of the image for further information on the use of text with images.


Specifically, in this essay, Barthes discusses meaning that may be contained within an image, and he uses an advertisement (because meaning is intentional in adverts) to illustrate his points. His chosen image is of a string shopping bag, spilling over with spaghetti, tomatoes, and tins. He uses the image to illustrate the linguistic messages contained within it and goes on to consider the denoted and connoted messages as signifiers (signs indicating meaning) that inform our reading and interpretation of the image.

I will not discuss the full analysis of this image, but summarise it by concluding that it contains both a linguistic message (caption, labels) and messages implied by the image – a return from the market (fresh and wholesome), the suggestion of a meal to be prepared at home (all ingredients together, domestic success), and the suggestion of authentic Italian cuisine (the repeated colours of red and green, the use of tomatoes and peppers).

My tutor (thankfully, since it is rather long and heavy) highlighted specific parts of this essay, those related to linguistic messages, for me to concentrate on. I will discuss the use of  linguistic messages in photography, as relevant to my assignment,  in more detail.

First, Barthes asks: ‘Does the image duplicate … information given in the text… or does the text add a fresh information to the image?’ (p 155) He says that today ‘at a level of mass communication it appears that the linguistic message is indeed present in every image: as title, caption, accompanying press article, film dialogue, comic strip balloon.’ Text, he says, is seen as the first means of communication since ‘we are a …civilisation of writing’.

Barthes says that the functions of a linguistic message are two-fold: ‘anchorage and relay’


Barthes explains that text can be used to clarify the signifiers within an image by answering the question ‘what is it?’. Words added to an image can help to avoid unwanted interpretations of it by directing the viewer towards a particular meaning:  ‘it remote- controls him (the viewer) towards a meaning chosen in advance’. He says that ‘anchorage is the most frequent use of the linguistic message and is commonly found in press photographs and advertisements.’

As an example of an artist who uses anchorage, my tutor suggested that I look at the work of Melanie Friend.  Please see my post about her work: No Place Like Home .


Barthes says that ‘the function of relay is less can be seen particularly in cartoons and comic strips – text and image stand in complimentary relationship.’ He continues by giving film as an example of the use of ‘text’ (dialogue) to advance the story and convey meanings not found in the image itself.

In terms of my assignment, I used text as anchorage, to encourage a particular interpretation of my images. On looking again at the links between my text and my images, it is now clear that they mostly don’t relate to the decisive moment.

However, I can see how my tutor feels that my ‘Colour Purple’ image may better fit the brief since the text does inform the viewer by insisting that s/he notices the colour first and above anything else in the picture.


It pisses God off if you walk by the colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.


Barthes, R (1964) Rhetoric of the image – from article provided by tutor

Friend, M (2001) No place like home: Echoes from Kosovo (photographs) at (accessed 22 December 2016)



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