Rhetoric of the Image – Barthes (a first reading)

The text of Roland Barthes’ ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ can be found in numerous places online. My version is a book extract posted as a PDF by Georgetown University (Barthes 1964).

Barthes’ writings, to borrow a phrase from Paul Seawright, ‘give up their meaning slowly’. I have been able to extract sufficient meaning for use in this project ‘Image and text’; the deep theory of the latter parts of the essay will have to wait for another day.

The essay centres on the deconstruction of an advertising image into its various messages (significations). Barthes chose an advertising image on the basis that all signification in the image is intentional; we read into the image what its creator intends us to read.


There are multiple instances of this image online. My source is https://tracesofthereal.com/2009/12/21/the-rhetoric-of-the-image-roland-barthes-1977/

Barthes analyses the signifiers into three parts: the linguistic message and two forms of visual message, the literal (denoted) and symbolic (connoted). Later he notes that linguistic messages can be further subdivided into ‘anchorage’ and ‘relay’. I see an imperfect analogy between the two splits – anchorage can be related to a literal visual message, and relay to a symbolic message.

The literal image denotes what we see at what Barthes calls the ‘first level of intelligibility’. Against a red background is a string bag filled with, and spilling out, the ingredients of a pasta meal. Some are natural produce (tomato, onion, peppers) and some are the manufactured product of the firm (Panzani) being advertised. The products are oriented so that we can read the manufacturer’s name on the labels – which becomes part of the linguistic message.

The connoted message(s) are those things that the viewer ‘reads into’ the literal image. The string bag and the unwrapped vegetables imply a return from market with fresh ingredients. At a second level, this suggests personal choice or selection rather than a ‘Saturday big shop’ stocking-up at the local Tesco. Placing the manufactured goods in the same bag implies that they are as fresh or ‘natural’ as the vegetables, and selected as carefully.

The connoted image, to some extent, depends on the viewer’s cultural background and experiences. Barthes claims to see ‘Italianicity’ in the vegetables and the colour scheme – I only see fresh vegetables, but take ‘Italianicity’ from the labels and the nature of the product (pasta)

There are two sources of linguistic message, the caption at bottom right and the labels on the products. In this case, both fall into the category of ‘anchorage’; they ‘fix’ the meaning of the image, effectively selecting between alternative possible connoted meanings and directing the viewer toward those that the advertiser wants to promote.

Barthes says that every image is associated with some linguistic message, either (as in this example) in the image itself or in the context in which it is seen – for instance, the text in a book, the caption in a newspaper or the wall-notes of a gallery. In the case of still images this is most likely to be anchorage – either the image illustrates the text or the text attempts to fix the meaning of the image; one is subservient to the other.

The other form of linguistic message, ‘relay’ is more common with moving images (for instance a ‘talking-head’ TV broadcast) than with still images; Barthes mentions cartoons and comic strips as likely examples of relay in still images. For me, one of the best examples is Paul Crum’s brilliantly surreal 1937 cartoon in Punch.

The image and the text have equal status and bounce off each other to give an overall meaning that is not complete in either.

Going back to the example picture essays in project 1 (Telling a story), I see Smith’s text and captions as being pure anchorage. Briony Campbell’s picture captions are a mix of anchorage and relay.


Barthes, R. (1964). Rhetoric of the Image. 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Barthes-Rhetoric-of-the-image-ex.pdf [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].