Research Task: Rhetoric of the Image

Barthes (Barthes, 1964, p. 265) asks if it is possible to conceive of an analogical code (as opposed to a digital one), noting that not only linguists are suspicious of the linguistic nature of the image. Barthes poses this as the greatest problem facing the semiology of images. He noted that general opinion has it that images are somehow resistant to meaning. To address this issue in a simplified way, Barthes submits an advertising image (whose message is frank and direct) to analysis of its meaning, where it begins and ends.

Panzani Advertisement

Barthes notes that there are three messages:

  1. With only knowledge of French (and writing), one can interpret the first (what Barthes calls linguistic) message – pasta, sauce, luxury Italian Parmesan. The message also includes the brand name – Panzani – signifying “Italianicity”. Note that this single message is both denotational and connotational.
  2. The images themselves convey what Barthes calls a coded iconic (and symbolic) message and carry four signs:
    1. The use of produce spilling out of a string bag one might associate with shopping at the local market, signifies freshness of the ingredients and the resultant concoction.
    1. The Panzani products displaying the hues yellow, green and red signify “Italianicity” again.
    1. The collection of (apparently) all necessary ingredients for the final product, suggests a total culinary service provided by Panzani.
    1. The scene brings to mind numerable still life paintings.
  3. The individual items, that combine in the ensemble, are readily identifiable – pepper, mushroom etc. Barthes describes this message as being a message without a code. This message can be seen as a literal one, rather than symbolic. Barthes calls this a non-coded iconic (and literal) message.

Barthes questions by what right we can distinguish between the two iconic messages, even though it is straightforward to separate both from the linguistic message.

Barthes argues that the literal iconic message is in support of the symbolic iconic message, thereby taking over the signs of the symbolic system in order to make them signifiers in a system of connotation. The literal image can be said to be denoted and the symbolic image can be said to be connoted.

Barthes posits that the presence of the linguistic message suffices and that its position or length is significant. However, Barthes goes on to define two functions of the linguistic message in relation to (in this case twofold) iconic messages: anchorage and relay.

One of the functions of the linguistic message is to reply to the question “what is it” – the text helps to identify, purely and simply, the elements of the scene and the scene itself. As Barthes puts it, it is a matter of a denoted description of the image. This operation or function (as opposed to connotation) corresponds to the anchorage of all the possible (denoted) meanings of the objects by recourse to a nomenclature. Barthes provides an example of a picture showing a plate of rice, tuna and mushrooms. While he may hesitate to interpret the image correctly, the use of the text “A plate of rice, tuna and pasta” would anchor the viewer, focussing their gaze and their understanding. Anchorage is a control, bearing a responsibility for the use of the message. Anchorage is common in press photographs and in advertisements and is the most common function of the linguistic message.

Barthes notes that the relay function is found in cartoons, comic strips and film. The text stands in its own right, complementing the image(s) and together forming a whole. In film, the relay carries the bulk of the information, whereas in comic strips meant to be read quickly, the image carries the bulk of the information. In the case of film, the relay does not just elucidate but advances the action by setting out a sequence of messages, meanings not found in the sequence of images.

The following old advert from Hershey provides an example of a relay. The first literal message clarifies the nature of the product and its two major uses. It denotes the portion size and the cooking method. Perhaps of less interest, but nevertheless literal, is the location of manufacture and the relative sales volume of Hershey’s product. The iconic message is as rich as in the case of the Panzani advertisement, but does not help describe the literal message.

Hershey’s Advertisement

The Garfield comic strip below demonstrates the relay. One can interpret the iconic message, probably many ways. In parallel, the mind can parse the relay. There is nothing in the relay which links it to the iconic message (in this case); they could be from any comic strip, or not from a comic strip at all, but an extract from a novel, say. Together the relay and the iconic message work together to fulfil a greater goal, to begin to explain the character of Garfield and Garfield’s owner or friend, to describe something of the environment in which they live, the type of life they live and so on; something that neither could do separately.

Garfield Comic Strip

How might the understanding of the use of anchors and relays help with the creative approach (in photography), outside of the obvious creation of comic strip, movie film, or food (or shampoo etc.) adverts.

Firstly, the discipline of asking, and answering the questions, “What is my anchor?” and “What is my relay?”, creates a pregnant pause, during which one considers in more detail and with more purpose the answers to the question “What is my anchor (or relay) trying to say?”. That is to say, one is forced to plan, giving up spontaneity.

Secondly, the habitual analysis of others’ images to ascertain the purpose of the anchor and relay, creates a new mental muscle, that over time may become subconscious, so that in the end, the planning and execution may become seamless, and can be mistaken for spontaneity.

Thirdly, this habitual analysis can provide a source of potential ideas for photographic projects, such as photo essays and of course advertisements (or spoofs thereof).

Lastly, and perhaps very relevant to portraiture, is that the consideration of the anchor and relay seems complimentary to the recommended habit of spending time with the subject in advance of the shoot, in order to understand the subject. Through this we understand the subject, and through the use of anchor and relay we hope to pass that understanding on to those gazing on the resultant images.

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