Lecture 9- Roland Barthes- The Photographic Message

In Lecture 9 we look at two of Roland Barthes essays; The Photographic Message and The Rhetoric of the image.

Barthes proposed a way of reading and understanding photographs using a theory known as Semiotics. It is a theory developed as a way of understanding language, by the likes of Charles Pierce, Ferdinand de Saussure as well as Barthes. Semiotics is about understand a sign and what they mean.

  1. The sign itself.
  2. Codes or systems into which signs are organised.
  3. The culture with in which these codes and signs operate.

Pierce used 3 ways of Semiotics  which where the Icon, Index, and symbol.

Icon resembles something i.e. Eiffel Tower is only the Eiffel Tower

Symbol doesn’t resemble what it refers to; it signifies through force of convention.

Index doesn’t resemble but refers to-defined by a sensory feature i.e. smoke is an index of fire.

Saussure used a two part model; signifier and signified.

Signifier-the form

Signified- what it represents.

e.g. cat is a signifier, signified is a four legged fury animal.

The signifier can’t relate to an individual , but as a general indication. What someone says and what you hear may be different in interpretation, it is arbitrary, they are socially and historically constructed.

Bartes essay: the photographic message uses semiotics as a way of making a distinction between the message and the code.

Message: Picture of a thing.

Code: what you receive from the message and how you interpret it.

Bathes however argues that this distinction is problematic when dealing with photos. Shots are pictures of the world, and the problem comes with the ‘reality effect’. They depict the world as it is, it appears to be a message without a code. The photo  he says only seems to carry a denoted message leaving no room for  connotation.

Barthes says that because of the reality effect there will be times when people don’t see the hidden message with in, he calls this the photographic paradox. `

The one without the code- what is shown is the denotation, the one with the code, i.e. what is to be depicted is the connotation. The photograph in other words can be taken at face value, or as a much deeper form.

Forms of connotation:

Perceptive Connotation- seeing the context, understanding with out meaning.

Cognitive  Connotation- Factual elements to the image.

Idealogical and ethical connotation- Elements that convey the strongest and most complex message.

In the Photographic Message Barthes identifies 6 connotations particular to the photograph:

  1. Pose
  2. Objects
  3. Aestheticism
  4. Trick Effects i.e. manipulation
  5. Photogenic- how we make photographs i.e. lens choice, film choice, double exposure etc..
  6. Syntax- Sequence of images.

Barthes also mentions that image and text can sometimes be in direct conflict. They can’t be read as the same thing. As well as this he talks of photographs that go beyond the realms of connotation such as traumatic or disturbing photographs.

The Rhetoric of the Image

This essay is interested in the hidden message, particularly in advertising.

Lokking at advertising Barthes identified three messages:

  1. Linguistic message
  2. Non coded iconic message (denotation)
  3. Coded iconic message (connotation)

One last thing we looked at is what Barthes refers to as Myth. Myth is to make dominant cultural, historical values and attitudes seen to be natural and normal, therefore becoming objective and true reflections of the way things are i.e who should be cooking.

Companies uses many stereotypes in their advertising in order to brand and sell their products, with Barthes realised from an early stage.

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