The Rhetoric of the Image

#16

Analysis of Roland Barthes’s ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’

After reading this essay a few times I began to understand the views of Barthes; how an image can be as strong a communication as language itself. He argues with those who believe that an image is merely an image and does not convey near enough as much of a strong message as literal language does.

Within his essay he explains that his aim is to find out how the image acquires its meaning and where it concludes and if it does what comes next. Especially with – not restricted too – advertisement images, Barthes points out that the meanings behind these images are not unintentional they’re representational of the message that the advertisement wishes to convey.

Bathes brakes down the message within the image into three different messages; the linguistic, the coded iconic and the non-coded iconic message. The first relates to the literal language of writing, an example used is that of the Panzani brand; the linguistic message is maintained by the caption that is easy to understand as long as you have knowledge of language (basic reading and writing). Also the branded items in the image provide an indication of the companies name; furthermore it provides connotations that depict a theme of Italianicity reinforcing the brands qualities.

Further on in the essay Barthes asks the question, whether the linguistic message, either it be text or a caption, adds to the message of the image valuably or just renders it surplus. It needs to be successfully enough to allow the reader to understand the level of observation that the advertisements wishes to convey but at the same time cannot sound repetitive or slightly patronising. Barthes believes that the linguistic message should ‘guide our interpretation’ of the image.

The second message of the ‘pure image’ is based on your knowledge of culture and habit. You read it as you know. In the Panzani case there are many signs to this message that allow you to decode it such as the image of provisions within a string bag suggests a trip to the market, the fact that they are falling out of the bag creates another sign – where cultural habits play a big part in the connotation – that of providing shopping for oneself rather than stocking up. The image of Panzani brand on many products in the bag also suggests that they can offer everything required to carry out your meal. However without these signs would the image still be read the same way?

The non-coded iconic message – the third – is representational of the ‘real objects’, the literal message. To understand this part of the message the reader of the image must have a basic idea of what the objects are. You must first and foremost know what an image is, concerning the Panzani advertisement the knowledge of what a tomato, pepper and spaghetti is essential. These messages do not offer further meaning, they are what they are. They bring the connotation of the image down to the literal level.

After reading this essay relating this language to our own disciplines begins to look a lot easier, simply within our studio projects or even out with student work and looking at it from a professional angle. Continuing with the current experimental assignment we have that allows us to put this idea into practise, I’ll also consider the opportunities given within my course that will allow me to use this method of language with images to take projects a step further. Just now a simple idea of how to use this knowledge comes to me; by merely selecting images from research that I know will convey and present my message and concept of say any project clearer then presenting information to clients, tutor and peers becomes easier as a more universal knowledge becomes apparent and the intensity of thought is on the same level.

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