The Photographic Message – Roland Barthes

mickyatesBooks, Coursework, Critical Research Journal, Critical Theory, ICWeek1, Ideas, Informing Contexts, Photography 5 Comments

I wrote about Camera Lucida at the beginning of the MA. As I concluded then, I found it rather depressing.

The Photographic Message, an essay in Image Music Text, is less depressing, and perhaps more useful in providing organising principles to discuss photographs. But it is  written in that peculiar French intellectual style which almost purposefully aims to make reading difficult.

Prima facie, for Barthes a photograph is a depiction of reality, or, as he notes, a message without a code. That reality is defined by perspective, colours and so forth, with the creation of an analogue of that reality, an analogon.

This reminds my of my undergraduate days. One of my final essays was the Criteria for Diagrammatic Truth. The essential proposition was to define how we ‘know’ that an architect’s construction diagram is ‘correct’, meaning that the eventual construction based on these diagrams will work in the real world. Starting from a sketch, how does that become a technical drawing and eventually an actual building, remaining ‘logically correct’ throughout. The paper considered a range of well-constructed formulae and symbol definitions, and drew on the work of Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Nelson Goodman.

I mention this, as often the discussion of reality in photography tends to focus on photographic technicalities or viewer psychology rather than the logic rules that we, as humans, use to decide whether something is ‘correct’ or not. My paper was not about psychology, but about the congruence between the increasing level of details in a sketch-drawing-building process. And it was not about an abstract ‘Theory of Forms’, rather it was about use how we ascribe congruence to images in real life.

Perhaps for another day, so turning  back to Barthes

With some similarity to Vilém Flusser‘s consideration of apparatus, Barthes goes on to suggest that, whilst there is no essential requirement to do so, the image also has a connoted meaning:

‘… all these imitative arts comprise two messages: a denoted message, which is the analogon itself, and a connoted message, which is the manner in which society … communicates what it thinks of it.’ (Barthes, 1977: 17).

He suggests that the image holds a potential paradox, as it contains the co-existence of denotation (a message with no code) and connotation (a rhetorical code within the image). In a more down-to earth reading, we sometimes get confused by the content of the image and what it means.

Barthes continues by explaining that photographers add meaning to their images by using what he calls ‘connotation procedures’. He consistently draws parallels between reading text and reading images. But putting these procedures into photographic terms, he sees six.

  1. Trick effects: Photographs can be faked.
  2. Pose: How a photographer poses the subject influences how the viewer interprets it.
  3. Objects: How objects are positioned in the image also influences how an audience might consider the main subject (environmental portraiture, perhaps?).
  4. Photogenia: By this, Barthes means that images are embellished with changes in lighting, exposure, printing and so on.
  5. Aestheticism: This describes the process by which a photographer uses methods borrowed or bluntly appropriated from other art forms.
  6. Syntax. Here, Barthes notes that the combination of photographs into a series can tell a more complex story. This would apply in the creation of the images, as well as curation, editing and exhibition.

Moving to the presentation on an image in a newspaper, Barthes discusses the interplay between text and photograph. He suggests that text is a kind of parasite, in driving a connotation for the image, rather than the image illustrating the words. Of course, the effect of this varies depending on how the page is constructed. Barthes writes that the closer the text is to the image, the less is seems to connote it, and he says that a caption is totally overwhelmed by the image, being so close to it.

Barthes describes ‘perceptive’ connotation in terms of how viewers use language to describe what they are seeing. In Wittgensteinian terms, our use of language (in both a social and solitary context) defines what our words mean, as opposed to an abstract, theoretical dictionary of concepts.

Barthes also writes about the impact of the culture in which the viewer/reader is situated, and he considers this ‘cognitive’ connotation. An image with signs written in Khmer gives the game away. Finally, he notes how we ascribe meaning to photographs in accord with our own political or ideological positions.

All in all, a useful set of ideas, and this time, quite practical, with bearing on my research into cultural context.

And much less depressing, once one gets past the language Barthes uses.


BARTHES, Roland. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.

BARTHES, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

YATES, Mick. 1972. Criteria for Diagrammatic Truth. BA Finals, University of Leeds.

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