Exercise: Rhetoric of the Image

This exercise requires reading of The Rhetoric of the Image by Roland Barthes . As I wanted to explore semiotics in more detail, I also read David Chandler’s Semiotics The Basics .

Barthes’ has text understandably featured at various stages of the OCA photography course. It is about how signs can persuade (their rhetoric) and in particular images and text. Barthes’ discussion focuses on an advertising image for ‘Italian’ food ingredients – so signs that include both image and text (not just the ‘image’). Points of interest to me on re-reading at this point in my studies are:

  • The polysemous nature of images, sits uncomfortably in a cultural environment that seeks definition, clarity and meaning, and simplification. Barthes states ‘all images are polysemous; they imply underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signified, the reader able to choose some and ignore others’ (ibid: 39) It is the centrality of the reader in meaning that is important; that there is not one reading and each reading echoes an individual’s psychology of perception.
  • In contrast, Barthes notes how society uses techniques to ‘fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs‘ (ibid:39). This takes place within the context of cultural codes. For different reading of an image ‘each sign corresponds to a body of ‘attitudes’ – tourism …, … art …’ (ibid:47)
  • Barthes notes the directive nature of text in shaping meaning. Without text, images have no fixed meaning. They cannot be argued as true or false. Just as a statement cannot be argued as red or blue (EH Gombrich).