How to Read Barthes' Image-Music-Text

How to Read Barthes' Image-Music-Text

by Ed White


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745329574
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 08/07/2012
Series: How to Read Theory Series
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 4.80(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ed White is Associate Professor in the Department of English, University of Florida at Gainesville. He is the author of The Backcountry and the City: Colonization and Conflict in Early America (2005) and co-editor of Beyond Douglass: New Perspectives on Early African American Literature (2008).

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The Photographic Message

This essay, the earliest included in Image-Music-Text, seems to take as its primary concern the isolation and characterization of the photograph — specifically the press photograph — as a unique medium for communication. Barthes had earlier analyzed many photographic images — glamour shots of Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn, for example, or the Paris-Match cover — but here he treats the press shot specifically as an image, and specifically the kind of image created by a camera. The photograph as a unique technological medium was a subject of interest to Barthes throughout his career — he included personal photographs in his autobiography, Roland Barthes, and one of his last books, Camera Lucida, explores the photograph and what it means. But as Barthes will eventually indicate, his project is more profound: he wants to address the problem of how — or if — we can perceive and access the objective reality of the world around us. Hence his choice of the press photograph, rather than, say, the artistic photograph or (the focus of the next essay) the advertisement photograph: the press photograph, Barthes insists, seems unique among forms of communication, and accentuates a particular theoretical problem unique to photographic technology.

Barthes begins, characteristically, by clearing the field of related but nonetheless distinct questions. The first paragraph raises the complex system of "emission," "transmission," and "reception" for any press photograph (15). In assessing the press photograph, one would presumably consider the staff of the newspaper (the photographer herself, the technicians in the lay-out department, the editors, and so on), the demographics of the particular newspaper (the class background and political affiliation of its readers, for example). These matters of emission and reception, however, belong to a separate field of study — the sociological analysis of a mass medium — distinct from the problem of "the message itself" (15). Even after we understand the workings of the newspaper, the fact remains that the press photograph "is not simply a product or a channel but also an object endowed with a structural autonomy" (15, emphasis added). Consequently, our analysis needs to be suited to its "unique structure," and should be able to distinguish analytically those other sociological elements (16). Barthes reiterates this point in talking about the photograph's transmission, which will always involve an accompanying text — the caption or title, the accompanying article. Yes, this textual material and the photographic image "are co-operative," and work in tandem, but nonetheless, they are different kinds of messages. We must carefully distinguish these types of messages for a number of reasons. For one thing, we already have some understanding of how written language works. As a result, we will tend to give that analysis of words greater importance in our interpretation of the photograph, the workings of which we have yet to appreciate and understand. Distinguishing these different types of signification is therefore particularly important because "only when the study of each structure has been exhausted" will it "be possible to understand the manner in which they complement one another" (16).

If the photograph is a different kind of sign than words, what exactly is it? What makes the photograph unique, Barthes claims, is that unlike other kinds of messages, it transmits "the literal reality" that it has technologically captured (17). Of course the image is not reality, but it is a "perfect analogon ... it is exactly this analogical perfection which, to common sense, defines the photograph" (17). By contrast, other forms of representation will "divide up this reality into units," then "constitute these units as signs" of a different mode than that which they represent (17). A written description of a street demonstration, for example, will utilize a series of words that translate the actual scene according to the rules of writing; a drawing of the demonstration will highlight certain elements and use techniques available to that particular art form. In both cases, a linguistic "code" will be evident — the code of words, the code of sketching — and interpreters will necessarily encounter the "relay" set up by that code. To be sure, the photograph of the street demonstration is not the same thing as the demonstration and will not be a complete representation: it will not capture all the visual elements or perspectives, or the non-visual sensations (what it feels like to be in the crowd, the motivations of the demonstrators, etc.). But it is nonetheless, by virtue of its technological process, an analogon of that demonstration. Thus the "special status" of the photograph, according to Barthes: "it is a message without a code" (17).

Barthes quickly adds what he considers to be an important corollary: "the photographic message is a continuous message" (17). The photograph is continuous — constant in time, without a beginning or an end — precisely because it lacks a code. A code would give the interpretation a specific temporal sequence. The written description of the street demonstration must be written and read in some syntactic sequence, from beginning to end, and it is that process that marks the beginning and end of the interpretive encounter with writing. What about other visual or analogical forms of representation, like "drawings, paintings, cinema, [or] theatre"? These other forms all involve some "obvious" form of additional message "supplementary" to the analogous element. The clearest example would be the stylistic elements of the reproduction. In the case of the drawing of the demonstration, the style or the coloring of the drawing will draw on artistic conventions to convey an additional or supplemental message: harsh lines and shading, for example, might be used to emphasize anger or danger. Even the attempt to give a completely neutral and "realistic" drawing will be recognized as a certain kind of artistic style — for example, "verism" (18). To give another example, we are very aware of this encoding when we watch a documentary: we recognize certain elements of filming (say, perspective and texture) and the sequential presentation of information as part of the documentarian's "code." Barthes concludes that these other artistic modes, despite being "imitative" or representational, all "comprise two messages: a denoted message, which is the analogon itself, and a connoted message, which is the manner in which the society to a certain extent communicates what it thinks of it" (17).

Denotation and connotation will be terms that Barthes employs repeatedly throughout the essays of Image-Music-Text. Denotation, as Barthes uses the term, refers to a neutral or what some would call "objective" designation or indication of that which is represented: Barthes later calls this a "first-order message" (18). Connotation, by contrast, refers to the abstract or "subjective" interpretive elements, which are the substance (or "second-order message") of most of our interpretations (18). A still-life painting — let's say, of a plate, some vegetables, a fish, and a knife — at the most simple level denotes those objects portrayed, but it may also, depending on its context and presentation, connote nourishment, commodities, the simple pleasures of a fishing community, the labor of gathering and preparing food, or the elegant pleasures of bourgeois feasting. Connotation is thus the realm of interpretation in which cultural, historical values are layered upon the denoted elements. If we return to the model of the sign discussed in the introduction, we may say that the signifier here corresponds to denotation, while the signified corresponds to connotation.

Barthes finds the press photograph worthy of analysis because, at first glance, it "appears" to be purely denotative, a simple "mechanical analogue of reality," in which the denotation "fills" our interpretation and "leaves no place" for connotation. Such is our "common sense" perception of the photograph — it captures what was actually there at some point in time. In fact, the press photograph "has been worked on, chosen, composed, constructed, treated according to professional, aesthetic or ideological norms which are so many factors of connotation" (19). We should try to understand how this code works, appreciating what is unique about the press photograph. It is not like the other signs that Barthes has mentioned (film, drawings, paintings, theater) because with those forms, connotation does not work in "collusion" with denotation. With the drawing, the very elements of its composition (lines, shading, color, etc.) are working simultaneously to denote and connote. With the press photograph, connotation occurs apart from the denotation — or, as Barthes puts it, "the connoted (or coded) message develops on the basis of a message without a code" (19). Barthes is thus arguing a corollary of the Saussurean argument about the sign. Remember that according to Saussure, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is not natural or inevitable (these roses will not always signify my passion). When we speak of that relationship, we are describing how signifier and signified are linked, but we are not claiming that this relationship is necessary. Here Barthes is making a very similar argument about connotation and denotation in relation to the press photograph:

Denotation (analogon of photographed object) Press photograph Connotation (interpretation)

The puzzle here is how and why specific connotations become associated with a specific denotation in the thing we call the press photograph. More broadly, it is clear that Barthes is asking why and how specific signifieds become associated with specific signifiers in the things we call signs — and he is using the press photograph to explore this problem.

If this puzzle seems esoteric, Barthes explains the larger issues at stake in his project. The structure he describes with the press photograph finds a parallel in "an ethical paradox": when one tries to be ethical, one strives to be as "neutral" or "objective" as possible, "as though the analogical were a factor of resistance against the investment of values" (19-20). Is this ethical neutrality possible? Barthes' gambit here is that his analysis of the interpretation of the press photograph will shed some light on this larger problem.

At this point, Barthes turns to the "connotation procedures" and elements that are imposed upon the press photograph, and thereby amount to "a coding of the photographic analogue" (20). "[S]trictly speaking," the procedures Barthes goes on to explain, are not "part of the photographic structure" (20). The visual techniques are divided in two categories. First are those procedures which modify the photographic analogon. "Trick effects" — what we today call "photoshopping" — involves the faking of an image by inserting elements already "heavily connoted" (21). (Barthes' example here is a famous photograph of Senator Millard Tydings; the notorious anti-Communist Joseph McCarthy, who had been investigated by Tydings, had faked a photograph depicting Tydings' meeting with the U.S. Communist leader Earl Browder.) Posing also comprises an "'historical grammar'" of connotation. For example, the famous 1960 portrait of John F. Kennedy, by the Canadian Yousuf Karsh, connotes "youthfulness, spirituality, [and] purity" (22). The arrangement of objects is another connotative technique, as many objects are already laden with meaning (a book-case connotes intellectuality, the gas-chamber door evokes a long mythological tradition of the gates of death, and so on). If the first three procedures involve the objects photographed, three other procedures are concerned, rather, with the presentation of the photograph itself. "Photogenia" is the embellishment of the photograph through, for example, alterations of lighting, exposure, printing, and blurring. In addition to these "aesthetic effects," some photographs deploy a more direct imitation of, or allusion to, aesthetic techniques (23-24). For instance, Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1938 "Cardinal Pacelli," one of Barthes' examples, duplicates the iconographic framing of much older European traditions of painting. Finally, photographic syntax or sequence adds a temporal, narrative connotation. Barthes' example here is a 1950 series of four photographs by Dmitri Kessel for Life magazine, portraying French President Vincent Auriol shooting a hunting rifle as his aides duck and bob to avoid getting shot: one of the photographs might suggest an awkward situation, but the four together connote a slapstick scene of danger.

All of these photographic modifications amount to instances of connotation trying to impose itself on denotation, to overwhelm it. And we find something similar in the words that often accompany the press photograph — the textual caption. When text and image traditionally appeared alongside one another (say, in the nineteenth century), the image clarified or connoted the written word: hence the term "illustration." If I am describing geological sedimentation, I will include an illustration (say, a cross-section of rock) to demonstrate what my words are describing. But in an "historical reversal," the text is now (as Barthes writes in the late twentieth century) "parasitic" upon the image (25). What Barthes means is that the text now provides connotation for the image, and in so doing undermines the image by "burdening it with a culture, a moral, an imagination" (26). This added connotation may be close to the connotations already visually ascribed to the photograph, or it may invent new meanings, or it may even contradict the already-present connotation (27). In fact, it is "impossible" that the words "duplicate" or correspond in some way to the meaning of the image (26) — after all, the two are different kinds of sign systems, with different structures and logics. Nonetheless, the textual connotation is "experienced ... as the natural resonance" of the image's denotation: the cultural content of the connotation is naturalized, by virtue of the new relationship between text and image (26).

What does Barthes conclude from this analysis? With the photograph, there is no such thing as a natural or "trans-historical" interpretation. There will always be connotation through a process of "signification," the inevitable perception of meaning (27), or, to put it more bluntly, connotation will always overwhelm denotation. And this means that "the reading of the photograph is thus always historical" (28). The long process of this essay — finding all the elements that add connotation to the press photograph — has resulted in finding nothing but its own powerful inventory, which likely says more about "the reader's cultural situation" than some elusive reality captured by photography (28). Instead of trying to strip away connotation, one should accept, following the work of such psychologists as Jerome Bruner and Jean Piaget, that "there is no perception without immediate categorization" (28). There may be one exception to this rule — the experience of trauma, defined here as the blocking of categories and concepts — but this is a rarity (28). As a rule, the image "has no denoted state, is immersed for its very social existence in at least an initial layer of connotation" (29, emphasis added). Again it may be helpful to think about this argument relative to the model of the sign:

The argument here is that, with the press photograph, the connotation — that which is signified — overwhelms the denotation — the analogous depiction of the photograph — more or less completely. Remember here the common-sense understanding of the sign: we typically think that the signifier (a rose) has some intrinsic or natural meaning (love, passion), and thus that the sign describes the dominance of the signifier over the signified. The Saussurean or structuralist analysis answered, No, the relationship between signifier and signified is not inevitable, but is instead contingent: the sign describes that contingent linkage between signifier and signified. But here Barthes offers a different understanding of that relationship, at least as it plays out in the press photograph: not only is the signifier-signified relationship contingent, but it may be the case that the signified dramatically dominates the signifier.


Excerpted from "How to Read Barthes' Image-Music-Text"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Ed White.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

The Photographic Message
The Rhetoric of the Image
The Third Meaning
Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein
Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative
The Struggle with the Angel
The Death of the Author
Musica Practica
From Work to Text
Change the Object Itself
Lesson in Writing
The Grain of the Voice
Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers

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