Reflection Point: ‘Rhetoric of the image’


Reflection Point: ‘Rhetoric of the image’

Brief:  Read ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ and write a reflection in your learning log.

• How does Barthes define anchorage and relay?

• What is the difference between them?

• Can you come up with some examples of each?

• How might this help your own creative approaches to working with text and image?


This is the second time I have looked at this article and considered these ideas on the degree course (Barthes, 1977). I think I understand the ideas of anchorage and relaying and will comment more on my new learning from this article.

He starts by identifying three classes of message within the image:

1. The linguistic message (text)

He sees two kinds of linguistic messages at work: a denoted message comprising of the caption and the labels on the produce, and a connoted message – the word ‘Panzani’ connotes Italianicity.

2. The symbolic message (or connoted image)

Four signs are then identified from the non-linguistic part of the image and the constitute the symbolic message, or connoted image:

  • The half-open bag signifies return from market
  • tomatoes and peppers signify Italianicity
  • the collection of objects signifies a total culinary service
  • the overall composition is reminiscent of, and therefore signifies, the notion of a still life.

3. The literal message (or denoted image)

This is non-coded in that the image of the tomato represents a tomato, the image of the pepper represents a pepper, and so on. He remarks that in this case we have a signifier and a signified which are essentially the same – this is a message without a code. (Hugh, 2009)

I think I understand the issue of both text and image having literal (denoted) and interpreted meaning (connoted). See my article on one of Ryan McGinley’s images.

How does Barthes define anchorage and relay? What is the difference between them?

Barth says that most images have a linguistic message. Barthes own discussion of the issues are precise but laboured and I prefer a clearer definition;

  1. Anchorage – images are prone to multiple meanings and interpretations. Anchorage occurs when text is used to focus on one of these meanings, or at least to direct the viewer through the maze of possible meanings in some way

  2. Relay – the text adds meaning and both text and image work together to convey intended meaning e.g. a comic strip. (Hugh, 2009)

Can you come up with some examples of each?

I decided to look at last years BP National Portrait Awards and Wangs’ second prize-winning entry (Wang, 2015). I will spend more time on this one image rather than looking at lots of examples. It caught my eye because of my work as a doctor and in witnessing the death of my daughter in a similar bed a few months ago. I am also starting to think about assignment 5 which is about my daughter’s illness which had text and image – I am not sure how they will anchor or relay to provide or suggest meaning.

Interpreting an image is about context as well as visual and textual narrative. Wang is a a Chinese artist.

Bo, 34, is a lecturer at Suzhou University in Jiangsu, and has exhibited at venues throughout China, including the National Art Museum in Beijing. His portrait, Silence, was made just a month before his grandmother died.

“Sometimes she tilted her head and looked at me,” he said. “There was too much emotion in her eyes to be expressed in words. I almost forgot about painting techniques or any specific style, just trying to use my brushes to communicate silently with my grandma. I can strongly feel the state of a dying life when I think of her eyes.”

Little is known about Bo Wong and this does not seem to be the film-maker based in New York. I could not find a connection between this image and a biography of this Bo Wang. This may or may not be him or her.

The denotative aspects of this image, what is objectively present, begin with an elderly woman, dressed in a pink nightgown, with sheets pulled up to her neck, lying a bed with a metal frame. Her head with medium length silver hair rests on a thin pillow covered with a light blue patterned towel. Her eyes are half open and her head inclines towards the viewer. The head of the bed is wooden and what appears to be a raised ‘cot side’ is visible behind her. The mattress sheet is striped white and pink which echoes the stippled pink wall covering, the pink coverall and the pink nightgown.

What do these elements connote? Pink connotes female and feminity rather than masculinity; this is a woman in a fabricated ‘female’ environment such as a hospital ward. The metal, wood and cot-side suggest that this is a hospital or institution bed.

How do we deconstruct this image? This is a quiet but unsettling image. The pink items suggest the ease and comfort of home items such as ‘slippers’ but are juxtaposed with the  coldness and formality of the hospital bed and empty walls. Being ‘tucked’ between sheets suggest both control of the person and care; these are tight sheets where only the head is exposed. The cot sides suggest the bars of a jail or institution; there to prevent a fall or to retain if confused. The head and eyes look to you and question. We infer that she is unwell or needing an operation. This is a passive dependant person.

We know from the notes to this painting that this is the artists grandmother who talks about their being “too much emotion in her eyes to be expressed in words.” It is hard to see this on the internet but enlarged the eyes and face literally bring the image into focus with a question about what the look says.

There are numerous signs and signifiers in this image. The pink suggests femininity, the metal coldness, the sheets confinement and care, silver hair age and wisdom. The choice of this type of image reminds me of Victorian memento mori images of the recently dead. More recently I remember the work of Briony Campbell who photographed her father’s death. There is also my personal story of visiting my daughter many times in hospital with those pink or blue stippled walls and cold hospital bed with personal items strewn around the room, and the prospect of death in the future. These visual texts and my personal recollections demonstrate the intersexuality of this image (Chandler, 2014).

There may also be cultural, political and social meanings to this image – Barthes’s stadium (Barthes, 1982). In asian countries it is the family rather than the institution who care for most dying people although this is changing with the urbanisation of the population. Maybe this image says something about the depersonalisation of care particularly end of life. For me there is also the punctum of emotion associated with this image in which I feel something about my daughters hospital stay and death.

I have not forgotten about anchorage and relay. One of the most important denotative aspect of this image is the title ‘Silence.’ Silence signifies quiet and the absence of noise. It is an anchor that suggests meanings about calmness and peace, rather than ‘distress’ for example. But if we see this text as relaying a common meaning of picture and text then it suggests the impending silence of death; this is an end of life image.  The words of the bible come to mind “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no moredeath or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” (THB, 1991). Silence is death and peace.

How might this help your own creative approaches to working with text and image?

I think that work needs to be intentional with thought to planning image and text and how they relate together. We will see how that turns out in A4 and A5.


Barthes, R. (1977). The rhetoric of the image. Image-Music-Text. New York, Hill and Wang. Accessed 12th April 2017.

Hugh (2009) The rhetoric of the image – Roland Barthes (1964).

Wang, B. (2015). Silence. national portrait prize 2016,, National Portrait Gallery: Tempura on board.

Chandler, D. (2014). “Semiotic for Beginners: Intertextuality.” Retrieved 13th February, 2016, from

Campbell, B. (2011) “The Dad Project.” Retrieved 24th July, 2015, from

Barthes, R. (1982). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London, Jonathan Cape.

THB (1991). The Holy Bible – Revelation Chapter 21 verse 4. London, Hodder and Stoughton.