Research point – the rhetoric of image

Source (featured image):, by Ed Van Der Elsken.

This research requires reading of Roland Barthes’ The Rhetoric of Image and to then comment on:

  1. The definition of anchorage and relay
  2. The difference between the two
  3. Some examples of both
  4. How the concept might be useful in one’s own creative use of words and images
Having read the work (not for the first time – see here for CAN blog post) and again with some difficulty in digestion, I came to the following:

  • Photographs can have two levels of reading: firstly, a literal representation of the phenomenal world, which is known as denotation (in Barthes’ analysis of a food advertisement, a tomato, a shopping net etc); and alternatively, inferences from what is represented (for Barthes the collection of food and colours used signified Italianicity), which is known as connotation. Without some form of direction, the viewer will take on his own reading of the photo, based on his personal experience and knowledge (or his own rhetoric).
  • The job of text as an anchor is to direct the viewer towards a certain understanding of what and image denotes or connotes. Like a physical anchor, it binds the image to a specific place, meaning or interpretation. Or, it excludes alternative interpretations and stops us drifting out into the sea of ideas. As well as advertising images, newspaper headlines make use of anchorage to reinforce their editorial messages, sometimes with scant regard to the original context of images. For example a smiling image of a politician from the past, accompanied by text describing  a current event suggesting that she is unsympathetic to a cause.
  • In contrast, when text acts in ‘relay’, its purpose is not to direct the viewer’s interpretation of the image, but to complement the image. Barthes observes that this is very rare in the case of still images, but is commonly used in cinema through the combination of moving images and dialogue. Through this, both words and pictures form part of a bigger story – they complement one another, creating the possibilities of additional meanings in between the words and the pictures. In the case of still images, this might be through a storyboard. To some extent the photos in Ed Van Der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank act in relay with the story told in the book, at other points they are more illustrative, acting as anchors. Cartoon strips are another example of relay.
  • I do not presently make extensive use of words alongside my photos and tend to avoid them aside from locating images. In use, there is first an awareness of the impact that text can have on the viewer; for example if the text is a statement of the obvious, it serves no valuable purpose and is even likely to irritate some viewers. There is the possibility of using relay or anchorage in the context of a short story-photo book, or a combination of the two uses, like in Van Der Elsken’s book. Similarly, anchors and relays might be used to alert the viewer to the story within a singular image so that they might look a little closer and longer at it.

Barthes R. (1964) Rhetoric of the Image. From Image Music Text edition (1977). London, Fontana Press.

Van Der Elsken E (1956) Love on the left bank. Facsimile edition (2010), Stockport, UK, Dewi Lewis Publishing.


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