Monday, 8 February 2010

The Rhetoric of the Image

by Roland Barthes

Cheeso! Talk about another easy read...

Some things are just plain hard to describe using text! Images are so important to convey a message and idea but with people taking different messages from these images it is important that the images are chosen correctly.

"How does meaning get into an image? Where does it end? And if it ends, where is it beyond?" Barthes.

Starting with the images used in advertising, Barthes talks about the significance of central pictures behind a company's face. These central images are deliberately chosen by the company whether it be to provoke a response, persuade people to buy, etc. Using the example of an advertising image from Panzani, Barthes argues that the only barrier in trying to solve what this advert is about is the text, at the bottom right hand corner (which is not present in the image below).

Even without the use of text, the image should still be able to stand alone and be accountable for selling the product.
We are presented with the image that the food has just been bought from the market, it's freshness being reinforced. Also the way in which the food overflows from the bag suggests that it has been bought for 'oneself' rather than the bulk buying we favour so much now.
The colours used in the poster heighten our connection with the Italian authenticity - all quite stereotypical of the colours associated with the cultural life of Italy.
These are only a few observations made from the poster, but Barthes goes into some detail about the other messages hidden within the poster.

Something that reminds me slightly of this is an experiment that Derren Brown conducted with the use of subliminal messages. Companies are forever trying to sell us their products with the main selling point being celebrity endorsed campaigns but what Derren Brown showed was that the way in which we are presented with subliminal messages could result in the change of our on behaviour - most people acting completely out of character. The message behind his experiments was that we are all susceptible to subliminal messages!

Derren Brown: How to control the nation
(I tried to find a video of the specific part I wanted to show on YouTube but there wasn't any. The above link is from Channel 4, where you can watch the whole episode.)

If these subliminal messages were removed from the context, what would happen? Would we still be left with enough information? What if they were presented to us in a slightly different way? Would they have the same affect on us? The list is endless...

The linguistic message
Most images used in posters will have a general meaning so that everybody has the basic understanding of what the image entails but depending on what we have been taught when we were younger will depend on how we interpret the other messages embedded within the image - the symbolic and not the literal message. It is important though that when we are deciphering the message that we do not jump in and make assumptions and rely on stereotypes without failing to understand every part (a point argued by a psychologist Sam Gosling in his book "Snoop", who discusses that we are too quick to assume things and rely on stereotypes to fit something to how we want it to appear).
When translating the image certain things to take into consideration: does the image rely on the text to emphasize the point trying to be made? Do we need the text/could the image be readable without it? Does the text confuse what is trying to be perceived?

"all images are polysemous"
Arguing that every image has a deliberate message behind it, Barthes discusses the point the definition taken from the image is important and that sometimes the use of text fixes this idea. In an example of a very open image, text is used to tie the idea together so that people are still free to exercise their imaginations but still understand the general gist. The text almost acts as a narrator does to a play, we are all able to absorb the parts we want to see but the text acts as tie, binding what we are seeing with what we are supposed to see and understand. Capturing our gaze is the function of the image, anchoring our thoughts is purpose of the text, linked hand in hand, image and text are there to heighten our understanding.

The denoted image
The images that are chosen have code hidden within in it and it is very rarely that a hand drawn image would be used as so many interpretations can be taken away from it and the individualistic style is great. The way in which we draw is riddled with connotations likewise a photograph, the only difference with the photograph is that the control over the angle, distance, speed, etc is easier to control. The denoted image therefore is the symbolic message and does not imply anything within the image but allows us to differentiate freely the meaning behind it.

Rhetoric of the image

The exposed meaning is opened to different interpretations depending on one's knowledge. Using the example of the image of the overflowing shopping bag above, the term 'Italianicity' is used often to describe it but this not being a real word so why is it used? Combining all stereotypical things of Italy, we understand what this term means without actually being taught about it's meaning. Although the connotations in which we receive from images will be different to every individual, most people looking at the image will be able to see it's 'Italainicity'. Some of the observations made will be common sense and this is quite a deliberate thing but Barthes stresses that it is important that we do not simply 'invent' what we want the image to say.

Meyer Schapiro is mentioned at the very last part of this chapter. On first reading of his name, I have to say it did not ring any bells, but now I am no longer ignorant after delving slighting into his past. Very much a visual person, Schapiro was credited for his knowledge on people's style within art. Arguing that our circumstantial placing has a lot to with our artist style and is useful in revealing what the artist is like. I suppose this ties quite nicely with what Barthes is talking about; things like context and personality affect our response to images.

With great relevance to the tasks being carried out in the second assignment, it was useful to read this chapter before conducting the tests. Understanding why images are used and the messages that are behind them are important too. Now when I am conducting the assignment I can be aware of people's thoughts and understand the feedback that they give me.

With thanks:

1 comment:

  1. Good explanation! It's not an easy read (though Barthes is easier to understand than Bourdieu!) but it's a really important concept that doesn't just apply to advertising but to so many different areas of life, design etc.
    Well done for reading it before doing the experiments - so many people did it the other way around last year...