Roland Barthes was a structuralist, with a particular interest in the semiotics of language and images. Semiotics can be described as the ‘science of signs’. A semiotic analysis of an image or a piece of film is the quantification of how meaning is constructed or a message is communicated.
Before writing ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ Barthes wrote the essay ‘Myth Today’ (1972), in which he described two levels of meaning: sign and myth.
• The first level of meaning, sign, comprises a signifier and a signified – or a denoted object (the actual thing depicted) and the connoted message (what the thing depicted communicates).
• The second level of meaning, myth, takes into account the viewer’s existing contextual knowledge that informs a reading of the image.
This is a simplified description of Barthes’ system, which doesn’t apply exclusively to photographic images. In ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes uses the first level of meaning to read an advert for a French grocery company, Panzani.
This table roughly summarises Barthes’ discussion of the signs he identifies in the Panzani advert. In his essay, Barthes doesn’t explicitly refer to the second level of meaning, myth, although he does mention cultural stereotypes or assumptions that inform the consumption of this advertisement: the more Mediterranean lifestyle of “shopping around” for fresh groceries, as opposed to “the hasty stocking up… of a more ‘mechanical’ civilisation”. Barthes also points
• Recognition of the still life tradition in this image is dependent upon particular cultural knowledge.
• The image is read as an advert. The fact that the context is a magazine, and the pictorial emphasis on the product labels, influence how the overall picture is read.
• These signs are “not linear”; they are consumed holistically (Barthes, 1977, pp. 32–37).
Although the landscape doesn’t feature in this advert, it refers to the bounty of the countryside.
Here we see the brand attempting to align itself to the stereotype of a lifestyle which is – as Barthes saw it – the very essence of the country, as summarised by his made-up word, ‘Italianicity’. It is very much an image of Italian identity, from a French perspective.
An excellent example of the dissection of an advert is by Roland Barthes in his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ (1977).
The course so far has touched upon commercial applications of the landscape image, and how ideas and ideologies have been attached to particular landscapes. Nowhere are these two things conflated more explicitly than within the sphere of advertising, where landscape imagery is aligned with particular brand values and identities. Understanding how advertising imagery is constructed is essential if you intend to practise photography commercially. Even if you’re not interested in the commercial sector, exploring advertising imagery is a very good exercise in understanding how meaning is constructed and mediated by the photographic image.