Barthes – The Photographic Message (1961)

Press photographs.  Barthes refers to several such photographs in this
essay from 1961.  He was concerned with contending orders of connoted
and denoted meanings operable in the reading of photographs. The
"photographic paradox," as he puts it, involves the double structure of
contending linguistic orders (connotative, denotative) and the photograph as
, "a message without code" (17).  Paradoxically, the press
photograph bears a "continuous message" sustained in the two significant
structures (of which "only one is linguistic"…either accompanying text or
description). Barthes calls the relationship between the image and the text
"contiguous" rather than "homogenous" (16). And so the photograph must be read
with some awareness of these variations, which lead to variations in meaning.
Barthes: "What can at least be done now is to forecast the main planes of
analysis of photographic connotation" (20).

Browder (left) and Tydings (right)The
"planes of analysis" or "connotation procedures" read much like a taxonomy, and
they come in two groupings: a first set (trick effects, pose, objects) and a
second set (photogenia, aestheticism, syntax).  The first set "is produced
by a modification of the reality itself" (21).

  1. Trick effects: photo-doctoring–exploits the analogue, the power of
    denotation.  Ex.

    Senator Millard Tydings and Communist leader Earl Browder
    Pose: possibility of double structure (denoted::connoted) in the posed (ex.
    Kennedy praying).  How much is positioned?
    Objects–placed for connotative effect; a meaning, but not a power (from a
    "stock of stereotypes")
  2. Photogenia–an inventory of effects; embellishments, aesthetic qualities
    of technique-production ("lighting, exposure, printing") (23)
    Aestheticisim–remediation; a photograph of a painting (24)
    Syntax–multiple images, supra-segmental and concatenations (24)

Text and image (25-27)
In this section of the essay, Barthes works on the impact of accompanying
text on photograph.  Text can contribute (-1-) as a parasitic quickening
(this is a historical reversal of the photo as merely illustrative of the text). 
The text (a caption, perhaps) can be (-2-) "innocented" by the denotation of the
photograph (26).  But it’s not possible, according to Barthes, for the
words to duplicate the image; text can, however, "amplify" the image,
"retroactively project" onto the image, or even "contradict" the image.

And finally, on "Photographic Insignificance" Barthes works up a set of
contending connotations in the photograph–a set we need "to elucidate fully the
mechanisms of reading" (28): cognitive (28), perceptive (29),
ideological or ethical (29) and political (30). 

Connoted code: "The code of the connoted system is very likely constituted
either by a universal symbolic order or by a period rhetoric, in short by a
stock of stereotypes
(schemes, colours, graphisms, gestures, expressions,
arrangements of elements)" (18).

On description: "To describe consists precisely in joining to the denoted
message a relay or second-order message derived from a code which is that of
language and constituting in relation to the photographic analogue, however much
care one takes to be exact, a connotation: to describe is thus not simply
to be imprecise or incomplete, it is to change structures, to signify
something different to what is shown" (18-19).

Note: This is the first of a series of write-ups/note-strings for an
independent study reading list (690: New Media and Visualization).  I can tell
now that my future notes will need to be somewhat more succinct.  Before
the end of the week: Barthes – "Rhetoric of the Image" and "The Third Meaning"
and Benjamin – "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"–all
groundwork.  Unfortunately, I’m not very skillful at rendering these notes
into entries-for-readers; hope that will improve with practice.


  1. Regarding the coded/uncoded distinction: this early essay really isn’t representative of Barthes later thought in Camera Lucida. I do think his later reflections on the studium/punctum of the image to be much more interesting. That said, however, there is a lot to be teased out of the dennotative/connotative split, which can be also described as metonymic/metaphoric, or even iconic/symbolic once an adequate spin is applied.

    Mary Price’s discussion in The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space (1994) applies more directly to the coded/uncoded argument. She contrasts Barthes’ argument in this essay with John Tagg’s Marxist argument regarding the manufacture of cultural and consumptive codes through images (in The Burden of Representation) in an interesting and productive way.

    I would add Benjamin’s “A Short History of Photography” to the list as well– it is, as advertised, short (though a bit inaccurate historically). Benjamin and Price both argue that the caption is the most significant constituent of any image, thus all these texts are significantly interrelated in an almost incestuous fashion.

  2. I appreciate your insights here (as well as the citations), Jeff, and I agree that Camera Lucida and the studium/punctum distinction lends itself to something beyond the denotation/connotation split. Initially, CL was listed for the independent study, but because I read it during the summer, we filled in the opening with a few of these early essays.

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