IAP Research Task: Rhetoric of the Image


In this short essay, I will explain Barthes’ description of linguistic messages and, looking at the work of Lange, Evans, Frank, and Freed, discuss the use of captioning within mid-20th century American social documentary photography.


In his famous analysis of the Panzani advert, contained in his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes (1:32-51) refers to two visual messages – the non-coded denoted iconic message and coded connoted iconic message – and the linguistic message. The linguistic message is itself broken down into two potential components; the anchor and the relay.

He suggests that all images are polysemous and therefore:

In every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs; the linguistic message is one of these techniques (1:39)

The anchor, which fixes the reader’s interpretation of the image or as Barthes says ‘it remote controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance’. The less common relay, on the other hand, sits alongside the image to assist its understanding. An example of an anchor and relay can be seen in the KFC advert below:

In this case, the anchor is the phrase ‘We’re sorry’ which fixes the central meaning of the image. This is an apology. The main text box, by contrast, contains the relay which reiterates the apology and offers thanks to the company’s affected stakeholders.


(1) Barthes, R. and Heath, S., 1990. Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana.

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