An Image Is Worth A Thousand Meanings
University of Colorado at Boulder
The field of communication offers many different lenses from which one can frame a situation. These lenses generally take the form of theories, but can also be more broadly depicted as traditions. This paper will focus on Barthesí theory of semiotics as one way of looking at and analyzing advertising. Specifically, Barthesí theory is useful when exploring the relationship between an image and the text accompanying it. In order to fully consider this topic, a critique of its strengths and weaknesses is included at the end of this paper. Discussion from the article "A system for image-text relations in new (and old) media" by Martinec and Salway (2005) is also incorporated throughout.
Roland Barthes wrote about a structured system of signs. These signs are best understood as codes of cultural knowledge. An interesting irony of this theory is that in order to fully comprehend all of the implied meanings in a message one must understand the cultural ideologies being promoted on an unconscious level. Once a person starts to consciously decode a message, it loses much of its force and effectiveness. Barthes used the concept of the photograph to explain the difference between connotation and denotation and explore the idea of a purely denotative image. He asserts that traumatic photographs are the closest phenomenon we have to purely denotative images, in part, because there is nothing which can be said about them (Barthes, 1977). There are several methods which are popularly used to load photographs with meaning while encouraging the apparent objectivity that leads to the photographic paradox. Barthes further discusses that most images today are accompanied by text which takes an image even farther away from being purely denotative.
Two terms which are essential for understanding Barthesí theory of semiotics are denotation and connotation (R.T. Craig, COMM 3210 lecture, University of Colorado, October 4, 2007). Denotation is the literal meaning or reference of a sign. For instance, Donald Duck refers to a specific cartoon character. Connotation is the meaning suggested or implied by a sign. Donald Duck implies Disney, childhood, humor, etc. Barthes examines the photograph because it appears to be purely denotative. The image is not just representative of another object; it is an exact copy of it. However, the paradox is that this apparent objectiveness is masking the connotations inherent in photographs (Barthes, 1977).
Besides the cultural meanings that are taken for granted in photographs, a photographer can add a second meaning with connotative procedures. This may involve any combination of trick effects, pose and arrangement of people, the objects placed in and/or cropped out of the photo, the technical aspects of lighting, exposure, printing, etc., the imitation of artistic styles, and the arrangement of images in a series (Barthes, 1977). The first three of these procedures actually alter the reality of the photograph a bit, but do so in a way that the photographer is able to encourage the illusion of pure denotation.
All photographs are culturally loaded with meaning, especially those with text attached. Barthes states that while historically, the image has "illustrated" the text, today the text "rationalizes the image" (Barthes, 1977). He further maintains that the closer the text is to the image, the less connotative meaning it seems to add. Martinec and Salway (2005) expand on the topic of the text-image relationship.
According to Martinec and Salway there are four main relationships between an image and the text that accompanies it. The first is an independent image-text relationship in which neither depends on the other for its meaning. The second is a complimentary text-image relationship. The text and the image enhance each other's meaning equally. The third is an image-subordinate-to-text relationship in which the photo does not relate to all of the text surrounding it. Many newspaper stories feature this relationship because either the captions or the article associated with the photo add extra details not included in the photograph itself. Finally, a text-subordinate-image relationship occurs when the text relies on the image for its meaning (often the text involves the words "this, the work, the sitter", etc.) (Martinec and Salway, 2005).
In each text-image relationship described by Martinec and Salway, there is some amount of connotation being added. The image-subordinate-to-text relationship adds the most new meaning to a photograph. An example of this is when a newspaper article shows a picture of a youngish looking female and the caption reads "Jane Smith was an excellent athlete in high school and made the honor role three years in a row." This statement does not describe the photograph but does give us an idea of what the person was like.
A useful application of Barthesí theory of semiotics is analyzing advertising. Creative advertising often assumes that the viewer will be able to use a wealth of stored cultural knowledge to interpret the advertisements effectively. One example is found on the manhole covers of New York City. Folgers coffee made up manhole covers that looked like a birds eye view of a cup of coffee with holes so that the steam could appear as the steam of fresh hot coffee (see photos below). This advertising campaign relied on the cultural trend that people enjoy their coffee hot and black. The image is simple and appears natural; however, the reality is that the liquid photographed was probably not coffee at all. The advertisers chose to put the coffee in a plain white coffee cup (not mug) which appeals to the down-to-earth and practical values of Folgers target market.
The text that accompanies the cup of "steaming" coffee reads "Hey, City That Never Sleeps. Wake Up. Folgers." Right away, the phrase "city that never sleeps" depends on the cultural knowledge that it is referring to New York City. It evokes the rushing, the non-stop lifestyle, the energy required to live in the city. It implies that without the caffeine and emotional response that comes with Folgers, a person living this fast paced existence may resemble a sleepwalker who isnít experiencing it to the fullest. If you need a pick me up, Folgers is the best way to get it. All of these meanings are connoted with the help of the text.
In this example the relationship between the text and the image is independent. Together they form the message that Folgers specifically is the brand of coffee that energizes; however, separately they each carry their own meaning. The cup of hot steaming coffee relies on the viewersí cultural experiences of coffee and the text is a complete message on its own, just not as effective as when paired with the image.
The main critique of Barthesí theory of semiotics as laid out above is the problem that shared meaning isnít always shared. Barthes depends on the sender (producer) and receiver (viewer) of the message (the photograph and text) having the same store of cultural knowledge. If the two parties are from different cultures, of different ages, or any other number of factors is different, they will most likely not project the same meaning onto the photograph and the text. These sorts of misunderstandings occur all the time. An example related to the advertising of Folgers coffee may involve someone who has always enjoyed iced coffee as their pick me up. They will not react to the "steaming" cup in a favorable manner. When concepts are widely embraced as cultural phenomenon though, this theory applies well. Because the advertising is physically printed on a New York City street, there is probably a relatively low chance that someone will mistake the reference. If the advertisement were circulated in a magazine or on television, though, it may refer to any number of cities including New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or even cities outside of the United States.
This theory is particularly helpful when trying to analyze the objectiveness of a photograph. It gives the viewer specific tools (the connotative procedures) to dissect the make up of a photograph. The break down of text to image relationships is also beneficial to understanding how the two can add meaning to each other.
Photographs are interesting codes in a complex world of signs because they appear to be purely denotative. Upon closer investigation, however, a careful scholar will note that most images are loaded with connotations. Photographs are typically supplemented with text which adds further meaning to the pair. The relationship between the text and the image determines how much and what kind of meaning is added. This theory can be particularly useful when studying advertising because advertisements encode so many cultural ideologies into the visuals and text. For instance, a "steaming" cup of coffee conveys thoughts on lifestyle and refreshment. Barthesí theory and further work come under critique when the reader brings up questions of shared meanings, cultural differences and misunderstandings. This theory is useful to the study of communication for the ways that it breaks down patterns between signs and what they signify.
Barthes, R. (1977). The photographic message (S. Heath, Trans.) In S. Heath (Ed.), Image, music, text (pp. 15-31). New York: Hill and Wang.
Martinec, R. & Salway, A. (2005). A system for image-text relations in new (and old) media. Visual Communication, 4(3), 337-371.