research point – barthes’ ‘the rhetoric of the image’

Read ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ and write a reflection in your learning log.
• How does Barthes define anchorage and relay?
• What is the difference between them?
• Can you come up with some examples of each?
• How might this help your own creative approaches to working with text and image?

– IaP coursebook – p.79

My final assignment for Context and Narrative drew heavily on Barthes’ essay by using it to provide a model for a ‘made up’ image in the form of the pasta advertisement, juxtaposed with a poem. In planning the image I engaged quite closely with the text, but I shall try to recap here. It is certainly a text that warrants careful re-reading.

Anchor and Relay:

Both are terms relating to text associated with images, a practice so widespread that it is difficult to find ‘pure’ uncaptioned images anywhere. Images are viewed as ‘polysemous’ with a huge range of possible interpretations and meanings. Text can dominate this plurality of meanings when the image ‘duplicate[s] certain of the text by a phenomenon of redundancy’ (anchorage) or else the text can be used to ‘add fresh information’ to that contained within the picture (relay).


  • Anchorage – Text answers the question ‘What am I looking at?’, narrowing down a number of possibilities to that expressed in the associated text. The image becomes a single thing, with an approved reading supplied by the words. In other words the text dominates the process of producing meaning for the viewer. This is the most common way that text is used with images (in newspaper captions, advertisements etc) and represents a reduction of the possibilities of the image.
  • Relay – new, extra information is provided by text (or speech in the case of comic books or films) which augments and moves on the content available in the image itself. Instead of dominating the image, text works in a complementary way to the content of the image.  Image and Text play equal parts in a narration, organised as a series of syntagms (ie in a sequential, progressive way).

Anchors lend themselves to certainty, shutting down options and seem directly related to an indexical reading of the photograph as a direct objective trace of a real object; they specify which set of connotations are sanctioned for the use of the viewer. Relays offer more scope for interpretation and work on the part of the viewer, expanding the possibilities for both connotation and more complex narratives. Relays also  – at least tacitly – acknowledge the possibility of the existance of a narrator, telling the story, while anchors present a story as existing, a latent presence within the image.

Some Anchors – Labels on pictures of food in menus or above the service area in take aways; newspaper captions; labels in family albums; simple descriptive titles.

Some Relays -Dialogue in films (or caption cards in silent films for that matter); Allusive titles relying on knowledge not contained in the image (classical painting based on Greek or Roman myths, say); captions where the information relayed is not present in the image.

I could use this, immediately, in revisiting my (superceded) early idea for assignment three. I had hoped to be able to show my thought processes as I chose where to be at set points in my journey to work in order to be able to make the simplest transition to the next stage.

Starting at Walthamstow Central, sitting in the 3rd coach from the rear of the train allows me to step straight into the way out at Oxford Circus, where – after I go up one level on the escalator – I can then get the easiest, least congested path to the Westbound Central Line Platform. Then if I wait by the waste bin, opposite the peeling paint, I can get on the next train after arriving at White City, disembark and go straight up the stairs.

There was way too much information to get across here, to leave it entirely to the pictures. There is a lot of discussion online about the limitations of the philosophy of ‘show – don’t tell’ in visual story telling; indeed Barthes questioned the idea that we are becoming a more visual/less verbal culture in the original essay in 1964. If I could have added text in some way – sometimes anchoring by reducing the chaos of what you were looking at to a manageable chunk of information; in others adding relays such as recordings of (or the script for) announcements about the next station – I maybe could have got it to work.

I think I will try this, using a mixture of new pictures and audio recordings to augment the slideshow version of that assignment for exercise 4.5…


  • Barthes, R (1964) Rhetoric of the Image from trans. Heath, S. (1977) Image Music Text (Fontana Press, London

I have spent a fair amount of time working through the search results produced by using the search string  – Barthes Anchor Relay – on google. It is interesting how everyone seems quite certain of what an anchor is; thinking on relay – mostly still centred around Barthes’ identification of it as a feature of cinematic or comic strip narrative –  is much more diffuse.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.