“What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.”

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes and his concept of the photographic image as a message without a code

French thinker Roland Barthes is a classic author of modern philosophy about the nature of photography. His books and essays are standard reading in every university teaching photography as well as for every photographer looking for theoretical reference on the subject. Barthes’ work Camera Lucida – along with On Photography by Susan Sontag – is probably the most important book written about the nature image taking.

Nevertheless his short essay “The Photographic Message” (published in the book Image, Music, Text) offers also some very interesting reflections on visual images and what they tell us.

Roland Barthes starts out by saying that a photograph is a message without a code. He asks: “What is it that a photograph transmits?” And gives the answers: “By definition the scene itself, literally reality.”

Although Barthes recognizes that in the process of taking a picture, a reduction (or alteration) “in proportion, perspective and color” is taking place, which results in the fact that “the image is not real”. However, he defines the photographic image as “perfectly analog to reality”. And that’s because common sense recognizes it as such.

Because of this analogy, reality does not need a code that represents it, or in other words a code that differs substantially from the real objects shown on a photograph. Since it is not necessary to have a code, according to Barthes, or a relay between the object being photographed and the photograph itself, he speaks of photography as a “message without a code”.

Mimetic by nature, the relationship between the real object and its image is not arbitrary fixed, says Barthes, but rather the result of a mechanical process that can not be manipulated. In other words, there is no convention-based code that would control the process. When pressing down the shutter button it’s the camera that takes over control. The mechanical process taking place is what guarantees “objectivity” in this brief moment.

Therefore there is no need trying to make sense of this “analog message”. The analogy of reality – reality itself – is for Barthes the denotative message, or the denotation of photography.

A connoted message according to Roland Barthes is the introduction of an additional meaning in the original message. That causes, at least in press photography, that the images loses its purely denotative character. On the one hand that’s due to the standards and criteria applied by the people working in an editorial and the choices they make when choosing an image over another.

Roland Barthes proposes six categories of connotations:

  1. trick effects
  2. pose (or arrangement of people)
  3. placement of photos
  4. technical aspects of the photo
  5. aestheticism
  6. syntax (altering the meaning)

On the other hand there are the observers who – looking at press photos –  establish a connection and a set of signs that belong to a specific code. How an image is read and interpreted is determined by the cultural knowledge and aesthetic taste of the observer.

How does Roland Barthes define the photographic paradox?

From this arises the so-called “photographic paradox” that Roland Barthes speaks of. It is the coexistence of two messages, one without a code and therefore without connotation and another one with code and connotation.

Conclusions about Roland Barthes’ theory of the photographic paradox

In summary we can say: The photographic image is a message without a code, it’s continuous. At the same time it is a connotative message, but not at the level of the message itself, but at the level of its production and reception. The photographic image is a sophisticated object selected, structured, built and produced according to professional standards – aesthetic, cultural or ideological.

Related articles

On the subject of the nature of photography you might also find interesting to read the article “Ways Of Seeing” which deals with Susan Sontag’s book “On Photography”. Or some thoughts about pinhole photography – “Shooting Through A Pinhole”.