Tag Archives: Roland Barthes

Research Point 1

The brief:

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?

I wrote a reflection on the ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ in the Context & Narrative module which was summarized here, so I will confine my comments to anchorage and relay on this posting as I did not cover them in great detail during that posting.

In the context of today’s mass media communication every image carries some form of linguistic message. The function of the linguistic message can either be anchorage or relay. All images have any number of meanings (polysemous) which are conveyed to the viewer by means of signfiers and signifieds. Some the viewer will understand, some he/she may choose to ignore due to cultural differences or ignorances. The text in the image helps the viewer to answer the question “what is it?”

Anchorage is used mainly in press photographs and advertisements. The function of the text is to draw the viewer to a directed level of perception, thereby avoiding an incorrect interpretation of the image.

An example of this would be:

Fishing at St. Lucia, Kwa-Zulu, South Africa (c) Lynda Kuit

The caption above is directional in that it names the activity taking place as well as the location, province and country. Were the caption to be only “Fishing” or “Fishing at St. Lucia” that would leave the actual location quite wide open to questions. Is this location in St Lucia in the Caribbean one might ask if questioning the latter caption? By anchoring the text specifically to the town of St Lucia in the province of Kwa-Zulu in the country of South Africa, the viewer is left in no doubt as to the correct interpretation of the image.

Language clearly has a function of elucidation, but this elucidation is selective, a metalanguage applied not to the totality of the iconic message but only to certain of its signs.

Barthes (p. 40)

Relay is less common and is usually found in comics and cartoons as well as in film. Here the text and image stand in a complementary relationship to each other and usually require a bit more introspection to figure out the connections between the two. If I were to add the caption “Awaiting the big one” to the image above, the meaning would be quite ambiguous. The viewer would be left wondering if the text referred to the looming storm or the persistent fisherman at the shore’s edge waiting to catch his big fish of the day.

This use of anchorage and relay text can certainly play an important part in how one wants ones images to be read. Looking back at my C&N assignments I see that I have used a mix of anchorage and relay text. My assignment 3 relied totally on relay text. Looking back, except for the title of C&N’s assignment 2, I did not shoot with any caption in mind. The captions always came at the end of the editing process. I can’t really say how thinking about these approaches to text and images will affect my way of working, except that I might think a little deeper into how I want my images to be interpreted – to what level do I want to direct the viewer or leave the interpretation open to the viewer’s authorship.

Reference List

Barthes, Roland (1977). Rhetoric of the Image in Image, music, text. London: Fontana Press

Douglas Huebler

In preparation for Part 4 of this module we are asked to take a look at the work of Douglas Huebler, entitled Variable Piece No. 101. For this work Huebler make a series of portraits of Bernd Becher, using typologies that correspond almost directly to that used by August Sander (Hughes, 2007). Huebler asked Becher to pose in the following order to depict these types: “a priest, a criminal, a lover, an old man, a policeman, an artists, Bernd Becher, a philosopher, a spy and a nice guy” (Hughes, 2007).

After a few months had passed Huebler sent a differently ordered list and copies of the prints in no particular order to Becher and asked him to match the prints with the captions. Becher’s returned list came back as: “1. Bernd Becher; 2. Nice Guy; 3. Spy; 4. Old Man; 5. Artist; 6. Policeman; 7. Priest; 8. Philosopher; 9. Criminal; 10. Lover” (Hughes, 2007).

Douglas Huebler, Variable Piece No. 101, West Germany, 1973
Douglas Huebler, Variable Piece No. 101, West Germany, 1973, Los Angeles MOCA exhibition

This explanation together with the prints, in the order that Becher returned them to Huebler, form the Variable Piece #101, which was exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art in 1995-96 in the exhibition Reconsidering the Object of Art and also at another exhibition in Limoges, France in 1992-93. However, in neither of the exhibitions is the original order of prints revealed. The Limoges prints, though, are numbered and seem to correspond to Becher’s associations. But we can see that the set of images are not quite the same. The first and the third images in both sets are different, creating a further complication in reading the images. Normally one would expect a caption to illustrate truthfully what the image is, but in Huebler’s work, this is confused.

For in the fight for “final form: between the photographs and the statement – a fight the statement clearly loses – Huebler signals exactly that which his photographic portraits undermine with exacting precision: the attempt to fix the work, and the person depicted therein onto a static and invariable ground. It is not just the “final form” of Variable Piece #101 that is simultaneously asserted and denied, in other words: it is also the “final form” of Bernd Becher.

(Hughes, 2007)

By placing his portraits of Becher in a grid pattern, Huebler is paying homage to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of water towers were made “flatly, objectively, and systematically, devoid of subjective depth and physiognomic resonance” (Hughes, 2007). But at the same time, he is also presenting us with images that are the exact opposite of Becher’s work. The portraits are depicting different personalities; Becher is distorting his face into a variety of strange expressions, eliciting some type of emotion from the viewer, what Hughes (2007) refers to as “the overly expressive, near-histrionic emotionalism of New York School photography à la Arbus, Avedon, et alia.”  Huebler effectively cancels out both methods by mixing them together.

Douglas Huebler, Variable Piece # 101, 1973
Douglas Huebler, Variable Piece # 101, 1973, Limoges exhibition

Shuffling the order of his images is something that Huebler employs in the majority of his work. In an interview in 1992 he states: “I have always scrambled my photographic presentations so that ‘time’ would not be read through a series of sequential events but rather as an all-over field … which translates the particular into unity” (Hughes, 2007).

We notice in Huebler’s Variable #101 that he plays around with semiotics. His signifier does not match up to the signified, he has reordered the meanings and the sign is now confused.

A portrait does not reveal the identity of a person in its entirety. As Barthes (1981, p. 10) so aptly states: “Once i feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes; I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing.’ I instantly make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.” In Huebler’s Variable Piece #101 Hughes (2007) reflects that it “programmatically conceals the (already) concealed relation between identity and its representation” … and “is personified in his portraits of Becher.”

Huebler’s work effectively turns the tables onto Becher himself. Becher’s photographic practice was one of photographing architectural structures, devoid of any subjective content, or people, employing August Sander’s methods of dispassionate photography.  By displaying his photos in a grid he was inviting comparisons in the similarity of the structures. He also collaborated with his wife and this created an anonymous body of work effectively suppressing the author’s individuality. Huebler “voids Sander’s typological categories as Becher makes faces for the camera” (Hughes, 2007).

Huebler’s Variable Piece #101 collapses the connection between image and text and thereby creates more mystery around the identity of Bernd Becher. Even Becher himself seems to be confused about his own identity. Indeed, there is no way we can guess which set of images and captions is correct unless we are privy to the original sequence, to which we are denied access. As Hughes (2007)  sums up: “But like Bernd Becher, we can only guess who is who, never knowing when we are right and when we are wrong.”

Reference List

Barthes, Roland (1981). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.

Hughes, Gordon (2007). Game Face: Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture. Art Journal, 66 (4), 52-69.


Douglas Huebler, Variable Piece No. 101, West Germany, 1972-7 Available at: https://www.google.ca/search?q=douglas+huebler+variable+piece+101&biw=1440&bih=734&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwirirW-gPvMAhVB3mMKHcqKBEc4ChD8BQgGKAE#imgrc=AdM7TnnS7o-swM%3A [Accessed 27 May, 2016]

Douglas Huebler, Variable Piece No. 101 Available at: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/524247212848361801/ [Accessed 27 May, 2016]