Category Archives: Coursework Notes

Rhetoric of the Image

This is a short summary of a hand-written summary I produced in June 2017. It’s included here in chronological order (though it was added to my blog on 13 Jan 18) as it provides some background to the essay development in Assignment 3.

My Contextual Studies essay contains quite a chunk of analysis based on Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image (RotI)

Roti is quite a sort essay examining how photographs work. It kicks off with the assertion that photography is not a language because it is un-coded and then proceeds to examine how an image delivers meaning without being a formal language.

A typical image contains three message types:

  1. Linguistic – any writing in the image. Note that the writing may be literal or symbolic in its own right. The linguistic message has two roles: Anchorage (answering What is it?) and Relay (working with the image to produced a higher meaning)
  2. Coded Iconic – the interpreted meaning of the things in the image
  3. Non-code Iconic (or literal) – the things in the image themselves.

Notes that it is practically impossible to separate the the literal and coded aspects of the image, and suggests it is this which provides naturalness to the message – does he mean believability?

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Sekula and the Archive

The course notes ask me to consider Sekula’s essay ‘Reading an Archive’ which by considering photographic archives works through a number of thorny issues in photography – including

  • the idea of authorship (who is the author of an archive? Is it the photographer? the commissioning business? Subsequent curators who have selected for a particular purpose?)
  • are photos historical documents or aesthetic objects? Being Sekula he leads the discussion from the initial hypothesis that they might be historic documents, through what a appears as a claim that any such historic use is controlled by the bourgeois culture, to the idea that they must inevitably (and perhaps paradoxocally) be aesthetic objects. He then dismisses the aesthetic value as ‘romatic hyperbole’.

This leads to a discussion about where photographs sit on the science/art continuum. He makes the perfectly valid point that it is both an art and a science..it sits somewhere in between, and then argues that this creates an illusory idea that photography is a benign way for people to express creativity. Again, being Sekula, he goes on to dismiss this as one-sided lyricism and suggests tat we need to re-model discussions of photography from an art historic basis and consider how it work on society instead.

I can’t help feeling that as a left over of the far left view of society that this analysis makes some sense and perhaps unexpectedly, it has worn well in an age of mobile phone cameras, selfies and vast and easily available reservoirs of photography such as Flickr and Instagram. While the art-historical line still remains in galleries, the business of money making with photography has moved into social media, with product placement and manufactured ‘social media’ personalities selling beauty products and any number of other items through almost clandestine marketing.

The Work of John Constable in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

W are asked to consider some comments from Kracauer about the potential for objects to become known by their photographic appearance and compare this with Benjamin’s thesis about mechanical reproduction.

In December 2014 I visited an exhibition about John Constable at the V&A which illustrates perfectly my thoughts on these texts.

The Hay Wain is one of Constables most widely known works…you can find reproductions of it in books, as prints to hang on your wall and probably as paint by numbers versions for all I know. A such it is a perfect illustration of Kracauer’s point. I was fully expecting it to be about 18” wide, and was completely taken aback to discover it is at least 6’ wide! My expectations were driven by the reproductions. I doubt I am alone in this …people remark on how small the Mona Lisa or Stonehenge are for much the same reason.

By contrast, I’m not sure that Benjamin’s suggestion about democratisation holds true in that it’s meaning does not appear to have changed much with the advent of reproduction. Why is this? One reason may be that Benjamin’s thesis is most applicable where it is to all intents and purposes impossible to distinguish the original from the copy.

By way of a second illustration, one of the most fascinating aspects of the exhibition for me were Constables notebooks, which were as small as the Hay Wain was large. I have to take it on trust that they were the originals, but given that assumption of authenticity they had a power to fascinate that an admitted reproduction would not. None of that aura would have been destroyed by the existence of reproductions.

This supports my view that Benjamin’s thesis is not applicable to artworks in general, and the large queues at blockbuster art exhibitions would seem to support that. The artworks are not  “emancipated from ritual” as he suggests…the ritual has simply changed from having a high priest as the intermediary to having a curator or museum director as the intermediary. No longer do we have to bow down before the image..we have to hand over our credit card. No longer do we take bread and wine…we take souvenirs home with us. Ritual is ritual by any other name.

Even photography has not been as widely affected as Benjamin proposes…people still have an urge to visit Tate Modern or the Taylor Wessing prize exhibition to see the originals…setting aside that we don’t even know what an original is when it comes to a photographic print.

None of this is to say that Benjamin’s ideas were not relevant at the time he wrote then down…he cannot have foreseen blockbuster art shows…and he cannot have foreseen just how all-pervasive and democratic photography would become…indeed it might be possible to argue that it’s sheer commonplace-ness has restored the aura to the originals – at least as far as art goes.

Music makes an interesting counterpoint. A concert, of whatever variety, is one off. The only “authentic experience” is being there. But mechanical reproduction brings it into our living room. One consequence of this has been that people have established favourites…”Nessan Dorma” for example. This has fed back to the producers of “authentic experiences” or concerts as they are more often called, so that now concerts will sometimes consist of edited highlights of full works of art – the aural equivalent of going to see a favourite corner of the Hay Wain. In this instance the wide scale availability of mechanical reproductions has undoubtedly had an impact on the way music is perceived and used.

So, in summary, I’m with Kracauer but think Benjamin’s analysis, in as much as I understand it, is not fully supported by subsequent events.