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Session 2: Reading Words and Images

Planes of Expression and Abstraction

Words are arbitrary signifiers; they don't resemble what they describe and they require the knowledge of language, linguistic forms, rules and culturally learnt definitions.

​How something is said, written or designed affects the 'reading of meaning' and this is called the 'plane of expression', (e.g. fonts used). ​Images are iconic signifiers because they resemble what they describe and they are usually learnt/viewed/experienced before words, (e.g. memories are experienced before we use language to frame them). The 'plane of abstraction' refers to how the way an image is captured and rendered visually affects the 'reading of meaning', (e.g.photographs, drawings, icons).

Types of Anchorage

Barthes stated that anchorage is used to describe the 'relay' between words and visuals and they are rarely not placed together, such as on webpages, illustrated books, packaging and advertising. In the book 'Understanding Comics', Scott McCloud listed the different types:

Word specific - words (text or verbal) that provide all or most of the information needed to decode a message, for example the 'Star Wars' crawl text'.

Image specific - images that provide all or most of the information needed to decode a message, for example in Jesse Lonergan's comic 'Hedra'.

Dual message - words and images that communicate the same message, for example in children's early learning books/flashcards.

Interdependent/convergent - words and images that work together whilst contributing information separately, to convey an idea they couldn't do alone, for example, in comic books.

Parallel/divergent - words and images that follow different paths or communicate ideas that don't intersect, for example also in comic books.

Denotation and Connotation

​Denotation is the the primary meaning; the non-coded, most immediate reading of a sign. Connotation is the secondary reading, for example the reader may pick up on style, production or materials which triggers off associated readings or link to other concepts.

Barthes stated that coded interpretation (myth) is relayed at the level of connotation and argues that signs are polysemous and open to many interpretations. For example:


Denotation - domesticated four legged carnivore

Connotation - loyalty, obedience, sense of smell, breed, Pavlov, cultural perspective, Beatles song lyrics (intertextuality - echos other cultural texts)

signifier + signified = denotative sign and connotative signifier

Connotative signifier + connotative signified = connotative sign + connotative signifier

The Treachery of Images

The 'Treachery of Images' is a painting by surrealist painter René Magritte (1929) that shows an a pipe with the French translation for 'this is not a pipe' below it.

The literal reading of the text has denotations of 'this is not a pipe' and the signature, handwritten in the French language as a statement of fact. This links to connotations of personal expression and of the creation being of value, as well as the work 'pipe' signifying associations of its own. The image denotes a realistic oil painting of a pipe (an iconic signifier). This links to many connotations, such as smoking, bad health, being old-fashioned, male symbols, status symbols. The plane of abstraction signifies the artist is skilled as the painting is almost as realistic as a photograph. It also has intertextual connotations such as Sherlock Holmes and Peaky Blinders. However, these connotations are dependant of the time and place it is being viewed.

The anchorage used here is 'interdependent/converging'; the text and image work together whilst contributing information separately. At first glance they convey contradictory messages but it is a 2D illusion of a 3D object; the painting itself is not a pipe; it is an image of a pipe.



  • Barthes, R. - 'The Photographic Message from Image/Music/Text' (pages 15 -27)

  • ​McCloud, S. - 'Understanding Comics' (pages 152 - 161)






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