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An Image Within An Image

Images are rarely simple. Life is complex, and so too are the things which reflect life. Often there are images within images, layers stacked on top of each other, which provide more than one fixed meaning. In the image discussed here, there are literally multiple images within the image. This often provides depth, but also means that the image is difficult to deconstruct. Moreover, as Roland Barthes discusses in his piece Rhetoric of the Image, there are multiple levels to an image; an image does not simply tell one story. It tells several, on multiple levels.

If one can break down the image, though, one can gain a better understanding of the idea behind the image. In the case of this image, one can view the images as a whole, as well as individually. This will help the viewer understand the meanings behind the whole.

Of Barthes' break down of message layers, the linguistic message is the most obvious and easily understood. To understand the linguistic message, one must be able to find and locate the text in the document, and then read and interpret its meaning. The text helps the viewer understand the purpose of the image, and give an anchor to ground them. An ad containing the text: “The world’s best pasta” suggests the image probably has something to do with pasta. One might guess that the creator wanted the viewer to like the pasta. In the image presented, however, the linguistic message is minimal. There is some text towards the top of the page; the words are blurred, but they look like part of a newspaper story. The only text that is readily visible is ‘offering’ and “single-sex” and “classrooms.” This seems to have little bearing on the image as a whole, though. It is relevant only in that it makes clear the idea that one of the images is from a newspaper. Similarly, there is a little bit of text on the upper right side of the image. The text is located in a book, and says “ch”. The text is part of a word, nothing more. Once again, it has no meaning in and of it self. However, it does give meaning to what surrounds it. It makes clear that part of what was photographed was a book.

Iconic code is more significant for understanding this image, though. Iconic messages are when information is provided to the viewer through commonly understood cultural perceptions and connotations. This image shows a book lying open to an image of a soldier kissing a boy, while other images lie scattered around it. There is no comforting background in this image; the photo was taken from above, and the only thing that can be seen besides other images is what looks like wood. However, the image is not uncomfortable; quite the opposite. The angle of the image allows the viewer to feel as though they are looking down at the table on which the book is open. The image in the book is dominant, and draws the viewer’s attention. The image appears to be from WWII, based on the soldier’s uniform and the clothing on both the boy and the people in the background of the image. The soldier and the boy are the only people in focus in the entire image. All of the other photographs are out of focus, and the other people in the WWII image are so blurred out that they appear almost to be faceless.

This pulls on McCloud’s theory of simplified facial recognition in comics – it makes the viewer feel more engaged with the people with blurred faces. We empathize with them, feeling like awkward observers of a private moment between father and son. All of the other images serve the same purpose as the people in the background of the WWII image. They serve as a background, giving place and location to the focus of the image; the book/WWII image. But, when you look closer, you can see individual stories in each photo. The newspaper clipping shows a redheaded man running with a goofy grin on his face. The image next to it seems to be of a girl standing in front of bricks. The images underneath the book are harder to see. There is a dark Polaroid at the bottom that might be the silhouette of two people. There is another that might be a purple flower. The third is hard to tell. But all of them seem to have a story, in the same way that the WWII photo does. The focus isn’t on them, but the story is still present.

The final message is the non-iconic, literal message. This is a message that conveys the denoted meaning of the text; the literal sense of the image. The image as a whole is structured to give a sense of seeing a book and photos scattered on a table. There are three Polaroid pictures on the bottom of the image, and a news clipping and a photo at the top. The book lies in the center, and is open to an image of a man kissing a boy on the cheek.

The image presented is, at first glance, very simple. It is simply a picture of a book and a scattering of images lying on a table. But using Barthes' messages, the viewer can try to understand the various messages inherent in an image. A simple image can contain a variety of stories; the hope is that this image successfully creates such an impression.


All images in this photo, as well as the main photo itself, were taken by me. The main images are located on: The Polaroids are hosted on my computer. The newspaper clipping is a scan of the Washington Post page that used my images for an article.

Brief Description: 

A photo of a book of WWII propaganda images from England. Superimposed in the image are photos I have also taken over the years; a collection of Polaroids, a newspaper clipping, and a more resent portrait image.


I'm amazed by your photography! It's so powerful on its own, but layered together it really creates a story!

Thank you, I appreciate! :)

This is really beautiful. I can't really describe what I'm looking at, but I like it a lot. My only concern with your essay is that it would be easier to read if you spaced out the relevant paragraphs and perhaps break up the central paragraph. But otherwise, I like the idea of an image containing multiple stories that leaves it up to the viewer to interpret.

I just went in and fixed the paragraph spacing, and I'll go in and try to break up the central paragraph now. Thanks again! :)

The image itself is very clean and well done! Where did the central image come from??

PS There were a few places where you dropped the "e" off the end of Barthes' name!

All of the images were taken by me. The WWII photo was from a collection of WWII propaganda I was researching a few semesters ago. I don't know the name of the book offhand, I'm sorry. And thanks, I will go in and fix that!

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