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Filters as Connotation: Barthes and Faux-Vintage

Roland Barthes discusses the myth of the natural sign and its relation to photographs; his text “Rhetoric of the Image” examines exactly the manner in which meaning is able to manifest in the image. However, where Barthes mounts an analysis of an advertisement consisting of images and text, I will examine the trend of imposing a faux-vintage filter upon digital photographs.

In his text, Barthes is able to easily identify intention. It’s no secret that advertisements are inherently tools of persuasion.

But finding the exact intention behind any one of the myriad of photos on social media may be trickier. By placing emphasis on the overall intention of the image, some difficulty arises when you apply Barthes’ framework to photos that haven’t been composed for an apparent reason (photos of happenstance, snapshots, etc.). While you would be able to locate a culturally-situated meaning, this meaning would likely have been achieved without forethought.

Nathan Jurgensen identifies a trend among Instagram users in which a faux-vintage filter is placed on an uploaded image. Barthes identifies the use of filters as being an example of connotation, and so this slice of digital photography is an ideal place to examine (158). I contend that when you upload to social media, there is an inherent intention to your image; the chosen filter becomes a convenient point of intersection with Barthes’ framework.

The mechanical capturing of an image implies an objectivity and naturalness of the photo – it is therefore ironic that users are adding an obvious connotation in order to increase that sense of naturalness. Far from being an example of Barthes’ hypothetical “Edenic state of the image”, these faux-vintage photos utilize the sign of the vintage photograph to naturalize their meaning; this is an attempt to infuse the digital photograph with the properties of a physical photograph to fabricate a degree of importance and legitimacy (158).

Images using this filter reference an older form of medium in order to invoke authenticity and a sense of nostalgia that is otherwise unobtainable without altering reality; this has the intended outcome of drawing further distance between the here-now and the there-then by infusing the image with an artificial sense of antiquity (Barthes 159). In this way, the image is construed as being entrenched in an imagined canon of vintage photography and finds alignment with other vintage images contriving the notion that this image, too, is important enough to be saved.


Roland Barthes. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Image, Music, Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 32-51.

About brianmccle

uwaterloo - MA rhetoric&communication


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