A rebus (/ˈriːbəs/) is a puzzle device that combines the use of illustrated pictures with individual letters to depict words or phrases. For example: the word “been” might be depicted by a rebus showing an illustrated bumblebee next to a plus sign (+) and the letter “n”. It was a favourite form of heraldic expression used in the Middle Ages to denote surnames.Rebus – Wikipedia
I wasn’t aware this was a thing with a name until I started reading Roland Barthes’ Image Music Text. He talks – in the context of a photograph printed in a newspaper – about the meaning carried by the image, and the meaning carried by the caption:
The totality of the information is thus carried by two different structures (one of which is linguistic). These two structures are co-operative but, since their units are heterogeneous, necessarily remain separate from one another: here (in the text) the substance of the message is made up of words; there (in the photograph) of lines, surfaces, shades. Moreover, the two structures of the message each occupy their own defined spaces, these being contiguous but not homogenized’, as they are for example in the rebus which fuses words and images in a single line of reading. Hence, although a press photograph is never without a written commentary, the analysis must first of all bear on each separate structure; it is only when the study of each structure has been exhausted that it will be possible to understand the manner in which they complement one another.
There is something to unpick here about how we read photographs when presented with or without captions. But mostly, I was just reminded of one of my favourite pieces of corporate iconography, Paul Rand’ for his’s Eye-Bee-M image produced for IBM in the 1980’s. I’m old enough to have dim memories of this printed in the newspaper. Apparently, it’s still in use today.
I also wonder if, like photomontage, this might be an (admittedly tiny) medium to explore with the photographic image.