Camera Lucida Reflections on Photography: Roland Barthes

Camera Lucida by Roland BarthesThis book is undoubtedly one of the most challenging that I have ever read. Were it not for the required reading element, I would probably have binned it after the third chapter. Barthes has an extremely irritating (for me at any rate) way of writing. As stated in the foreword by Geoff Dyer (Barthes, 1980, p. x):

Barthes liked “to write beginnings” and multiplied this pleasure by writing books of fragments, of repeated beginnings; he also liked prebeginnings: “introductions, sketches,” ideas for projected books, books he planned one day to write. … The paradox, then, is that this man who liked first words (and adored paradoxes) offered his provisional findings as if they were the last word. Needless to say, this last word was always susceptible to further elaboration and refinement, to further beginnings. This is how Barthes’s prose acquires its signature style of compression and flow, a summing-up that is also a perpetual setting-forth.

No wonder my head was spinning! Even with this forewarning I found the text difficult to manage. So in this review I will only touch on a few pertinent highlights and leave further exploration to another time, where I’m sure this book will crop up again and necessitate a further reading of the text.

Barthes comes across a photograph of Napoleon’s brother and he is in awe of the fact that he is gazing into the eyes of someone who gazed into the eyes of Napoleon. This occurrence triggered his desire to find out what the ‘essential features’ of photography were. He goes on to say that the photography cannot be classified. That which a photograph produces can only occur once. We can never go back and “retake” that moment. It is forever past. It has become history. A photograph can never be separated from its subject (referent) and at the same time the photograph is always invisible. It is not the photograph (the rectangular shape of paper) that we take note of, but rather the image that is imprinted thereupon.

And so Barthes appoints himself as the ‘mediator for all Photography’ (Barthes, 1980, p. 8). He states that there are three practices involving the photograph: that of the Operator (who is the photographer), the Spectator (the audience who is viewing the photograph) and the target (the person or thing that is being photographed, i.e. the referent). Barthes refers to the referent as the Spectrum and which he says adds to every photograph ‘the return of the dead’ (Barthes, 1980, p. 9). He is of the opinion that photography consists of two processes, namely the chemical process (the way light reacts to certain chemicals) and the physical process (the photographer’s vision and framing). Barthes admits that he has never been an ‘operator’ and, therefore, he can only use two experiences to further investigate what the essential features of photography are, namely the ‘observed subject’ and that of the ‘subject observing’.

In his search to discover the essence of the photograph Barthes finds two reoccurring patterns when looking at photographs. He decides to analyse his emotions when viewing a photo and notices that when he comes a photograph that he likes ‘it animates [him] and [he] animates it’ (Barthes, 1980, p. 20). He wants to delve into photography by seeing and feeling and thereby noticing, observing and thinking on the image. He describes the first pattern as that which is displayed, the general interest of the photograph so to speak – gestures, people, cultural objects, etc. This he calls the studium. However, the studium does not make him “feel”. It engages him in a sort of background sort of way. What does grab his attention is what he calls the punctum. The punctum is that isolated “something” in the photograph that causes you to do a double take. In Barthes’ words ‘it pricks’ you.

I recently saw a photo from the BBC News Magazine online in the feature Bringing the front line to UK streets. This is a series of photos of the British troops preparing to leave for Afghanistan and while I was scrolling through the photos, I came across a head and shoulders photo of a female soldier dressed in her battle fatigues holding a half eaten lollipop. I immediately recognized the lollipop (for me at any rate) as being the punctum in this image. The lollipop caused me to do a double take and examine the photo in greater depth.

For Barthes’ this image was Koen Wessing’s Nicaragua (1979), which is a photo of three soldiers walking the war torn streets of Nicaragua and two nuns are crossing the intersection behind them. One does not expect to find elements of war and peace (or innocence) in the same image. In the words of La Grange (2005, p. 80):

 In recognizing the studium, the spectator understands and recognizes the photographer’s intentions and is part of a cultural contract between creators and consumers, it allows the spectator to discover the operator’s (the photographer’s) intentions.

The punctum can be a partial feature or object in the photograph or it can fill the whole image.

In the second part of Camera Lucida, Barthes is concerned with the death of his mother, her passing and his subsequent grief. Upon going through old photographs he is concerned that he doesn’t find the essence of his mother in any of the photographs he is looking at. He finds only fragments that he recognises. At last he comes across one of his mother as a very young girl of approximately five years of age in the Winter Garden with her older brother. Here he finds the essence of his mother, the sweet, naïve, kind nature reflected back at him from a time when he was not yet born. This photo also embodies his grief. He now uses this Winter Garden photo as the standard to measure all other photos against, but does not reproduce the photograph in his book as he states that it will not mean anything to anyone else.

It is in this photograph that he comes to realize the true essence of the photograph, namely ‘that-has-been’. A photograph cannot exist without whatever was in front of the viewfinder at the time the photograph was taken. A painting can be done from memory, but not a photograph. And so he derives the point that a photograph is related to death and he regards photographers as agents of death. Time is another punctum that Barthes discovers while looking at Alexander Gardner’s photograph of Lewis Payne in a jail cell. The realization that he was looking a photograph of a man who was dead, but at the time the photograph was taken ‘was going to die’. ‘By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future’ (Barthes, 1980, p 96).

Barthes concludes his book stating that society wants to tame photography, which can only be done in two ways. The first is to make Photography into an art ‘for no art is mad’ (Barthes, 1980, p. 117). The second method is to make photography so banal and general. This is already happening our consumer driven image crazy society. He concludes by stating (Barthes, 1980, p. 119):

 Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other: tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits (to leaf through a magazine at the hairdresser’s, the dentist’s); mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time: a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy.

Such are the two ways of the Photograph. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.

Reference List

Barthes, R. (1980). Camera Lucida Reflections on Photography. Paperback edition. New York: Hill and Wang.

La Grange, Ashley (2005). Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Oxford: Focal Press.

Loyn, David. (2014) Bringing the front line to UK streets [online]. BBC News Magazine. Available from [Accessed 5 October, 2014].


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