Camera Lucida: reflections on Barthes’ reflections of photography

These notes are a preliminary response to Camera Lucida (at LibraryThing, Wikipedia), a naïve reading without reference to Barthes’ other works, inspired by the modernist bent to some of the material presented last semester at COFA (SOMA9714).

They’re an attempt to make the most of my frustrations with the book, and assess what aspects of Camera Lucida I can be fruitfully use to discuss photography. I have three reservations about the work: its philosophical content, the phenomenological approach, and its characterisation of photography as referential. I discuss these below, after a brief overview.

Barthes begins the book, the last published before his death, with the question of whether photography has a ‘genius’ of its own, an essence. In the first half of the book, he establishes the concepts of studium and punctum. Much has been written about these two terms; so rather than summarise Barthes here, I offer a couple of representative quotes. The studium is an ‘application to a thing’ (section 10) – “To recognize the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s intentions” (s. 11). The punctum is a mark or prick, a very personal impression – “it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there” (s. 23), “…a kind of subtle beyond” (s. 23). The question of photography’s essence remains very much unsettled at the end of part one however, as Barthes sums up: “Proceeding this way from photograph to photograph…, I had perhaps learned how my desire worked, but I had not discovered the nature (the eidos) of Photography.” (s. 24)

The second half of the book moves on to a different question; the possibility of recognising his recently deceased mother in a photograph. This he does with the Winter Garden Photograph, taken by an unknown photographer in the house where she was born, posing with her brother, when she was just five years old. He says, “I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother” (s. 28), and saw “…the truth for me” (s. 45).

“Something like an essence of the Photograph floated in this particular picture. I therefore decided to ‘derive’ all Photography (its ‘nature’) from the only photograph which assuredly existed for me, and to take it somehow as a guide for my last investigation.” (s. 30)

“…the Winter Garden Photograph was indeed essential, it achieved for me, utopically, the impossible science of the unique being.” (s.28)

Barthes then adds a third lever to his narrative, adding the ‘that-has-been‘ to the studium and the punctum, representing the passage of time since a photo was first captured.

“I now know that there exists another punctum (another ‘stigmatum’) than the ‘detail’. This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (‘that-has-been‘), its pure representation. (s. 39)

So Camera Lucida is a book of two distinct halves, each somewhat in opposition to the other. The first half considers the essence of photography in terms of studium and punctum, while the latter half is a more subjective exploration of how photography interacts with time.

Throughout the book, Barthes oscillates between often poetic prose and philosophy. The philosophy to me however is poorly conceived. This is my first reservation about Camera Lucida, which reads more like a narrative engagement with the subject of photography, as conceived by someone who is neither a practitioner nor knowledgable about its history and practices. He characterises the discipline in a particular way, for instance as basically referential, and passes that off as its essence. Perhaps to categorise Camera Lucida as philosophy is misleading (it is labelled ‘Philosophy / Literature’ on the back cover of the Vintage edition); it is more of a rumination on matters relating to his own experience, for which photography provides a catalyst, perhaps itself a punctum, prompting him to consider how he comes to have this memory of his mother.

Camera Lucida is a phenomenological work (see Wikipedia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Barthes is clear about this – “I am too much of a phenomenologist to like anything but appearances to my own measure” (s. 14), but I think that the approach blocks him off from his stated aims. As a study of “subjective experience and consciousness”, of intentionality, phenomenology is poorly suited to deriving the essence of a shared practice. For me, the most engaging part of the book is the personal narrative about his reaction to the photographs of his mother, and the speculative sections in part two on photography vis-à-vis theatre and cinema. Studium, punctum and ‘that-has-been‘ are likely to be useful analytical terms, but they derive their currency from their popularity, not as referents to well-thought-out ideas.

My final reservation about Camera Lucida is Barthes’ unsympathetic characterisation of photography. That he only considers the documentary aspects of photography is disappointing, and in itself limits the applicability of his analysis to an historical reference. But his limited view extends beyond the ‘pure contingency’ of the photograph as “always something that is represented” (s. 12) to a dismissal of all artistic aspects. Again, some quotes will demonstrate:

“The Photographer’s ‘second sight’ does not consist in ‘seeing’ but in being there.” (s. 20)

“Photography is anything but subtle except in the hands of the very greatest portraitists.” (s. 5)

“In Photography, the presence of the thing (at a certain past moment) is never metaphoric.” (s. 33)

Barthes does not allow for photography the power that painting is allowed, of presenting an artistic treatment. Photography is usually of a subject (but not always), but Barthes’ ‘referent’ is not necessarily what a photograph is about. He is not open to the possibility that a photograph is not of an object per se, and simply cannot see beyond the referentiality of photography. The author’s ‘ rediscovery’ of his mother could have been achieved by any art form or representation at all; that Barthes considers this only possible with photography is mere fancy. Studium and punctum do indeed apply readily to photographs, but just as well to any image at all.

I enjoyed reading Camera Lucida: it is full of imagination and stylish prose. It also serves as a useful counterpoint to my own undeveloped thoughts and theories about photography. I don’t understand why the book has gained such currency in the theory of the discipline – perhaps because it the last book published before his death: at some future point I might examine the secondary literature. Perhaps I’m not doing justice to the poetic vision of Barthes, who has developed a theory of photography almost from first principles. Certainly there are some wonderful passages evoking his feelings for his mother, and how the Winter Garden photo sums her up entirely, and not at all. In precluding metaphor though, Barthes has rendered a untenable and unattractive vision of photography. You need only consider contemporary artists like Rosemary Laing and Tracey Moffatt to see the allegorical power of ‘art photography’, and to see how Barthes’ vision offers little for their interpretation.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Posted on July 28, 2013

One Response to “Camera Lucida: reflections on Barthes’ reflections of photography”

Leave a Reply