Camera Lucida chapter 1

Barthes’ Camera Lucida is a winding little book.  It is difficult, but not if taken a chapter or two at a time.

Chapter 1

Barthes, in his earlier years, experiences an epiphany.  He notices within a stronger and distinct passion for photography over cinema. He describes the interest in cinema as oppositional, rather than merely preferential to Cinema.  Presumably, the strength of this preference propelled him to get at the ontological status of photography or put another way, what is the quintessence, the essential feature of photography?  Does it have its own genius or can photography only be separated from cinema when one speaks of the technological distinctions?

Camera Lucida ch. 2

To get at the essence of photography, Barthes first examines how we currently conceptualize it.  From an empirical perspective, we label photographs the work of amateurs or professionals.  From the rhetorical perspective, we divide photographs up into landscapes, objects, portraits, and nudes.  And from what he calls the Aesthetic, we label photographs instances of realism or pictorialism.  Barthes seems to find all these descriptions lacking, for they are externally imposed upon the photograph and don’t get at a photograph’s essence.

Moving on, he claims that a photograph “reproduces to infinity” what cannot be existentially re-enacted.  What does this mean?  What he seems to be saying is that the photograph absolutizes the particular.  The particular is not obliterated for the sake of the next thing, which is what we would encounter in our daily consciousness and film as well.  Just moments supplanting moments.

Additionally, the photograph is indistinguishable from its referent.  Barthes wants us to think of the photograph as an inseparable duality.  Like those fish that swim along with sharks.  Can you summon up a mental picture of that?  There is the photograph (A picture of symbiotic fish and shark) and it’s referent (the fish and shark).  Extract the referent and you destroy the photograph. The photograph, on this understanding, does not stand a part from the referent.  So if the referent cannot be subtracted, what subjects justify themselves as photographable?    There can be no principle of marking this or that moment of contingency and without such a justificatory principle, we cannot get photographic images to be the signs necessary for something as dignified as a language.  Photographs cannot be signifiers.

Camera Lucida Chapter 3

Barthes, unwilling to subscribe to any particular reductionist explanation of photography, begins anew by examining a handful of photographs that really matter to him.  Perhaps, he can get at the essence of photography through his own analysis, or maybe he will find that each photograph has its own science and that it is non-sense to speak of the universal in regards to photography.  Both routes appear open in this third chapter.

Barthes initiates chapter 4 by claiming that 3 practices can be applied to a photograph.  The operator is the one who takes the photograph, we are the spectators, and then there is the subject or what he calls the spectrum of the photograph.  He employs the term “spectrum” rather than subject for he likes the reference to the unrepeatable spectacle in a photograph.  Since Barthes is not a photographer, he cannot speak about photography from the perspective of making a picture.  He will limit his discourse to being an observed subject and a subject that observes or to use his own terminology, he will speak of photography from the perspective of the spectator and the spectrum.

Camera Lucida ch. 5

Barthes begins chapter five by noting that the experience of knowingly being photographed is quite strange and causes a change within.  When the lens trains itself upon his being and he poses, Barthes says he transforms himself into an image.  What I take him to mean here is that he is something different than if he unbeknownst to him was photographically captured in his natural and authentic being.  He wants a moral character to be captured.  A feat that is pretty achievable when one hands himself over to a known portraiture painter, but how can this be done with a camera’s mimicry and a photographer?   Barthes wants his profound self to be captured by the camera, but this seems impossible when the self is a process, constantly shifting, and the photograph freezes an instant.  This is an interesting distinction that Barthes is pointing out between photography and painting. Painting, though a single image, seems capable of communicating idealized versions of our selves, whereas a photograph (unless produced by a very gifted photographer) cannot.  Photography is really quite a revolutionary act.   Not only does it typically not present the idealized self, but it is available to the individual in a way painting never was.  A painting of one’s self was something typically reserved for the elites.  Here, in photography, we see the emergence of our identity as other.  This is why we feel so strange viewing photos of ourselves on paper.  Note:  One has to wonder how the advent of digital photography and social media affect Barthes’ general views.  Do Facebook and iPhones refute him in some way or are his points given added merit in this digital age?

When we have our photograph taken at least four things are going on. 1) I am who I think I am, 2) I am the one I want to project onto the media, 3) I am the one the photographer conceives of, and 4) I am used in service of the photographer’s art.  This is why it is strange to have our picture taken.  It kind of feels like we are impersonating ourselves.

Barthes cannot get over this idea of his subjectivity being turned into an object and likens it to a little death. When we become total image, all sorts of meanings can be attached to us.  It as if we lose control of ourselves.  We cease to be a being.  Perhaps this is why it feels sort of wrong when we take a person’s picture without their permission or why we may be hesitant to have our photo taken.  Perhaps the objectification of photography deprives us of what we ultimately view as sacred, specifically our subjectivity.  Since death seems to be the essence of photography for Barthes, he can really only take pleasure in the sounds the camera makes as it takes his photo.  At the time he was writing this, cameras were pretty noisy with all the gears, the winding, and the audible clicking.

Barthes, even at the time of this essay, felt bombarded by images.  Those photos admitted into the canon occasionally delight him or speak to him, but he seems to indicate that they agitate him just as often.  He makes the further claim that there is not one photographer whose corpus he enjoys entirely, in case one were thinking that it was simply a matter of finding the right artist to identify with.  All of this underscores photography as an uncertain art.  Themes and styles don’t seem to apply here like they may in other art forms.  Maybe that is because there is a hyperactivity in regards to the proclamation of our tastes.  “I like this one. No, I don’t like that one”.  To know for sure, Barthes turns inward to see if there is a problem with how he goes about adjudicating photographs.

Camera Lucida Ch. 7-8

Barthes can’t really say what causes interest in particular photographs.  As I understand him, there is not a unifying mood that drives our taste.  Some images may remind us of a love, or may horrify us or inspire a host of feelings in between.  Interest doesn’t seem like quite the right word for our attraction to certain photographs, so he trades it in for “advenience” and sometimes “adventure”.  If a photograph inexplicably interests him, then the picture advenes.  Now before the chapter closes Barthes introduces another term:  animation.  From what I can piece together, countless photographs wash over him not eliciting any sort of internal animation; however, did we not just give the name advenes to the property of a photograph that interests him?  How do these terms fit together?  He seems to be saying that a photograph first animates him and then advenes or takes him on an adventure.    So it seems like animation is the beginning of interest and adventure is the sustained interest.  One wonders if it is possible to be animated by a photograph only then to be dissappointed in regards to adventure or are animation and adventure an intermixed duality of interest?

In Chapter 8, Barthes feels the need to explain his psychological condition thus far into his investigation of photography.   He seems to express guilt or unease that what initially started as a phenomenological ontology (to get at the essence of the photograph) has been reduced to his particular emotions in regards to certain photographs.  Perhaps the paradoxical tension of producing a universal account from his own subjectivity is gnawing at him.  Barthes does not appear to be disavowing his approach just yet, but intimates he may be relying more on affect than formal logic going forward.

Camera Lucida Chapter 9

Last chapter, I pondered aloud if what animates Barthes about a photograph and its adventure (a.k.a. advenience) are separable?  It seemed possible to me that a photograph could animate, but then disappoint in regards to adventure.  I did not consider that a photograph could not animate or interest at the outset, but that one could then find the adventure in it.  Barthes, in this chapter, displays precisely that.  He tells of us of how causally he flips through the photos of war torn regions, then one day he focuses a little more on a photo that was otherwise banal.  He sees soldiers patrolling in the foreground and nuns scurrying to safety in the background.  This duality of elements shouldn’t be in the same photograph and it sets his mind off on an adventure.  So here we seem to have an example of adventure without animation and we have a conceptual clarification of what adventure is.  Adventure is going to be, at least for now, when a photograph captures heterogenous elements that set off an avalanche of questions, prolonging deep interest in the photograph.  One has to ask here what constitutes the dualities of photographic adventure?  Are certain dualities greater than others?  Are there any rules for these dualities?  Is there something here that will allow Barthes to get more specific?

Camera Lucida Ch. 10

In chapter 10, Barthes will elaborate more upon the duality of photographs that precipitate adventure or advene.  So, let us keep his example of the photograph with soldiers in the foreground and the nuns in the background.  Barthes is going to say that photographs with the quality of advenience are those composed of both a studium and a punctum.  Great.  What does he mean by studium?  By studium, I take him to mean a general scene that we may have a passing understanding of politically, historically, or ethically.  In our example, we are well enough acquainted with war images and settings.  The soldiers in the town under siege would be parts of the studium.  A great deal of war photographs and I guess photographs in general are studium.  We could look at thousands of pictures from a battle or a war and they would likely just consist of studium.  That’s where the punctum comes in, or the other aspect of the duality.  The punctum is going to be that aspect of a photograph that juts out.  It’s screaming that it should not be there or that it is standing out against the backdrop of the studium.  So, in Barthes example, I take the nuns to be the punctum of the photograph.

Barthes tells us in Chapter 11 that photographs merely composed of studium only inspire him to say that he likes them.  He does not love them.  The duality of studium and punctum must be present.  Acknowledgment of the studium allows us, as spectators, to understand the fundamental agenda of the operator or photographer and what the functions of the photograph are.  A photo of a war-torn town without the punctum presumably alerts us to a geopolitical situation that the photographer wants to educate us about.  Unfortunately, photographs with mere studium don’t inspire passionate love.

Camera Lucida Ch.12-13

One of the things Barthes loves about photographs is that they offer up treasure troves of ethnographical information, which would otherwise be obscured in something like a painting.  One can really slow time down here and examine the fine details of a culture captured in a photograph.

In chapter 13, Barthes concludes that as of yet, he has not said anything that would distinguish photography from painting.  Saying that, it is not the similarity with painting that makes a photograph art, but rather (and this seems strange) photography is connected to art via theater. How?  By Death.  What?  What does that even mean?  Barthes explains that theater has its origins in the portrayals of the dead.  Actors would paint themselves up as people who have already expired.  Actors, originally, were both dead and alive.  How does this connect to photography?  We may strive to make a photograph as lifelike as possible, but beneath it we find death.  What I take Barthes to be saying here is that despite the vivacity of the photograph it is an unrepeatable existential instance. Though dressed up, that moment is forever gone.

Barthes imagines, in chapter 14, that the role of the operator or photographer is to surprise or perhaps reveal an aspect of existence taken for granted.  Barthes ennumerated 5 types of surprises for the spectator.  1) When the photograph is rare or contains a rarity, like a two-headed boy. 2) When a photograph immobilizes a particular instance that captures an act which rapidly unfolds.  What would be an example of this in our modern times?  Perhaps the moment when Oswald recoils from Jack Ruby’s shot? 3) the surprise of prowess.  If I understand Barthes correctly here, this applies to someone who repeatedly shoots the same sort of subject and perhaps refines it over the years.  He uses the example of the photographer who did nothing but improve upon the photographing of an exploding milk droplet.  4) The fourth surprise is just contorting technique.  Making things blurry or a exploiting a flaw in the capturing process.  5) lastly, the lucky find.  When things just line up in such a way, that it makes for an interesting photograph.  Right place, right time situation.  I suppose these are the photographs that make going out with one’s camera feel like a scavenger hunt.  All these types of surprising photographs have one thing in common.  Defiance, meaning they defy the rules for what constitutes the interesting or good photograph.  One has to ask here, how does surprise fit into the interest in a photograph?  Does surprise merely jolt us, but then we come to find that such photos don’t really contain the duality of studium and punctum that cause adventure?  Or do all surprising photographs have the quality of advenience by definition?  We shall see.

Camera Lucida ch.15

In chapter 15, Barthes reiterates his claim that a photograph, due to its contingency, cannot signify and communicate meaning….unless it takes on a mask.  What on earth does Barthes mean here?  What Barthes seems to be getting at here is that gifted portrait photographers are capable of creating works that people associate the very essence of a society and a historical age with.  In his book, Barthes cites Avedon’s portrait “Born a Slave” as how a photograph can become a mask.  Interestingly, the photograph as mask can be simultaneously incredibly unsettling, but also too discrete and distinguished to be an obvious tool of political critique.  Many people negatively view photography, for if done correctly, it is by nature politically  ineffective.  Photos that effectively capture the essence of a society are subtle and appeal to us largely aesthetically.  Those of us who can see the political critique in them are already converted to the cause.  The photograph is preaching to the choir and is not really powerful enough to bring people over to the new perspective.  To close out here, what made the photographs as masks so disturbing?  Did they shockingly capture the social epoch?  Did they stigmatize?  No, Barthes says these good photographs don’t shock and awe, they speak to us and make us pensive.  They make us think.  That is why they are frequently censored by the powers at be.  The question one then has to ask is, does Barthes really buy this line that photography is too distinguished to be politically potent?  Why would such photographs disturb and warrant censor if not recognized as powerful?  Something tells me he is being coy here.

In chapter 16, Barthes preoccupies himself with a photo of a house.  He doesn’t say anything terribly significant here.  In chapter 17, the notion of duality in photographs is reintroduced.  He reminds us of how really engaging photos consist of studium and punctum.  What is new here is that he gives those photographs entirely composed of studium a name.  He refers to them as unary, for they do not consist of a duality.  Barthes reaffirms that most photojournalism is unary in nature.  You know what other images Barthes thinks are unary?  Pornographic ones.  Pornographic images are just the explicit presentation of one thing.  There is no secondary factor that could possible give rise to a really intriguing duality.  Generally, the punctum involved in the duality is a detail and there is no rule for what constitutes the punctum or where to search for it.  It by chance gets mixed into the photograph.  In the earlier example of the nuns and the soldiers, it was a mere coincidence that the nuns were in the background.  One cannot arrange in advance or justify the punctum.   Saying all this, the punctum, this little detail, has the power to expand and take over the photograph.  It can either trigger images and memories that transport us to the place of the referent or it can grab our attention so much that it is all we see.  Such an insignificant detail turns out to have a rather large haul of aesthetic power.  What I find a bit perplexing about this discussion, is that the punctum may turn out to be entirely arbitrary.  What if two individuals see the photograph differently and identify conflicting puncta?  Is this a problem for Barthes?  If it isn’t, wouldn’t he have to grant the possibility that all the photographs he considers unary, might actually contain a duality he has not discovered?

Camera Lucida. Ch.21-22

Barthes develops the idea of the punctum a bit more.  In short, the punctum, that fine detail that really makes a photograph interesting, is going to resist conceptualization.  It will be by it’s very nature ambiguous.  If it was easily nameable and could without question signify something, it is unlikely that it would grab our attention.  It is the inexplicable details in a photograph that cause real intrigue.

Barthes recommends assessing the power of a photograph and the punctum contained within, by not looking at it, but by putting it down and moving on.  Does the detail and the image present itself to consciousness further in time?  If the punctum has some latency, then one knows they have discovered something really special.

Camera Lucida Ch.23-24

Though the punctum is contained within the photograph, it is in a sense added or detected and projected by the spectator.  An important difference between photography and film is that film gallops along too quickly for the punctum to be discovered and added.  There is not time to meditate on such a detail.  Pensiveness is eliminated.

The five chapters leading up to chapter 30 primarily contain Barthes pouring over the images of his deceased mother.  He doesn’t really introduce any new themes in these pages, but offers up some very touching passages about this woman of significance and how sons relate to their mothers.

Photographs for Barthes in general represent micro-deaths.  They may contain a duality that causes advenience or become a mask that represents a societal epoch, but most photographs are inert studium.  He thinks the photos of his mother are no different, though he does find a picture of her as a young girl that he believes does in fact capture her essence.  He is going to use that discovery to see if he can develop any new ideas in this last third of the book.  Barthes does not share this photo with us.  He realizes that this particular picture would not be of great interest to us and that we would count it amongst the countless others that merely contained studium.  If that is the case, it is interesting how this deeply personal photograph will allow him to make further disclosures in regards to the universality of photography.

Barthes tells us a little truth about photographs. Even though they are micro-deaths, meaning that the moment cannot be existentially repeated, they give us the sense that the referent of the photograph is alive.  A photograph simultaneously connotes that the referent is alive and dead.  Barthes notes that since the pose is supplanted by other images in cinema, we don’t get this frozen moment of the being.  This is why it can be particularly sad to watch a movie with actors who have already passed.  They are not posed in the same way as a photograph to preserve their realness, their liveliness.

In the 34th chapter, Barthes takes some solace that given the physical and chemical processes involved in the making of a photograph, pictures can definitely be thought of as emanations of posed beings.  It is as if we are still enjoying the light of a long dead star.  It’s quite poetic when you think about it.  Another interesting thing he says here is that color photography always struck him as an unnecessary addition.  We may perhaps feel the same way about Instagram filters.  What do you think of this?  Can the truth of a subject be captured in mere black and white and color is nothing but cosmetic?  Barthes doesn’t really argue this point.  Merely states his preference.  One can see here why the picture of his mother touched him so profoundly and why it being in color would have felt like a mortician applying heavy make-up.

Camera Lucida chapter 35-41

Barthes exploration of photography initially led him to postulate the duality of studium and punctum as the animating source of interest.  Remember that punctum was some detail that jutted out from the general field.  These meditations on the immobilized moment of the photograph and how it presents the past to us as something contemporaneous with the present, lead Barthes to posit that an intriguing photo may have at minimum two punctum.  Whether there can be more he doesn’t say yet.  The second punctum is different from the contrasting detail.  It is not one of form.  It is a temporal one.  The frozen moment presents an intensity of that which has been, offsetting the studium.  This temporal punctum strikes us and exclaims of its subject simultaneoulsy “this will be” and “this has been” p.96., reminding us of our own mortality.  We feel vertiginousness witnessing something so alive and likely now dead or soon will be dead.  Now one has to wonder if every photograph contains both a studium and a temporal punctum, whether all photos can be interesting should we have enough or strive to have enough of a connection to the subject and if so does that radically relativize the universality of photography Barthes has been struggling to articulate?  This need not be the case, especially if he takes care to distinguish how the presence of different puncta affect the way a photograph is received.  If the formal and temporal puncta perform the exact same roles, his discussion of formal puncta may prove extraneous.  Even if the discussion of formal puncta comes to be seen as superfluous, which is not a fair conclusion as of yet, Barthes has still achieved something worthwhile by pointing how the photograph invites a communion with the apparitions and the ghosts of people.

Camera Lucida ch.42-48

Something that needs to be clarified or amplified as we close out this book is that Barthes seems to have contradictory statements on the nature of temporal puncta.  On the one hand, every photo seems capable of catching the essence of the self and therefore giving us this sense of interacting with a specter; however, Barthes simultaneously claims that whether or not that essence is acknowledged will be radically dependent upon how the individual responds to the photo.  Given his strong emotional contact with his mother, he finally finds her essence in one photograph of her as a child.  Even the man who took the photo didn’t realize what he was distilling on paper.  All the other photos of his mother merely capture her likeness, but not her air or what he truly knew her to be.  What are we to draw from this? Is a photograph’s essence totally predicated on the person beholding it?  Does that mean that every photograph captures the air of the being and is just waiting for the right person to view it?  Perhaps, because the temporal punctum of a photograph cannot be discerned by everyone, maybe this allows for the formal punctum to have a unique role again.  The formal punctum would be that available for all and the temporal punctum may be something we supply to the photograph as the result of our own personal feelings.

That seems like a plausible enough explanation until in chapter 46 Barthes starts speaking of the image or that “which has been” coinciding with the truth and the essence of a photograph.  Perhaps, we ought to retain the original idea that every intriguing photograph has a temporal and a formal punctum, but the essence is something projected on to the image later by an emotionally invested individual who can discern the air of the subject.  Let’s do a little inventory.  All these layers of likeness and essence, make things a little complicated.  So 1) we can have photographs that contain the formal punctum and the studium.  Since they have a referent, the temporal punctum will be there as well, giving us the sense that the subject is both alive and dead.  We don’t know if this photo captures the subject’s essence, since that is something left up to the spectator ultimately.  At the very least, we can say that this photo is good and advenes, thus setting us off on adventure, now 2) what if we can discern the essence or air of the being in this photograph?  It would seem that we have the most intense attachment to these types of photos.  Ok, let’s start removing layers.  3) What if we took away the formal punctum, leaving the temporal punctum and the discerned air still there?  I’m not sure that there is much change in the photo’s appreciation if we care about the subject.  There seems to be enough going on here for us to be wholly engaged.  It is not clear if we will even care about a missing formal punctum. 4) What if there is no discernment of essence and there is just the duality of studium and temporal punctum?  To the attuned spectator that may be enough to set off adventure.  I can look at these critiques positively and also negatively.  On the one hand, it seems that with the right education one can find nearly any photo involving a subject to be intriguing.  There are different layers of each photo that we can dwell in and take satisfaction in.  On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly difficult to schematize good photographs from bad ones.  Interesting to note here, is that Barthes has spent this entire book only speaking of photos that involve human subjects.  Maybe all of those, on his view, can be eventually found interesting.  But people are not the only things we photograph.  One wonders if he is intimating a preference and letting us know that really only the photographs that contain people are of any significant interest.  That is not his thesis, but I wonder if that is an irresistible conclusion.

In the book’s final chapter, Barthes considers how society wants to tame the madness that is the photograph.  What does he mean by the madness of the photograph?  I think what he means, is that there are societal dynamics that want to set up barriers between us and the subjects of photographs, so that we do not meditate on them, so that we do not fall in love with them.  What could tamper with the animating dynamics of a photograph?  He says the urge to turn photography into an art, like painting with it’s exhibitions and rules does a great deal to domesticate and tame what is palpable and wild in a photograph.  The other way to tame a photograph is to make it not match up to our reality.  What I take Barthes to be saying here Is that the modern photographs have been so universalized and turned into banal illustrations that they capture no real conflicts or issues within modernity.  We are a culture driven by lively images, which we voraciously consume, but when we try them on for ourselves, we experience nothing but nauseating boredom.  “Look at the happy family on the boat!  You will be happy on a boat”.  You are bored.  Photography must either be a participant in creating this hollow dream world or radically absolutize itself to reality again.  I think it is pretty obvious which route Barthes thinks we should take.  Thank you.

Roland Barthes’ “Camera Lucida”
Edition Used:  Hill & Wang (1981)
Lecturer: Luke Johnson

© 2016 Noetic / Luke Johnson

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