Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes

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p. 82 “Always the Photograph astonishes me, with an astonishment which endures and renews itself, inexhaustibly.”

I recently read Camera Lucida by Barthes on a train ride from Philly to Washington DC. I’m researching the broad topic of photography for about three projects at the moment. For one project I’ve started looking at articles and books on vernacular photography and have found Barthes mentioned several times. In Camera Lucida, Barthes is inspired to write about photography by an image of his mother who recently passed. (His mother died in 1977, Camera Lucida was published in 1980.) Barthes never reveals the image to the reader. He states that the image would only interest the reader in that it was an image taken in the past (studium), it wouldn’t have the emotional impact (punctum) that it does for him.

I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound (73).

There are photographs reproduced in the book. The Stock from the author’s collection is of a boy and a girl standing on either side of a seated older man. Barthes informs the reader that the boy was his father. He uses this image to discuss the influence of lineage. “Lineage reveals an identity stronger, more interesting than legal status – more reassuring as well, for the thought of origins soothes us, whereas that of the future disturbs us, agonizes us…”

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The book consists of a series of short meditations on what photographs are and how they affect viewers. Barthes uses personal photographs as examples, but also photographs of people that he does not have a personal tie to. If you are looking for reasons to study, exhibit, scan, promote etc. amateur photography, especially that which exists in non digital formats, Barthes isn’t a bad place to start. The following are some quotes that I found particularly interesting, engaging, and helpful to studying ¬†vernacular photography.

…the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumed as such, publicly…(98)

Usually the amateur is defined as an immature state of the artist: someone who cannot – or will not – achieve the mastery of a profession. But in the field of photographic practice, it is the amateur, on the contrary, who is the assumption of the professional: for it is he who stands closer to the noeme of Photography (98-99).

noeme = essence of Photography “…in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past” (76).

“The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been” (85).

…the realists do not take the photograph for a ‘copy’ of reality, but for an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art. To ask whether a photograph is analogical or coded is not a good means of analysis. The important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time. From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation (88-89).

Another important aspect of amateur photography that Barthes takes into account is the physical objectness of a photograph.

“The only way I can transform the Photograph is into refuse: either the drawer or the wastebasket” (93). Today one could digitize the object and then circulate it online. It then loses it’s objectness and becomes simply an image. Barnes continues, “…even if it is attached to more lasting supports, it is still mortal…Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes; there is nothing left to do but throw it away” (93).

Barthes also discusses “the air (the expression, the look)” (107), that is apparent in portraits. He points out that the air of a person is not present in all images of a person. Indeed sometimes people barely look like themselves in photographs. Is it possible to see the air of a person in a photograph if you never knew the person? Barthes writes that it is, but is harder to find in amateur photographs.

I can be frustrated for life of the ‘true image.’ Since neither Nadar nor Avedon has photographed my mother, the survival of this image has depended on the luck of a picture made by a provincial photographer who, an indifferent mediator, himself long since dead, did not know that what he was making permanent was the truth – the truth for me (110).

Another issue Barthes discusses at length is that all photographs remind viewers of death – the person in the photo is dead or will one day be dead. This seems to add agency to the viewers experience. Hopefully they may do something and capture it on film before they die.

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