Some thoughts on Roland Barthes's _Camera Lucida_ (long!)

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by ntenny, Jan 16, 2011.

  1. ntenny

    ntenny Subscriber

    Mar 5, 2008
    San Diego, C
    Multi Format
    This post is a bit of a book report on Roland Barthes’s book _Camera Lucida_ (1980), which I picked up on a whim recently and read on the plane enroute to Dublin (for work, not play, unfortunately). I’m reading in translation (by one Richard Howard); the original is in French, but the language seems fairly transparent and I don’t have any real sense that the translation is a barrier to understanding.

    The book---brief, only 119 pages, with less than 100 of them actually containing text---is basically a brief meditation on the question of what can be identified as the essence of Photography (always with a capital P). It’s a quick read and not particularly difficult; I have no philosophy background and only a single literary theory course taken long ago, and I think I understood everything. Barthes’s analysis is very personal, starting from an attempt (Part 1 of the two-part book) to dissect photography based on the particular images that “speak” to him, and proceeding to focus more narrowly (Part 2) on his own response to a particular photograph of his mother. I would call this a work of reader-response criticism, though I’m sure Barthes would be scandalised by the suggestion.

    Barthes was not a photographer even casually---he cops to this at the beginning, and therefore his whole criticism is from the perspectives of the subject of a photo (what is it to be photographed?) and the viewer (what is it to look at a photograph, as distinct from other things one might look at?). This is a very congenial limitation if you buy the whole “death of the author” concept, of course, but it leaves the third interesting question (what is it to create a photograph?) untouched.

    For Barthes, photography is always representational---irrespective of the fact that what is represented may be obscure or concealed, *something* reflected the light rays that struck the film: “I call ‘photographic reference’ not the *optionally* real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the *necessarily* real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there can be no photograph…in Photography I can never deny that *the thing has been there*” (p. 76). He acknowledges tricks like darkroom manipulations but dismisses them very briefly: “the (rare) artifices it permits are not probative; they are, on the contrary, trick pictures” (p. 87), and returns again and again to notions like “authentication” and “ratification”, to the idea that the photograph of a thing demonstrates the past existence of that thing.

    All of which is fair enough in one dimension; people, even photographers, do after all go around referring to “a photograph of such-and-such”, and we do generally accept that the existence of a photograph confirms the reality of the subject (absent certain manipulations, which, however, I think are less trivial than Barthes suggests, even without taking d*g*t*l into account). On the other hand, he seems to breeze past almost without noticing the differences between the photograph and the reality, apart from the most coarse ones like the two-dimensionality of a photograph.

    For instance, Barthes admires Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of Lewis Payne, but he seems to take it for granted that it represents reality accurately---as if Payne’s hands really were a bit blurry, the skin on one side of his neck a featureless and untextured sheet (blown highlight), his legs lost in an impenetrable darkness. I’d suggest that all these things contribute to the “sense” of Payne that emerges from the picture, and so to the “reading” of the photo, but they can’t really be said to be probative representations of what was “real” at the moment of the photograph. (This seems like very fertile critical territory---the allegedly documentary photo can in fact create a perception more convincing than the reality---and I really wish Barthes had gone there.)

    The first half of the book converges on a model of the photograph as being characterised by two distinct elements, which Barthes calls _studium_ (the overt, intellectualised content of the photo, as mediated by cultural assumptions: we see a photo of soldiers in uniform in a Nicaraguan shantytown, with two nuns crossing the dirt road behind them, and we understand something of the contexts of militarism and poverty, the role of the Church in Latin America, and so on) and _punctum_ (the visceral detail that inexplicably makes the photograph “speak” to the viewer, but which is profoundly individual, really a characteristic of a particular act of viewing rather than of the photograph itself). The implication seems to be that what stands between a merely workmanlike photo and a powerful one is a kind of visual epiphany, something separate from the _studium_ of the image but nevertheless there and accessible to the viewer, and which exerts a certain indefinable power upon the viewer: “…while remaining a ‘detail,’ it fills the whole picture” (p. 45). He characterises as “unary” (p. 40) the photographs that lack this detail---for him this is largely reportage photos; I guess those that have it are binary, though as far as I recall he doesn’t use that term.

    This seems like a useful distinction, a vocabulary for talking about the kinds of reactions we as viewers have to photos, but Barthes goes further to suggest that the _punctum_ is *always* (for him, at least) something outside the photographer’s intentions. “Certain details may ‘prick’ me. If they do not, it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally” (p. 47). It’s not clear to me how important this notion of intentionality really is to his framework, and this is another part of the book’s big omission of the perspective (literally and figuratively) of the photographer.

    Similarly, there is a nice discussion of the notion of the frame, in still photography as contrasted with cinema (pp. 55-6), but with some frustrating omissions. Barthes uses the phrase “blind field” to refer to the implied world out of the frame; in the cinema we normally take the existence of this world for granted (of course character X has been in existence and doing something while we’ve been following character Y around), but in a photo, in Barthes’s view, the blind field exists only in the presence of a _punctum_, which somehow anchors the image to a greater reality. For a viewer who finds no _punctum_ in a particular image, it remains just an image within its boundaries, not part of a continuous world that extends beyond the frame. Personally, I find this argument very odd and a bit unclear; I think maybe Barthes underappreciates the flexibility of framing as a compositional tool, and the extent to which creating a particular assumption about the “blind field” outside the frame is a crucial technique. Or maybe he’s just saying that if the framing worked, it necessarily created a _punctum_, and thus the blind field comes into existence for the viewer?

    There’s a deep clash here, too, I think, between Barthes’s assumptions about the photograph as documentation and the existence of the blind field. Consider the street photographer’s trick of finding a framing in a crowded place that makes the subject appear to be standing there alone.[1] When it works, this surely helps to create a _punctum_ for the viewer, and it creates a very strong sense of the blind field, namely the appearance that outside the frame there is *not* a teeming crowd---but that blind field is purely an illusion! Here the photograph is lying to the viewer, precisely in the aspects which Barthes as a viewer seems to find most important, but he doesn’t contemplate the possibility of a “false blind field” and so doesn’t resolve the issue.

    In sum, this book is fascinating. The _Newsweek_ review quoted on the back cover describes it as “flawed, impossible, infuriating, and moving”, which covers it pretty well if you ask me. I have objections to some of its contents, but I find myself wanting *more* discussion of those issues, with an eye to resolving the apparent contradiction. Barthes needs to write a sequel; unfortunately, he’s been dead for 31 years (this must have been one of his last publications) so that seems unlikely.


    [1] A guy called A. Wilms did this with a picture of my wife in Piazza San Marco in Venice at the opening of Carnevale; I chimped the image and he had, incredibly, managed to find an angle that excluded everyone else and placed her in splendid isolation on the steps of that building across from the Doge’s Palace. If you know a pro called A. Wilms---I think he was based in Duisburg, but I’m not sure---will you remind him that he promised us a CD? But I digress.