Geoffrey Batchen

Left: Cover of Photography Degree Zero (2009). Right: A view of Geoffrey Batchen teaching from Camera Lucida. (Photo: Vlad da Cunha)

A professor of the history of photography and contemporary art at the CUNY Graduate Center, Geoffrey Batchen’s previous books include Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (1997) and Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (2001). This October, MIT Press will publish Photography Degree Zero, an anthology that Batchen has edited of writings about Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980).

I’VE READ CAMERA LUCIDA MANY, MANY TIMES, and I’ve taught it for many years. Yet, it is one of those books you can read over and over and still find new things that you don’t remember the last few times you read it. There are not many books you can say that about. This is partly because Camera Lucida is so poetically and philosophically written, making it easy for the eye to skate across some lines and go on to others. But it’s also because each line is so loaded with implication and possibility that you can’t possibly take it all in during one reading.

Photography Degree Zero had a long gestation period, and it was a bit of a struggle to bring it all together. It was actually initiated by a feeling, which I sensed throughout my discipline, that everyone was sick to death of Camera Lucida. Indeed, I recently went to a conference in Madrid where at the beginning of the first day, one of the organizers stood up and said that anyone who quoted from the book would be fined. So, in part, this anthology comes out of conversations that I had with colleagues, in which we all felt similarly beset by Camera Lucida. We thought that perhaps if we wrote essays on the book, we’d get it out of our systems and find a way to declare––at last, and nearly thirty years after its initial publication––that it is now history. I don’t know whether this book will actually have that effect. Probably (and hopefully) it will generate even more dialogues about Camera Lucida, but at least it enabled all of us who contributed to dig into our own neurosis and work it out a little bit.

This is a lesson to be taken by every young writer: If you write a book whose meaning is not immediately apparent, and if it’s beautifully written, people are much more likely to continue returning to and worrying about it. The meanings of Camera Lucida are sufficiently open-ended to generate thirteen essays in this particular volume, from scholars as significant as Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Victor Burgin, Jane Gallop, Eduardo Cadava, and so on, and many more that I list in the endnotes of my introductory chapter.

I’d like to think that my introduction will be a useful teaching tool because I go to quite a bit of effort to lay out the story of the production of Camera Lucida and the initial responses to it, which were not all positive by any means. Some critics at the time wrote that it was one of the worst books ever written about photography and that it would have the worst effects possible. But for whatever reasons (and perhaps more study needs to be made of this), it is a book that still seems very current. There are, however, two critical essays in this volume that discuss the ways in which Barthes handles race in his book, and I would say on that issue it feels a little dated. But many other aspects of Camera Lucida do feel incredibly fresh now, whereas most books about photography usually don’t.

For example, in twenty years of teaching I’ve never assigned Susan Sontag’s On Photography [1977]. There is a real question as to why that’s so. I’m aware that photographers tend to gravitate toward On Photography even though they dislike the way Sontag equates photography with violence. I suspect that some of them find Camera Lucida more impenetrable and esoteric. Art historians find Sontag’s book to be somewhat journalistic and her essays not very substantial, whereas for them Barthes’s book is an endlessly fascinating and pleasurable text. There is something to be written about the perspectives they each offer. The publication of Photography Degree Zero brings up these and a range of other issues and presses us to consider Camera Lucida anew.