PRINT April 1982


Camera Lucida

THROUGH THE VOLUMINOUS body of his critical undertaking, Roland Barthes single-handedly transformed not only the language of Modern criticism, but its method, scope, and application as well. His essays published during the last three decades are now considered classics, and range broadly in style and subject matter from the rigorous structural critique of language in its formal aspect in his semiological writings, to the free-flowing and discursive exploration of its various forms and specific texts. In addition to literature, Barthes’ conception of “language,” and hence his field of inquiry, expanded to include an array of other expressive forms—not only photography, film, music, and painting, but also, as early as 1953, such relatively uncharted domains as advertising, fashion, and design. Radical in his creative as well as in his scientific approach to language, Roland Barthes was an instigator, an innovative author no less than a critic.

In 1980 Barthes was killed, struck down by a van in Paris. He was 65 years old. The death was a shock, something more than the loss of a valued critical perspective; it left the profound absence of a remarkable presence. For lovers of photography, for those for whom photography remains something of an enchanted realm, as for those readers of Barthes who felt the peculiar sense of a lack of resolution which the sudden death of such a productive persona engenders, Camera Lucida is a welcome and strangely apt final meeting with the warmth and simple rigor of his mind. Published posthumously in French in 1980, it has been released more recently in English in a translation by Richard Howard.

In an endeavor to disclose what he senses is the metaphysical key to photography—the specific attribute or quality through which the medium derives its unique power as a visual form––Barthes here adopts an intimate and expressive style. This is not a studied, technical argument so much as it is an esthetic venture, an experiment in knowing the self as much as the objects upon which the writer’s attention dwells. Camera Lucida is like a visit (a passage with the soul of the writer through his subject) more than it is a critical analysis of photography per se. This discourse on photography is, in a sense, a memorium to the recent death of the author’s mother.

At the onset Barthes asserts that “it is licit to speak of a photograph” and “improbable to speak of the Photograph.” To him an actual photograph is never separable from its referent, never distinct from the concrete particularity of that which it represents. Each photo embodies the physical continuity of a subject, the continuity in the present of a real past through which Barthes’ particular fascination for photography is derived. It is not the abstract here that fascinates him but the concrete, the this rather than the that.

Positing himself from the start as the “mediator” of photography, making himself the “measure” of photographic knowledge, the hypothetical subject for whom photography is an experience of the particular, Barthes claims the authority of that which Nietzsche called “the ego’s ancient sovereignty”: “I resolved to start my inquiry with no more than a few photographs, the ones I was sure existed for me.” He is explaining the specific object and its effect, that which it is and that which it signifies, as a unity—which is his encounter with the photographs that move him. He invites us to linger with him over the images he loves to think about, the insights they stir, the qualities by which they distinguish themselves from the plethora of more mediocre stuff of which the abstraction photography is comprised. While this undertaking is perhaps more existential and romantic than it is scientific, Barthes remains true to his task, providing an insightful and rewarding confrontation with the embarrassingly unmanageable phenomena which photography as a subject seems to entail.

It is not the task of organizing which impels this venture, but Barthes’ neat and logical mind cannot traverse its subject without a certain amount of tidying up. The experience of photography is structured in terms of relations to an image: Spectrum (the subject of a photograph), Operator (the photographer, the position in which Barthes is least experienced), and Spectator, (the viewer, the role about which he feels most knowledgeable). He also introduces the concepts of studium and punctum to differentiate the overall subject of a photograph (studium) from the significant detail(s) that cinches it as an image (punctum). His use of these terms is referential, hypothetical, and discursive, rather than technical. Clearly the determination of studium and punctum in any given photograph is a subjective evaluation, yet as a method it is not entirely inappropriate to a text that undertakes to examine precisely the subjective dimension of the experience of photography.

The text is interspersed with reproductions of many of the photographs Barthes discusses. The majority are well known; still, the specificity of the selection provides a perfect vehicle for Barthes’ overall project. Expansive in historical scope, ranging from a still life by Nicéphore Niepce to a self-portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe, the author reveals the loving respect of a true connoisseur toward the objects of his attention. In keeping with his personal method of analysis, these works are not presented chronologically, but rather uncovered through the logic of the discourse itself. One by one Barthes presents the photos he admires, as though introducing you to his private collection. As with all art that we know through reproduction, but most appropriately with photography because of its very nature, one need not own an original in order to cherish the magic of an image. The Niepce dinner table, known to us only through copies, is also one of my favorites. Curiously Barthes captions this photograph “The first photograph,” and dates it 1823, although it is not the photograph commonly attributed as the first (a view from a window by Niepce is generally thought to precede this photograph by several years). One suspects this is an instance of poetic license—rather than an error—in which the hypothesis of a first photograph is chosen over the accepted fact.

Barthes himself describes his relationship with photography as “sentimental,” but the emotion, as it is expressed here, is not so much an indulgence as a force for the feeling of mortality which haunts him above all else. It is not the past but the wound of passing that each photo marks. This overall theme is a response to the temporal peculiarity of photography more than it is a simple emotive association. “It is possible that Ernest is still alive today: but where? how? What a novel!” is written below an André Kertész photograph of a schoolboy named Ernest, taken in Paris in 1931. “He is dead and he is going to die” is the inscription under Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of the condemned Lincoln conspirator, Lewis Payne. The living subject has moved, changed, died, been forgotten, but each photograph with Barthes’ accompanying text insists on an irretrievable yet utterly present reality. This defeat of time—“this will be” and “this has been”—is the locus from which the text evolves.

Barthes’ writing on death belongs to the true text of the book as much as his inquiry regarding photography. Still, this discourse might have remained tangential had Barthes not happened to discover a particular photograph, taken of his mother when she was five years old in a conservatory or Winter Garden, which so moved him that he was provoked to further assert his personal method, proposing in Part Two of the book “to derive” all of photography from this one image. We sense a rupture of intellectual decorum, a mounting intensity of pitch, and yet the subject who feels is always present with he who observes; thought and feeling establish a kind of dialectic, a contextualizing force within the text. The reverie incited by this image of the child, which anticipated the mother she was to become—a mother who, having grown old and weak, died—is indeed a passage of mourning:

The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed. . . .

The horror is this: nothing to say about the death of one whom I love most, nothing to say about her photograph, which I contemplate without ever being able to get to the heart of it, to transform it. The only “thought” I can have is that at the end of this first death, my own death is inscribed; between the two, nothing more than waiting; I have no other resource than this irony: to speak of the “nothing to say.”

Toward the end of the book Barthes discovers the hallucinatory quality of photography which he knew at first glance: the unavoidable superimposition of reality and past that exists only in photography (you can never deny that the thing has been there) and which Barthes considers to be its very essence, what he calls its noeme. “Here is where the madness is, for until this day no representation could assure me of the past of a thing except by intermediaries; but with the Photograph, my certainty is immediate: no one in the world can undeceive me.” Photography, Barthes concludes, can be mad or tame; tame if its realism remains relative, mad if the realism is absolute. His last line claims that the choice is the viewer’s, “to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.”

Barthes’ writing throughout is sensuous; the rhythm and texture of his text reveal a kind of sympathetic relation between the author’s own state of being and the offerings of his subject. In mourning, Barthes sees death in many photographs. Reading the text is indistinguishable from reading the man. In describing “the other,” Barthes is describing himself. The discrepancy between the vitality of Barthes, his expressed presence, and our knowledge of his death—which lends a haunting quality to the book—is strangely parallel to his thesis on photography. It is impossible to read Camera Lucida “as though Barthes were alive,” for its significance is clearly located in the absence of his presence.

Just as the contours of Barthes’ terrain as a critic, a linguist, a philosopher, and a writer defy the presumption of traditional classification, the present text is peculiarly resistant to comparison to our all-too-slender body of critical and analytical writings on photography. That Camera Lucida is highly personal or eludes a clear critical function does not undermine its value as a uniquely literate text, revealing a poise of intent which inspires. This fetishistic meditation on writing/on photography is filled with love, longing, pain, and ecstasy, and above all with the haunting prescience true of all of Barthes’ explorations:

“Once she [Barthes’ mother] was dead I no longer had any reason to attune myself to the progress of the superior Life Force (the race, the species). My particularity could never again universalize itself (unless, utopically, by writing, whose project henceforth would become the unique goal of my life). From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death. That is what I read in the Winter Garden Photograph.” The Winter Garden photograph, of course, is too intimate for Barthes to reproduce.

Sarah Charlesworth


Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.