Camera Lucida Revisited

This is more than a one-minute review, consider it ten-one-minute reviews in one since it is a topic that requires a little more detail. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is one of the three classic books on photography, along with Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography and Susan Sontag’s On Photography that attempt to get at the slippery issue of the essence of photography. A notorious tricky thing to do, as we all know, even from a form factor perspective, a film negative is a different thing from a digital file, which is different from a print, as a computer screen image or a light box is different from a slide projection. Photography does not easily fit into being categorized as just one thing. All three books are fascinating in their own ways, but there is a curious relationship between Benjamin’s book and Barthes’s. What I find particularly interesting about both books is the way in which Barthes and Benjamin curate and select the photographs they decide to highlight. Although both discuss some photographs that can be considered part of the art historical canon, they often go outside this club and select photographs that have specific meaning for them. This approach brings attention to the diversity of the photographic world and how many different kinds of photographs create compelling meaning. On the other hand, Camera Lucida has been criticized for being focused too much on aesthetics and is largely discounted in today’s climate where everything important in art must be about “social” or “political engagement.” Hopefully I can show how Camera Lucida is much more than just aesthetics.

Roland Barthes was a French theoretician, whose writing career spanned the post-war era all the way up to his untimely death in 1980. Shortly after Camera Lucida was published, he was hit by a van crossing the street and died about a month later. His obsession with death in the book is almost an uncanny foreshadowing of his own death. Barthes is generally associated with the rise of structuralism as a new dominant form of academic discourse in France during the 1960s. Photography has always been something of interest to him and he has written many essays on it. His best known works on photography are “The Photographic Image,” 1961, “Rhetoric of the Image,” 1964, “The Third Meaning,” 1970, and of course Camera Lucida. However, even his other essays that were not strictly speaking about photography have a strong photographic presence. For instance in his Mythologies book from 1957, which is a collection of his magazine articles, the text is very much concerned with photographic images. Chapter XIX on “Photography and Electoral Appeal” and the last essay in the book “”Myth Today,” Barthes offer a semiotic analysis of the kinds of myths that he associates with systems of representation. He wants to consider everyday images as operating like semiotic sign systems. There is his now famous example of a Paris Match magazine cover were a young Blackman salutes the French flag. For Barthes the meaning here is a mystification of French Imperialism and translates into something along the lines that imperialism is good because the oppressed are saluting the French flag so we are one big happy family and colonization is not such as bad thing. Because it is a photograph, we tend to assume it is true. Thus what Barthes is doing here is uncovering the abuse of the evidentiary force of photography, or what makes photography a powerful ideological weapon in that it works to naturalize a view of the world that is in fact always political and historical.

Structuralism, according to Claude Lévi-Strauss, another Frenchman who is considered one of the founders of the movement, claims linguistics “presents us with a dialectical and totalizing entity but one outside (or beneath) consciousness and will. Language, an unreflecting totalization, is human reason which has its reasons and of which man knows nothing.” Structuralism’s implication is that relations are governed by laws that one may not be fully conscious of, and thus subjects are just the product of symbolic systems or power structures for which self-determining autonomy is a mere illusion. Barthes, however, had a slightly different perspective on structuralism. In a 1963 essay called “On the Subject of Violence” he states: “ there exist certain writers, painters, musicians in whose eyes a certain exercise of structure (and no longer merely its thought) represents a distinctive experience, and that both analysts and creators must be placed under the common sign of what we might call structural man, defined not by his ideas or his languages, but by his imagination-in other words, by the way in which he mentally experiences structure.” Consequently, even in the heyday of his structuralist period, he is clearly assigning some room here for a self through experience, and something very personal, an imagination. This notion of selfhood is something I would like to carry forward through his other writings on photography. On the other hand, the problematic part, and something that he also slips into occasionally in Camera Lucida, is that he appears to call up a kind of Modernist notion of genius in which only certain people, people like him, have this ability to rise up above the overwhelming power of social and cultural structures.

Camera Lucida itself is divided into two parts that suggests a kind of separation between the mind and what is typically termed as emotion. I prefer to call it non-cognitive because I think that what Barthes is talking about is more than just emotion. In addition, Barthes emphasizes a split between the public and the personal. Right from the first page when he describes looking at a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, he makes it clear that his insight is personal, something that others might not share and he comments how “life consists of these little touches of solitude” when no one else seems to understand what he is talking about. Each half of the book is divided into 24 little chapters (like 24 exposures in a roll of film). There are 24 black and white photographs, plus one Polaroid. In his drive to find the essential feature of photography, he bases his theory in the first part on two terms: studium and punctum. The studium denotes the publicly available meaning of the image that is charged and determined by cultural context. This is the literal meaning of the photograph, that which the photographer intended you to see and is linguistically explicable. The punctum on the other hand, is the ‘unexpected prick’ that pierces through this cultural field. The studium is the “field” and the punctum is that which pierces the field or something that disturbs the field. Consequently what Barthes comes to see drawing him to the photograph, is the detail or punctum, that which supplements the informational or symbolic meaning with something that is contingent and/or unintentional. A ‘referent’ usually designates a relation to something outside of language or something in the real world, for Barthes it becomes something more personal. The punctum lurks in the details of some photographs, which then takes the viewer by surprise and alters the sense of the image.

One of these details that is of crucial importance to Barthes is outlined in his claim that “A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent (from what it represents), or at least it is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent … “ As in his essay “Rhetoric of the Image” Barthes uses the term being-there in Camera Lucida as a loosely borrowed term from philosopher Charles Peirce, meaning index or indexicality, which represents its object through a kind of contact (such as a footprint, fingerprint, smoke, etc). In the case of film photography the light reflecting off the object is absorbed by silver halide crystals on film and then fixed through a chemical process. The resulting seemingly natural and authentic representation of photography gives it a suggestion of an authentic relation to life and thus an evidentiary and persuasive force.

Throughout the history of photography its inevitably association with a claim of objectivity has always been a source of much discussion. While the unique truth telling aspects of photography have always been championed, right from the beginning of its history, the practice itself was bound up in a certain slight of hand. Susan Sontag recounts in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, the American Civil War photographs of Alexander Gardner. One of Gardner’s photographs called The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, 1863, is an example where the duty to record history as a truth beyond appeal required a little further assistance than what the battlefield left behind. What the photograph actually shows is a dead confederate soldier who was moved from where he fell in the field to a more photogenic site by the rocks. The photo includes a rifle that Gardner leaned against the barricade, however the rifle is not the special rifle a sharpshooter would have used but rather a common infantryman’s rifle. So basically Gardner faked the photograph. What Sontag finds odd is not that the photographs were staged, but that “we are surprised to learn they were staged, and always disappointed.” The disappointment comes from the expectation that photographs are truthful. However, I am not sure that Barthes is concerned with the truth telling power of photography in this way. He speaks of the stickiness of the referent, and in Gardner’s example, even though things were re-arranged, there is no doubt that they were at one time placed in front of the lens. Barthes calls “every photograph a certificate of presence.”

The following quote from Camera Lucida summarizes what Barthes sees as specific to photography:

“I call ‘photographic referent’ not only 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 would be no photograph. … in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography. What I intentionalize in a photograph is neither Art nor Communication, it is Reference, which is the founding order of Photography. … the name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: ‘That-has-been,’ or again: the Intractable.”

This new addition to punctum in the second half of the book is about the notion of time, the emphasis of the noeme (‘that-has-been’) and its pure representation. Any photograph now has this what he calls “about to die/already dead,” quality. While the punctum is associated with the necessary real thing of the image, in a number of occasions the punctum that Barthes describes appears to be something that is in fact absent from the photograph. Barthes attributes the “necessarily real thing placed before the lens” as something that triggers the punctum of a higher order of emotional intensity due to the reality of its origin. Thus the punctum is like some kind of residue that has been caught in the photo and undermines or disturbs the viewer. Barthes assesses the nature of photography’s effects on himself when he states “ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, then it thinks.” The punctum he proposes, is an element of a picture that evades analysis and is often an incidental or unintentional and an uncoded aspect of the photograph that is sometimes recalled or even transformed by memory. This is why I prefer to call this aspect of the punctum as non-cognitive, it is not pure affect or emotion, it is a form of knowledge or insight that is just outside of language, and Barthes confirms this when he states that “what I can name cannot really prick me.” This suggests that punctum is not necessarily found within the photograph itself.

We can see this working in some examples such as the first photograph Barthes describes (but he does not show), that of Napoléon’s youngest brother. Barthes claims he is “looking at the eyes that looked at the emperor” and he is overcome with the desire “to learn at all costs what photography was ‘in itself.’” Barthes is fascinated by the closeness between Jérôme and Napoléon, but there is nothing in the photograph that bears witness to this closeness. Instead the knowledge that the photograph in question is of Jérôme, and that Jérôme is the younger brother of Napoléon, allows Barthes to experience the punctum. It is memory outside the photograph that supplements that actual physical photograph.

Another example is when Barthes describes the punctum of Alexander Gardner’s photograph of the assassin Lewis Payne the day before his execution, as being the fact that Payne is about to die. What pricks him is the discovery of the equivalence of “This will be with this has been.” However, the knowledge of the impending death of Payne is again not disclosed by the photograph but rather through knowledge outside the photograph. Lastly, there is the much discussed problem of mistaken identity in the James Van der Zee portrait where Barthes attributes the real punctum to a braided gold necklace he claims one of the women is wearing, when in fact she is wearing a pearl necklace. In this case the “that-has-been,” never actually was.

So we have this contradiction, Barthes is attempting to find the essence of photography but the punctum often appears to be outside the actual photograph. He writes “A photograph touches me if I withdraw it from its usual blah-blah: Technique, reality, reportage, art, etc: to say nothing, to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness.” So the punctum here appears when he is not even looking at the photograph. Elsewhere he writes: “sometimes, despite its clarity, the punctum should be revealed only after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it. I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly, engaging it in an effort of description which will always miss its point of effect, the punctum.” Barthes here is, as he claims, trying to dismiss all knowledge, all culture, he doesn’t want to inherit anything from another eye other than his own. This sounds almost like a naïve Modernist quest to retrieve some kind of primitive purity, some moment of plenitude, to be able to see clearly again without the lens of culture blocking his view. In fact early on in the book he states “yet I persisted; another louder voice urged me to dismiss such sociological commentary; looking at certain photographs, I wanted to be a primitive, without culture.” He doesn’t want sociology, psychoanalysis or semiology to cloud his vision, he wants something direct. Thus the contradiction is that he wants something direct from the details to bring out the essence of photography that disturbs him, but at the same time he ignores what is in the photographs and retrieves more important details from somewhere else.

Near the end of the book he writes the “Last thing about the punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.” Writer Geoffrey Batchen, in his excellent book Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, points out that in the French edition Barthes calls punctum a “supplement” rather than an addition. Batchen claims that this is important because “consigning punctum to the logic of the supplement is to displace it from certainty, to put it in motion, to turn it in on itself. The most important element of the photograph is also, apparently, something supplemental, unnecessary, in addition to requirements. Like the referent, it is both there in the photograph and not there, both natural (a matter of indexical science) and cultural (brought to the image by a human observer) and therefore not quite either.” This elusive nature, this combination of contradictions, in Barthes’ punctum is for me analogous to how not only photography but other images and artworks disturb our complacency and make us think. Over and over again Barthes makes it clear it is not the shock value of the photograph that distinguishes it from others, it is something that provokes thought. So the arrow that pierces the punctum or to put it in another way, the non-cognitive aspect that is outside of language, or the things that slip through the totalizing net of rationality, in turn cause us to reflect by creating a kind of crisis of perception.

Finally, I think the personal approach to reading photography, not the typical art historical canon of great photographs, that Barthes takes has wider social and political associations. The idea of a personal history of photography seems to fit well with the notion that photography was one of the instruments that has enabled the democratization of image making, where now almost anyone is able to make an image. There is an emancipatory quality associated with making one’s own images and then to be able to read what is visible in them. As there is also an emancipatory and political element to be able to document all aspects of life and culture in a process that does not stop at borders and enables other cultures to be accessible and visible. Photography’s accessibility to all creates a new kind of citizenship that can produce, distribute and look at images. The images that Barthes uses in Camera Lucida are not found in many art history surveys and he has been criticized for his aesthetic judgment, but it is interesting that at least half of his photographs deal with marginalized people and situations. Thus it is apparent that Barthes’s personal curatorial process was potentially far more political than aesthetic, and it fits well a quote from his Mythologies book where he states: “To parody a well-known saying, I shall say that a little formalism turns one away from History, but that a lot brings one back to it.”