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Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography  by Roland Barthes  (1915-1980) is recommended reading for the OCA photography 1 course.  Here I share my thoughts on the book.

It is a rewarding, but not an easy book with its frequent use of obscure language borrowed from phenomenology (the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness), as Barthes tells us (p20). It is translated from the original French, which may make some passages less clear than they were in the original. I keep in mind that the book was written in 1980, before the digital manipulation of images.

In summary, the book is Barthes’ search to discover the essence of photography and what distinguishes it from other forms of image. Barthes is not a photographer, but an essayist and literary critic (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/54319/Roland-Barthes – accessed 18.3.15).

One of his assertions is that a specific photograph is not distinguished from what it represents as there is no photography without someone or something. As a consequence, he says that this involves photography in the vast disorder of the world and the choices that must be made about what to capture in a photograph.

Analyses the attraction he felt for certain photographs. The concepts here are useful for helping our understanding and articulation of why we like or dislike certain photographs:

  • studium – a general liking and enthusiasm for an image but without any special urgency or extreme feelings. He describes this as always ‘coded’ by which I mean to take to follow some describable conventions (in composition for example). In studium there is a self-contained frame in which everything happens – no blind field.
  • punctum – the ‘accident’ in the photography that stings, pricks, bruises or is poignant to the viewer. Often in the detail (a partial object). In contrast to studium this is not ‘coded’ and difficult to name or describe. Creates questions that fall outside the frame of the studium – a blind field. Photographs with punctum make the viewer linger to discover more about the thing or person. An analogue he gives uses is: erotic images (where things are left unsaid), contrasted with pornographic images (where everything is said).

In the second part of the book Barthes distils the essence of a photography by reflecting on his favourite photograph of his own mother as a child.

  • He raises the important point that while a photography captures a moment in time, it does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.
  • Unlike images created through other media, photography never lies as to the existence of the thing being photographed. ‘Every photography is a certificate of presence’ [not strictly true in 2015]

In the end, Barthes concludes that the essence of a photograph ‘is simple, banal; no depth; “that has been”. This makes a photograph distinct from other forms of image because it confirms that an object has existed, whereas in other art there is not this confirmation as it can be pure invention.

Reference list

Barthes R (1979)  Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography Vintage 2000 ed. 

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