Barthes explains at the beginning of Camera Lucida, “I wanted to learn at all costs what Photography was ’in itself,’ by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images.” He does not want to examine either the formal aspects of the photograph (composition and aesthetics) or the social uses of photography; his intent is an ontological one. He succeeds, almost incidentally, in showing, in a multitude of ways, the single fact that makes a photograph what it is: its evidentiality.
A photographic image is not derived from a subject, thereby signifying it; the photograph is evidence of the previous existence of the subject, and does not then signify its subject so much as it is literally caused by the subject. Photography is contingent on the real. It is a physical consequence of the existence of a certain state of affairs (the subject) at some time. Barthes’s examinations of the nature of photography are all dependent on this first insight. It is this contingency of the photograph that seems to indicate that photography has no essence of its own (what it is, is its subject). This contingency, then, is in fact what constitutes photography.
Barthes’s second intent, however, is somewhat different, though related. He wished to examine his experience of photography, to find the springs of the emotions he experienced before certain photographs. This search, this meditation, gives the book its spirit. Seeking a knowledge of the facts of subjectivity may seem paradoxical; in Barthes’s hands, however, it is not.
His identification of photography’s facts as its nature (the photograph’s evidential relations to its subject) does inform his desire to examine his experience of the medium. “This was there, this existed” is especially poignant if the subject is human. Photographs of people, both those people who were known to him and those who were not, form the body of photographic work in which Barthes is most interested.
The photographs he considers fall into several categories: news photographs; portraits by Nadar, the great nineteenth century French photographer; Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotica; portraits of himself; old photographs of places; and private photographs, specifically pictures of his mother.
In part 1, it is the photograph in the public domain that is seen, and the interest or pleasure that Barthes derives from it is described. Barthes sets up the categories studium and punctum to describe characteristics of those public photographs that affect him (a very few out of the flood of photographic images that he sees). Studium he uses to describe the socialized, general cultural interest he may feel in a given photograph’s subject. This interest is coded: He is interested in the image for various describable reasons (interest in ethnological detail, interest in the facts of a news event). The punctum he describes as a detail that “pricks”...
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Roland Barthes is known primarily as a literary critic and theorist, a structuralist, and a semiotician—and he certainly was all those things in his long career. During the 1950’s and 1960’s especially he influenced many with his inventive and productive approaches to analysis and theory.
In the 1970’s, however, his focus began to change. With works such as S/Z (1970; English translation, 1974), Le Plaisir du texte (1973; The Pleasure of the Text, 1975), and especially Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975; Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 1977), he moved away from formalist thinking and became what one must call simply a writer; a more precise term for his role is not possible. Subjectivity entered his work; he was interested in thought that was neither violent nor reductive, yet he retained the acuteness he had developed in his earlier work. This analytical focus on his own subjectivity—thinking about how things seemed to him, how he felt—has precedent in the earliest days of philosophy but has been seen little since.
Camera Lucida is very much an example of these two strains in Barthes’s work (and occasionally, of the strain between them). The spirit of the work is subjective, but the many brilliant insights into what constitutes photography, efforts to find objective sources for his emotion, stem from his clear theorist’s mind.
Critical reception of the book was obscured by the fact that it was his last; his abrupt and shocking death (crossing a street, he was struck by a van) followed it closely. The work itself is very much concerned with death. This combination of circumstances meant that many early reviews of the work doubled as obituaries and eulogies of Barthes. The book may have seemed rather eerie to its first readers.
Later estimates of it should correct the inadequacies of early responses. The work is difficult to address critically for those who like their categories neat, but it has helped to establish Barthes’s original, passionate, personal style of thought as a viable path for others.