Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Camera Lucida was Roland Barthes’s last book. It is ostensibly an attempt to describe the nature of photography, and this aim is addressed in the work. The work is also, however, an evocation of Barthes’s love and grief for his mother, Henriette Barthes, who had died in 1978, shortly before Camera Lucida was written.

Barthes had lived his entire life with his mother, and his grief at her death was enormous. His examination of photography in Camera Lucida is inextricably linked with his attempt to remember his mother by looking at photographs of her. His insight into photography, an art that testifies to and in some sense calls up the past, was conditioned by his special relation to these photographs. Camera Lucida is a very personal work. Other types of photographs—news photographs, portraits by Nadar, photographs of exotic places—are dealt with in the book, but always Barthes writes of them in relation to his own feelings about specific examples of these types of photography.

The work is divided into two parts of twenty-four brief sections each. These parts are very different. Part 1 could be described as illuminating Barthes’s relation to public photographs—photographs by artists, journalists, and others—which are in the public domain. In this part, Barthes devises formal categories to describe and explain the effect certain photographs have on him. These categories are based in the language of phenomenology and are akin to certain of the structural categories he proposed in earlier works in semiology. Yet this first part also reveals Barthes’s discomfort and discontent with the result of applying this type of thinking to photography. He is frustrated with abstract thought’s inability to explain what is unique to photography as a...

(The entire section is 740 words.)

Camera Lucida

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

This book, superbly translated by Richard Howard, appeared in France in the year of Barthes’s death (1980) as La Chambre claire: Note sur la photographie. In it one finds the structuralist connoisseur of texts focusing his lively curiosity on the image. While Barthes examines the “truth” of photography, his text suggests certain comparisons with the extended reverie on painting by the poststructuralist “deconstructor” of literary and philosophical texts: Jacques Derrida’s La Vérité en peinture (1978). In each case, a leading French intellectual whose career has been devoted to reexamining the nature of literature, the question of authorship, and the activity of reading shifts his somewhat idiosyncratic interpretive strategies to the visual realm.

Just as Derrida announces his intention of exploring the fundamental “pictureness” of pictures, Barthes dreams of discovering the “zero degree” of photographs, as in his early (1953) effort to find the “zero degree” of writing. Yet while Derrida’s analysis is exhaustive, drawing upon what has become his familiar panoply of philosophers, including Plato, G. F. W. Hegel, and Martin Heidegger, Barthes is characteristically more playful and tentative. His essay is sketchy compared to Derrida’s, and he refers only occasionally to the aesthetic experiences and perspectives of other authors. Meditating upon the “truth” of photography, Barthes points out the camera’s inability to capture more than an instant of reality, whereas the cinema provides what comes before as well as what follows.

Moreover, the human subject may have the ability to hide its truth before the camera. Many of the photographs Barthes most admires are portraits, yet this makes him doubly aware of the dilemma of “posing.” With a subtlety of insight reminiscent of Jacques Lacan’s theories of the formation of the personality, Barthes confesses that, when he is aware of being photographed, he composes for the camera a false visage. Able to recognize his “camera face” in a variety of photographs, he speculates on the degree of difference, in terms of photographic truth, that may exist between this familiar pose and what might be captured by a candid photograph.

This drama of a solitary man confronting a collection of photographs—some objets d’art, others snapshots—unfolds in two acts of equal duration. Barthes wisely eschews the effort to formulate a definitive statement concerning the aesthetic experience of viewing photographs. Instead, he takes himself as the locus wherein individual photographs or, more accurately, details within photographs “speak.” In other words, each photograph captures or freezes in time certain objects, and viewers respond to these objects according to the particular composition of their own memories or desires. As in so many other of Barthes’s writings, Marcel Proust is the writer whose own experience is most obviously evoked by this convergence of time, memory, and art. Indeed, Barthes points to several examples in Proust, although he is careful to assert that photographs do not succeed in the Proustian goal of recovering (“le temps retrouvé”) the past.

Thus, in the first “movement” of this...

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Camera Lucida Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Sources for Further Study

Best Sellers. XLI, August, 1981, p. 175.

Book World. XI, August 30, 1981, p. 4.

Booklist. LXXVII, July 15, 1981, p. 1427.

Clark, Tim. “Roland Barthes, Dead and Alive,” in Oxford Literary Review. VI, no. 1 (1983), pp. 97-107.

Conley, Tom. “A Message Without a Code?” in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature. V (Spring, 1981), pp. 147-155.

Culler, Jonathan. Roland Barthes, 1983.

Halley, Michael. “Argo Sum,” in Diacritics. XII (Winter, 1982), pp. 69-78.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. “Roland Barthes, Autobiography, and the End of Writing,” in Georgia Review. XXXV (Summer, 1981), pp. 381-398.

Library Journal. CVI, November 1, 1981, p. 2132.

New Boston Review. VI, August, 1981, p. 33.

New Leader. LXIV, September 7, 1981, p. 15.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, December 17, 1981, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, August 23, 1981, p. 11.

Sturrock, John. “Roland Barthes in Retrospect,” in French Studies. XXXV (July, 1981), pp. 302-307.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Last Barthes,” in Critical Inquiry. VII (Spring, 1981), pp. 449-454.

Ungar, Steven. Roland Barthes, the Professor of Desire, 1983.