Camera Lucida Critical Essays

Roland Barthes


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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”...

(The entire section is 1208 words.)