Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes is a book through which the author tries to understand what photography is fundamentally about.
The book's title is derived from the conclusion of the author's efforts wherein he states that photography is not as related to camera obscura as it is to the idea of camera lucida, i.e. clarity and lucidity.
Barthes, not a photographer himself, approaches the subject with the critical mind of a philosopher. He has dealt with the subject of photography in his earlier writings.
Here, he asserts that a photograph is always intrinsically linked with its subject. It cannot be taken for anything else. An essay or a painting cannot be considered a faithful representation because the author's or painter's thoughts and abilities introduce a subjective bias.
Barthes attempts to differentiate between regular photographs that people click, not very different from what everybody does with their smartphones, and those photographs that are painstakingly captured, often after repeated attempts and sometimes much posing.
He opines that it is possible to appreciate a photograph in terms of what it expresses and with respect to its technical merits.
Barthes dissects the art of photography by trying to understand it from the point of view of the photographer (operator), the viewer (spectator), and the subject of the photograph (spectrum).
Unless it's a candid photo, the spectrum cannot help but pose. A posed image is never an honest representation of the actual subject. Barthes states that the operator values those images that can capture the spectrum's inner self. This is not possible with posed images. A photograph captures that moment when the subject consciously or otherwise ceases to be itself and becomes an object for the photographer.
Barthes attempts to explain why some photographs appeal to us and we can fall in love with them, while others only evoke a more tepid response, i.e. at best we can only like them.
He uses the term studium to express a viewer's existing knowledge on what constitutes a good photograph. We may like photos that meet the desired criteria. However, it is photographs with punctum that really excite and animate us, and evoke strong emotions. Punctum is an element of disturbance or novelty that is present in the photograph and captures our attention. It punctures the staid references that defines a technically good photograph by introducing something undefinable and moving.