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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1208

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...

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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” him, a detail arresting for no known reason, which disturbs an easy assimilation of the image.

The punctum can have a certain relation to memory. Because of photography’s subjugation to the actual, its nonabstractness, certain details of a photograph can be eidetic, can evoke remembered experiences “whole.” The punctum can also be related to time, through the combination of the immobility of the image in time and the transitoriness of its subject. Photographs in which the currently dead are seen alive (many of Barthes’s examples are of this type) may have time as a punctum. The punctum can also be merely a particular unassimilable detail which animates the viewer by preventing resolution of the experience of the photograph, keeping the presence of the image actual, not exhausted by interpretation, and thus not abstract.

In section 24, the end of part 1, Barthes notes, “A subjectivity reduced to its hedonist project could not recognize the universal.” His discussion of his experience of public images, he writes, did not go to the heart of what he believed photography to be. In part 2, motivated by his desire to go deeper into the nature of photography, he will go deeper into his own nature. He will concern himself with private images, particularly with his relation to photographs of his mother.

The increasingly fragmentary and unsystematic sections of part 2 are held together by this central obsession, and eventually by a single image, one that, oddly, is not reproduced in the book. In part 2, experiential categories such as “public” and “private” are invoked; desire, need, and pain, as reactions to the photographic image, take the place held by taste, interest, and pleasure in part 1.

As the categories of public and private come into play, so do those of professional and amateur. Barthes describes the experience of looking at snapshots of his mother, soon after her death. The perusal of these images is a private act.

The difference between an image having likeness (a fragmentary matching of an appearance of the subject, revealing only identity) and the true image (revealing the self’s essence) he notices through his experience of photographs of his mother. In most photographs of her, he does not see her self, but only recognizes her identity by means of the photograph’s likeness. Finally, as he looks at older and older photographs, going back through time from the present, farther and farther into his mother’s past, a photograph appears that offers “the truth of the face I had loved.” It is a photograph of his mother at age five, with her brother, in a glassed-in conservatory, what used to be called a winter garden. This image becomes the emblem of photography for him, and it makes him come to realize the relation of photography to death, to love, and to truth (“realize” here meaning that this relation becomes real for him). Thereafter, he calls this image “the winter garden photograph.” It is not reproduced in the book. (It is what it is only to him, as he remarks; it would be something absolutely different to any reader.) All of his conclusions in part 2 are derived in some sense from this photograph.

He is tormented by the flatness of the image, its intractability. The winter garden photograph does not resolve anything. His mother is present in it, in truth, and absent in truth. Only time is between him and her. Her look, out of the photograph at him, makes him search for this same gaze out of other photographs, and he locates it as a special kind of punctum; it is a connection between the viewer and the subject that is illusory, yet true. This paradox is not resolvable.

Because he is sure that he can see his mother’s true nature in the winter garden photograph, he looks at other portraits to see if he can see the true nature of their subjects, or if he can only recognize their identities. Because likeness runs in families, he examines a photograph of his mother’s ancestor to look for genetic features, the part of the self that goes beyond the self. This brings him to the awareness of his own ending in his mother’s death, as he has no descendant.

Barthes draws all photography through the matrix of the winter garden photograph. Photography’s flatness becomes for him mirrorlike; he sees in it his own nature.

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