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Camera Lucida is philosophical book by French semiotics philosopher and literary theorist Roland Barthes. It is regarded as one of the essential philosophy books on the art of photography. The book was dedicated to Barthes's deceased mother. Interestingly, the book was published two months before Roland Barthes's own death. In...

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Camera Lucida is philosophical book by French semiotics philosopher and literary theorist Roland Barthes. It is regarded as one of the essential philosophy books on the art of photography. The book was dedicated to Barthes's deceased mother. Interestingly, the book was published two months before Roland Barthes's own death. In this context, the book is just as much about death as it is about the process of photography. One of the sections of the book explored the relationship between mortality and photographs. In particular, Barthes examined the emotions triggered from viewing a photograph that is personally significant to the viewer (i.e. photos of one's childhood and family). This is what Barthes calls the spectrum, or how a photograph affects the spectator. The spectator is not to be confused with the photographer himself/herself or with the person or object being photograph. The spectator is the viewer of the photograph who is unrelated to the process (i.e. museum visitors at a photography exhibit).

Photographs are physical forms of memories captured. In the mind, memories of particular events and experiences are archived in the subconscious, but these bits of data could be skewed over time because memory is inherently faulty. For instance, details could be left out or exaggerated. In a photograph, the details are factual and will never change if left un-manipulated by post-processing. In this regard, photography could be seen as an almost pure form of documentation.

As a semiotics scholar and lecturer, Barthes also proposed that photographs cannot be broken down into linguistic or cultural codes and that the photograph can affect the person viewing it, the spectator, mentally and physically. Barthes proposes the concept of stadium, which is how visuals could be interpreted in a political or cultural context. He also proposes the punctum: stadium, which is the element in the photograph or visual art that directly affects the viewer emotionally. "Punctum" denotes the "wounding," or emotional response, of the spectator caused by the photograph due to his/her connection to the person or object in the picture.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 740

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 type of image, and its inability to account for—indeed its ignorance of—pathos: the emotions inspired in the author by his experience of certain photographs.

Part 2 seizes on Barthes’s experiences of photographs of his mother as exemplars of his experience of all photography. Private photographs, not in the public domain, are here examined. (They remain private; they are not reproduced in the book.) Here the formal categories developed in part 1 are largely abandoned in favor of an increasingly personal and fragmentary meditation on photography’s relation to death. The tone becomes much more emotional. Barthes’s experience of photographs of his mother leads him to attempt to describe what she was like, and further, who she was. Photography is at moments forgotten in the pursuit of the essence of the loved one. It is photography’s ability—or inability—to be a medium for this essence that most concerns Barthes here.

Camera Lucida is illustrated with twenty-four black-and-white photographs which serve as illustrations of textual material. Fifteen of these photographs are in part 1, nine are in part 2. (Especially in part 2, many citations of specific photographs go unillustrated.) There is one color plate preceding the text, a reproduction of a Polaroid print by Daniel Boudinet, that is not an illustration of a textual point. It is an interior. Deep blue gauze curtains are draped over a window, a couch is barely seen in the bluish light. It seems, perhaps, to set the tone for the work: a darkened interior and a window that admits light, but out of which one cannot see.

Camera Lucida is not a standard scholarly work and does not have the appendages appropriate to such a work; it has no index, no notes, no list of plates. It is a work of ambiguous category. Based on Barthes’s observation of himself and his own state, it is a venture into a kind of private philosophy that is almost his own invention. Throughout his career, he increasingly used philosophy to examine his own life and feelings. This is a very old use for philosophy, one of its original intents, though in the contemporary world seldom invoked.

Nevertheless, Barthes does pursue his goal of analyzing the nature of photography, with a subtlety and precision not normally associated with the examination of emotion. Barthes is really inventing a genre here, a “phenomenology of pathos.” He describes himself in section 3, part 1, as being torn between two languages, expressive and critical. All of his work partakes of several disciplines, as well: sociology, semiology, psychoanalysis. His resolve in Camera Lucida was to try to represent his experience of photography, and not to reduce that experience to the exigencies of critical discourse.

Camera Lucida

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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 often lyrical work, Barthes examines his own response to the details within certain photographs by some celebrated names, including Nadar (Félix Tournachon), Alfred Stieglitz, and Richard Avedon. In so doing, he moves deftly from random browsing through these photographs to the tentative formulation of a “semiotic” of photographs. He feels that he can define, in typical structuralist fashion, a kind of double axis within photographs, which he describes in the following way: Each photograph contains its studium, or subject matter. Yet what affects his readers is what Barthes calls the punctum, or almost accidental detail within the photograph which “pricks,” “wounds,” or “bruises” the consciousness of the viewer. In one of the many examples Barthes provides of this operation, he writes of his response to a rather morbid study, reproduced in a volume called “Idiot Children in an Institution. New Jersey. 1924” by the photographer Lewis H. Hine. Instead of feeling pity or revulsion at the display of these unfortunate children, Barthes cannot help being distracted by details of their clothing. One imagines that the institution’s staff had seen fit to outfit these patients in their Sunday best for the portrait. One child’s enormous Danton collar and another’s finger bandage are used as examples of the photographic punctum Barthes believes he has discovered.

Part Two of Camera Lucida begins on an intensely personal note. With only a short time remaining in his own life, Barthes was inconsolable after the death of his mother. Many believe that his grief prevented his own recovery from the injuries he suffered in an accident that led to his death in 1980. Writing in bereavement, Barthes describes the following scene, which apparently provided the impetus to write a book about photography: he is standing in the apartment where his mother died, a short time after the event. He is searching through old photographs of his mother, trying to “find” her. The effort exacerbates his grief, for, like Proust, he finds that the most painful aspect of mourning is the inability to recall the features of the “true picture” of the lost loved one with sufficient clarity. In fact, most photographs are unsatisfying in this regard, for they are, at best, mere approximations that fail to capture the living reality of the subject.

At long last, he announces, “I have found her.” In a photograph of his mother at age five (1898) he rediscovers what, for him, was his mother’s essence, albeit enshrined within the child’s face. He compares his experience to that of the Proustian narrator unable to recall his grandmother’s features satisfactorily through the voluntary exercise of memory. Nevertheless the grandmother “returns” in an unexpected moment when the narrator, removing his boots in his room at Balbec, recalls instantly the way his grandmother appeared when she used to help him with this routine task.

This, then, is the atavistic power of photographs. The moment of discovery, when the punctum lacerates the viewer, is a moment of illumination; of Zen satori. Like the power of texts, according to Derrida, to work their magic through “dissemination” or “deferred action,” photographs, perhaps after a considerable lapse of time, deliver the powerful message “this existed; this has been.” While unable to revive past experience, they nevertheless serve as evidence of the past’s reality. When writing in this spirit, Barthes appears strikingly similar to Susan Sontag, whose On Photography (1977), while in many ways a much different kind of meditation on this subject, reveals a comparable sensibility.

Not that photography represents for Barthes a kind of victory over death or the passage of time: with bitter resentment fueled by grief, he asserts that photography is a form of preoccupation with death. In photographic portraits one glimpses the faces of those who have already died or, most certainly, are going to die. What gives photographic portraiture its special power is described by Barthes with particular fascination in the case of a classic portrait of a condemned man. This is Alexander Gardner’s haunting photograph of Lewis Payne, convicted of the attempted assassination of Secretary of State William H. Seward and hanged in 1865 along with his fellow conspirators in the Lincoln assassination. Payne’s stern gaze inspires a horror in Barthes which he expresses in the following manner: “He is dead and he is going to die.” For the reader knows that Lewis Payne is long dead, yet he is unmistakably and menacingly alive in the photograph.

Finally, Barthes’s subject allows him to play with several images of light: the split-second opening of the camera’s aperture, the light to which the photographic paper is exposed, and the flash of illumination that occurs when the photograph’s punctum, like an arrow reaching its target, strikes the viewer. This suggests the significance of the book’s title: Barthes remarks that it has been common to speak of photography in terms of its technical origins in the camera obscura, with its dark tunnel. Against this he offers the camera lucida: photography as illumination.


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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.

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