Form and Content
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.)