Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In the book Camera Lucida, author Roland Barthes attempts to deconstruct photography and analyzes it so that we are presented with an untrained photographer's thoughts on the subject. Among other things, we read about photography with respect to its constituent actions, the elusive energy of certain photographs, and the mindset of the subject of an image.
I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.
The author says this in the first chapter, reminiscing about the thoughts in his mind when he saw a photograph of Emperor Napoleon's younger brother.
Get back to Photography. What you are seeing here and what makes you suffer belongs to the category 'Amateur Photographs: dealt with by a team of sociologists; nothing but the trace of a social protocol of integration, intended to reassert the Family, etc.
This is the voice of knowledge, or "Scientia," as the author calls it, admonishing him to approach photography with a more cultured and critical eye, instead of loving a photograph because of its evident appeal. For Barthes, this is yet another illustration of what he has always struggled with—reconciliation of the expressive and the critical.
Newspaper photographs can very well 'say nothing to me.' In other words, I look at them without assuming a posture of existence. Though the persons whose photograph I see are certainly present in the photograph, they are so without existential posture, like the Knight and Death present in Durer's engraving, but without my positing them. Moreover, cases occur where the photograph leaves me so indifferent that I do not even bother to see it as an image: The photograph is vaguely constituted as an object, and the persons who figure there are certainly constituted as persons, but only because of their resemblance to human beings, without any special intentionality. They drift between the shores of perception, between sign and image, without ever approaching either.
The author quotes Sartre to try and explain why he instinctively liked some photographs, such as "The Horse-Car Terminal" by Stieglitz, and detested others, such as Pierre Boucher's "Nudes." The example of photographs in newspapers is apt because very often these images lack soul and are present only for giving some context to the copy. Newspaper photographs lack what Barthes calls "Adventure."
Maybe I was there.
Barthes sees a photograph of the beach in Biarritz, clicked in 1931, and wonders if he was there at that very moment. This comment appears during a passage where he states that photographs are evidences of events that have happened, and when you see a photograph, you witness history. It gives you perspective about how things have moved on since then and the inexorable march of time. On seeing another photograph of a wedding in England dating to 1910, he muses that most of those present are probably dead.
We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.
The author employs this quote by Franz Kafka to suggest that photographs can best be appreciated when studied and read by the mind's eye. He says that once he chooses to step back and recollect a photograph, keeping aside its technical merits or demerits, he is often able to discover that aspect of adventure in the photo that made him take notice of it in the first place.