On Camera Lucida: Reflections On Photography by Roland Barthes

51QnfMZXubL._SL1162_Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, posthumously published in 1980, has, at its core, a number of elements of the importance concerning philosophy in general, not only with regards to the interpretation of the “real” content or “valid” connotations of images forever immortalized in photographs, but as a careful, highly inquisitive, sobering inquiry for knowledge. It is a personal and theoretical contemplation on photography, inspired by the death of his mother and an enduring interest in the rhetoric of the image. Written in the first person, it suggests and elucidates the author’s personal impulsion behind this interest, and offers terms for structuring his emotional responses to particular photographs.

Camera Lucida is split into two different sections. At first, this seemed as an obvious attempt at imposing an implicit order on the text, a matter of structure. But the two sections are essentially dependent on each other. In the first part of the text, Barthes offers his own definition of photography: what it can be and what it ought to be; in the succeeding section, he seeks out for his departed mother among her lingering photographs. This latter part expounds on the former with the aim of reaching a new understanding of photography and of the self, a new “consciousness” through lucidity. The feeling I had in reading and re-reading the passages was quite overwhelming. The book is unsurprisingly dense, it is highly theoretical, but the manner in which Barthes presents his ideas and arguments is quite refreshing. Without being overly long-winded it’s almost like he isn’t expending much intellectual effort in presenting the ways in which one can analyze, understand and elucidate the photograph for what it could or does really represent.

In the more introspective parts of the text, Barthes distinguishes between a duality – “a co-presence of two discontinuous elements” – what he perceives to be the dual presence of the studium and the punctum of a photograph. The studium pertains to a unity, the normally praised principle of composition, the statement about reality without mark or blemish. It is banal, worldly, docile. In Barthes’ words, it is the “application to a thing, a general enthusiastic commitment.” A compositional term, and not one of the subject of a photograph, it pertains to that gamut of meanings that is believed to be ubiquitous, universal, i.e., relatable to anyone and everyone. Studium implies that one can simply look at a photograph and take it in, that one can “consume” it without any strenuous efforts at analysis. On the other hand, the punctum pertains to a photograph’s details. It is a “sting, peck, cut, little hole, a cast of the dice”. This is the realm of private meaning – subjective and deeply personal – and thus it is difficult to communicate it through language. Punctum is lightning-like, that element in a photograph that attracts and holds the spectator’s gaze. Said Barthes: “I perceive the referent (here, the photograph really transcends itself: is this not the sole proof of its art? To annihilate itself as medium, to be no longer the sign but the thing itself?”

Barthes makes passing references to famed photographers, philosophers, sometimes even to mythological characters to support his premises, but there are virtually no allusions to art historians. Why is this so? Because Camera Lucida isn’t an attempt at a historiography. Barthes may lose credibility by leaving out other art critics and historians, but does he gain the upper hand by coining and operationalizing his terms? It is only now that I have heard of such terms as studium and punctum, and they sound rather ridiculous. The fact that his allusions to mythology deviate from, instead of relate to, his ideas weakens the text’s credibility. Barthes’ thesis still remains unclear to me, as the structure of the text seems to be fragmentary, all over the place, and written as if it were a personal journal. But perhaps that precisely is intentional? In a work such as this one, sometimes ambiguity is not merely a virtue, but a goal, a standard. But then that would run contrary to the work’s title itself, which suggests clarity or lucidity.

What I think makes this text particularly postmodern is that it takes the study of photography out of the realm of traditional interpretation or analysis and instead takes it further into the elsewhere, and devises, in effect, a new “science” of photography – a theoretical framework that goes beyond the underlying set of ideas, principles, agreements, or rules that traditionally provide the basis or outline for photography as well as the classifications of art, technique, etc., and dips into “absolute subjectivity.” Indeed, it is a flight from the analytical endeavor; rather, it is self-reflective, an introspection.

In effect, Camera Lucida becomes a duality in itself: a text that equally explicates an objective theory of photography (and of perception) and affords a personal contemplation, a subjective search. It is a text on images, and it reflects the equal significance of the duality of a subjective punctum and an objective studium in photography.

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