Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida (first impressions)

Camera Lucida is a book title that regularly comes up in OCA forums and social media pages. It is more relevant to a future course module, but I have allowed myself a ‘sneak preview’. This posting is written on the basis of a single read-through without taking notes. There will probably be a fuller review in a future module.

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a French teacher and researcher in sociology and lexicology at the Centre National de Recherché Scientifique. Camera Lucida, published in the year of his death, was his final book.

I found it an odd read. The book is in two parts; the first part is a vaguely Cartesian exercise in understanding Photography (Barthes uses the capital P) from first principles, the second is more of a self-indulgent ramble triggered by viewing a childhood photograph of his recently-deceased mother. I will comment on the first part which is more what I expected from the book.

Barthes equivalent of the photographic triumvirate of photographer, viewer and subject is Operator, Spectator and Spectrum (Barthes sees this as a portmanteau of ‘spectacle’ and ‘spectre’) which detaches the terms from our usual language. He is upfront in telling us that he is no Operator (not having the patience to wait for processing) but a combination of Spectator and occasional reluctant Spectrum.

Incidentally, it is worth remembering that we read Barthes in translation and I wonder (in this book and the essay Death of the Author) how much of the language, some of which appears obscurantist, comes from Barthes himself, and how much from his translator. Presumably, words derived from dead languages (studium, punctum, eidos etc.) are Barthes’ and the dictionary-bursting English is Howard’s.

Barthes reminds us that the unique feature that distinguishes Photography from the other arts is that it is evidential. Unlike painting, literature or sculpture, a Photograph is proof that the Spectrum or referent existed, at least at the time and place that the image is captured. The direction in which I am (currently at least) unable to follow Barthes is the leap from this-has-been to a connection between Photography and Death, which occupies much of the second half of the book.

The headline insight of the book, however, is the notion of studium and punctum. My understanding, from a first reading is that studium refers to intrinsic properties of the image, the generality of subject, place etc. Not all images possess punctum, which appears to be a unique connection between the image and the individual Spectator. The word derives from the same stem as ‘puncture’ and ‘punctuate’ and the punctum is some detail which ‘pricks’ or arrests the Spectator’s attention – Barthes gives examples of a bandage on a girl’s finger or the type of shoes worn by a portrait subject.

Overall, I suspect that I have read the book too early in my art-student career, and I look forward to revisiting it in about a year’s time.

Reference

Barthes, R.(1980) Camera Lucida (translated by Richard Howard) (1993 edition) London: Vintage Classics (Random House Group)

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2 thoughts on “Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida (first impressions)

  1. Yeah, I always think two things when I attempt to read any of his translated works: I might get it later; what a load of waffle (it’s exactly the same in Italian too: overly worded and dense).

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