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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The Death of the Author

Roland Barthes’ 1968 essay ‘The Death of the Author’ has been suggested by my tutor as an antidote to the cult of personality that has grown up around Cartier-Bresson and other celebrated photographers. The essay deals with the status of the author in contemporary literature, but there are parallels with photographers and photography.

Cards on the table; I must say that there is a major barrier to my understanding – the dense language used (at least in the translation that I have seen) makes the text pretty much unreadable. I put the full text into three online ‘readability test’ pages which confirmed my opinion. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease index was between 7.2 and 25 (average 13.1), Gunning Fog Index 24 to 31.5 (average 29) and SMOG index consistently just over 18. (The differences in scores may be due to different algorithms recognising syllables in different ways). At these levels, I am inclined to suspect obscurantism rather than a desire to be understood. I am also unhappy about the way that personal opinion is presented as if it were incontestable fact. I find myself, once again, in Gavin Milarrrrr territory (starts at 3:47 in this clip)

What Barthes appears to be saying is that, in pure literature (he specifically excludes literary history, writers’ biographies, magazine interviews and autobiography – and, by extension, non-literary writing) it is the words and their meaning, rather than the author who wrote them, that is important. He sees the emergence in contemporary (‘modern’ in 1968) literature of a different kind of writer, dubbed a ‘scriptor’ who exists only to write the text.

Having disposed of the ‘author’, Barthes then wishes to dispose of the ‘critic’ and literary criticism, on the assumption that the purpose of criticism is to ‘decipher’ the text, i.e. to discover what was in the mind of the author at the time he wrote it. He believes that the text has a wider meaning than the writer’s intent. As an aside, and an interesting contrast, it seems that modern art critics also believe that the artists stated intent is no more valid a guide than the viewer’s or critic’s opinion (Barrett 2006,56). Perhaps “the critic’s” obituary notice is, like Mark Twain’s, premature.

For Barthes, the person who gives meaning to the text is the reader or spectator. He gives the example of Greek tragedies, written with words having double meanings that each character interprets differently, causing dramatic misunderstanding, and only the spectator (playgoer) grasps the whole story. Likewise, with literature, it is the reader and his unique set of life experiences and cultural references, who filters and give meaning to the text.

Bringing this into a photographic context, Barthes would say that it is the viewer of a photograph who is responsible for interpreting it, rather than the photographer. As a photographer, I should resent that view but have to accept an element of truth – although I take a view nearer to Barrett who says that the photographer and the viewer have equally valid interpretations.

For me, the viewer cannot be supreme because without the photographer there would be nothing to view. Perhaps the ‘meaning’ of a photograph arises by collaboration (or even a conspiracy) between author and reader, photographer and viewer. Something to ponder for the future.

Like the peasant in Spamalot, the Author “ain’t dead yet”

Reference

Barrett, T.(2006) Criticising Photographs (4th ed.) New York: McGraw Hill

Barthes, R. (1968) The Death of the Author (translated by Howard, R) [Online] at:www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf