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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A bit of Ruff • a review of reviews

jpegs‘, a 2008 exhibition and book by Thomas Ruff was reviewed online by David Campany (2008) and Joerg Colberg (2009). The Colberg review is the shorter of the two and concentrates on the work itself. Campany uses the exhibition as a starting point to discuss found images, archives and the difference between grain and pixels in image structure.

According to Colberg, Ruff’s interest in the nature of digital images started with the WTC attack on 11 September 2001. He had taken film images which were blank when returned from the lab, and had to rely on downloaded low-resolution visual images which he describes as ‘terribly beautiful’. Whatever processes he subsequently applies to bring out the JPEG artefacts, the results have their own beauty. They force us to pay attention to the image structure as well as the image content.

Colberg admires the beauty but wonders if the concept relies too much on the technique, “What else is there?”. In part, this questioning arises because of outside influences attempting to persuade him that there is something more significant, which is not fully explained. Ultimately, he appears to accept that being ‘just beautiful’ is sufficient.

Campany starts with a discussion on the nature of found images and the way they are arranged in archives (although he seems to have a wider definition of ‘archive’ than my understanding) which is becoming more chaotic as the amount of information and speed of gathering increases (“… there is always something wild and unpredictable about the behaviour of images …”) becoming more strained as archives are digitised and redistributed through the internet.

At this point, he introduces the concept of an ‘art of the pixel’ noting that images now exist as a mass of electronic information that takes visual form as pixels. Although pixels have replaced the grain of photographic film, Campany sees a difference between them. Grain suggests authenticity, with the photographer and equipment stretched to the limit by circumstances, while pixels are seen more as a defect (although our response is changing, presumably as a result of growing familiarity with digital images). He sees Ruff’s pixels as representing the character of modern life, switching between figuration and abstraction.

Both agree that the images in this series work better in print (book or gallery wall) than on screen. I speculate that this may be because we are used to seeing JPEG artefacts in poor images online and regard them as mistakes, whereas there is an element of surprise or abstraction when seeing them in print.

Campany, D. (2008) Thomas Ruff: Aesthetic of the Pixel [online] at: http://davidcampany.com/thomas-ruff-the-aesthetics-of-the-pixel/ (accessed 21 March 2016)

Colberg, J. (2009) Review: jpegs by Thomas Ruff [online] at: http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2009/04/review_jpegs_by_thomas_ruff/ (accessed 21 March 2016)